Russia collusion investigation did become a witch hunt, the inspector general report shows
The investigation quickly got off track and ran into dead ends. It should have never led to a special counsel investigation that convulsed the country for two years.
The prism of Donald Trump severely distorts reality for opponents and supporters alike.
Opponents are seizing on the recent report by the inspector general of Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, on the origins of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 election.
Horowitz found that there were sufficient grounds, under FBI guidelines, to initiate the probe, and didn’t find any evidence of political motivation behind it.
See, say the implacable Trump critics, the entire investigation was justified. No witch hunt here.
The report does say that about the initial launch. But the rest of it documents serious procedural irregularities and a series of dead ends. The investigation clearly should have been shut down long before it metastasized into the special counsel investigation of Robert Mueller that convulsed the country for two years.
The report also documents FBI behavior that should chill the blood of civil libertarians of every political stripe.
Investigation began with a vague claim
The claimed predicate for launching the investigation was a report from a foreign official about a conversation with George Papadopoulos. According to the official, Papadopoulos “suggested that the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion” that Russia could help with the anonymous release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.
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So, the investigation began with a suggestion of a suggestion.
Papadopoulos wasn’t a key figure in the Trump campaign. He was part of a letterhead committee of experts that presidential candidates put together to make it appear that they have some foreign policy chops.
But the WikiLeaks dump of Democratic emails had just occurred, so the FBI decided to look into it.
Soon, things go off track
Fair enough. But from that point on, the investigation got ahead of the facts.
The FBI decided to open investigations into four Trump campaign officials: Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Carter Page. Manafort and Flynn were key figures in the Trump campaign. Page was another letterhead expert.
How were these four chosen? Except for Papadopoulos, there was nothing that connected them with the suggestion of a suggestion. They were chosen because they had relationships in Russia and had traveled there.
Secretly taped conversations
That hardly warrants what happened next. The FBI used sources to interact with Papadopoulos and Page and tape their conversations. A source similarly interacted with a senor Trump campaign official who was not a target of the probe.
The IG report says that this didn’t amount to spying on the Trump campaign. But I don’t know how else to describe taping a conversation with a senior campaign official whom the FBI didn’t suspect of wrongdoing.
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These secretly taped conversations revealed nothing supporting a collusion theory. In fact, just the opposite. What was revealed undermined the notion, establishing that Papadopoulos and Page were hangers-on, peripheral players with no first-hand knowledge.
Nevertheless, the FBI investigators wanted a wiretap on Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which required probable cause that Page was, in fact, a Russian agent. Originally the lawyers in the department pushed back. But relented once the Steele dossier came across the transom.
The Steele dossier was put together by a former British spook on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. It consisted of a collection of salacious gossip about Trump and Russia.
Misrepresentations to justify surveillance
The FBI never verified the Steele dossier claims before using them to justify a wiretap on Page. In fact, it quickly had reason to doubt them, since a source for Steele told it that Steele had embellished his work.
Nevertheless, the FBI continued to use the Steele dossier to justify wiretapping Page for nearly a year.
The IG report finds 17 material misrepresentations or omissions in the Page FISA application and renewals. Including that one of the nefarious interactions cited was debriefed by the CIA, who was using Page as a source.
Dead ends should have halted probe
After nearly a year of FISA surveillance, Page has never been charged with anything.
Other than the suggestion of a suggestion, the only evidence of possible collusion that has surfaced from this and the Mueller report was the willingness of Donald Trump, Jr. to have a meeting that he thought was about receiving dirt from the Russians on Clinton. But Trump, Jr. was punked, and agreed to a meeting on false pretenses.
Even if the FBI should have looked into the suggestion of a suggestion, the serial dead ends should have occasioned an early end to the investigation. Or at least less intrusive investigative techniques.
The Russian collusion investigation was a witch hunt, in the sense that it was an overzealous search for something that didn’t exist.