The Obama Justice Department and the FBI twice debated whether to give the Trump campaign a “defensive briefing” on Russia but decided not to, according to the department’s inspector general report.
Supporters of President Trump say such a heads-up could have changed history and short-circuited an investigation, given that no Trump loyalists were found to have collaborated with Russian hacking after a nearly three-year FBI probe.
In the first discussion, FBI Director James B. Comey reached out to Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who didn’t act and considered a briefing “down the road.” In an odd twist, Mr. Comey told the inspector general that he didn’t remember the discussion.
The second discussion ended with an FBI decision not to conduct a true defensive briefing. Instead, after opening an investigation, they sent a counterintelligence agent to penetrate the Trump campaign to probe any collusion with Russia. The campaign received no alert about Moscow’s computer hacking or social media warfare against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
The visiting agent later wrote a report on Form 302, which is completed in criminal investigations.
“The incident, the event, the meeting, was a briefing, and the FBI considered and decided to send that agent there to do the briefing,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. “So the agent was actually doing the briefing but also using it for the purpose of investigation.”
The FBI debated conducting a true defensive briefing in July 2016 before it opened Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the Trump investigation. But agents decided not to because it might tip off Trump wrongdoers, according to Mr. Horowitz’s extensive report.
The inspector general found 17 instances of inaccuracies or omissions in affidavits used to persuade judges to approve four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court wiretap warrants on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
In the end, special counsel Robert Mueller conducted a grueling probe that put Mr. Trump and his aides under investigation by 40 FBI agents and 19 prosecutors. Mr. Mueller said in March that he did not establish a Trump-Russia conspiracy, and no Trump supporter was charged with collusion.
The report by Mr. Horowitz gave this account of Mrs. Lynch’s involvement: In spring 2016, she attended an FBI security meeting where Mr. Comey and then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe “pulled her aside” and brought up the name Carter Page, a recently announced Trump national security adviser. Mr. Page would go on to become one of the most prominent figures in the Trump-Russia saga.
Mr. Page’s history included living and working in Moscow. In 2015, the Justice Department announced charges against three Russian spies in New York, one of whom had tried to recruit Mr. Page.
Mr. Page was not accused of wrongdoing. The Horowitz report disclosed that he instead was a CIA asset.
The inspector general’s report said: “According to Lynch, Comey and McCabe provided her with information indicating that Russian intelligence reportedly planned to use Page for information and to develop other contacts in the United States, and that they were interested in his affiliation with the campaign. Lynch told us that her understanding was that this information from Comey and McCabe was ‘preliminary’ in that they did not state that any decisions or actions needed to be taken that day. She said that they discussed the possibility of providing a defensive briefing to the Trump campaign, but she believed it was ‘preliminary’ and ‘something that might happen down the road.'”
Mr. Horowitz said Mrs. Lynch also provided Office of the Inspector General investigators with “classified details.”
J.D. Gordon, a former Pentagon spokesman and a Trump campaign national security adviser, said a briefing on Mr. Page would likely have resulted in cutting ties and “the Trump-Russia hoax would not have been as powerful.”
After Mr. Trump sewed up the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Page received campaign permission to travel to Moscow in July to deliver a public university commencement address.
‘Third World-type setup’
That visit became fodder for conspiracy theories pushed by former British spy Christopher Steele. Based in London, Mr. Steele was hired by Fusion GPS with funds from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. He told the FBI that Mr. Page met with two Kremlin figures and discussed bribes. He said Mr. Page worked as a team with campaign manager Paul Manafort to conspire with Moscow.
None of those allegations proved true in a dossier that today has been roundly discredited.
Mr. Comey disputed Mrs. Lynch’s recollection and flatly said there was no such discussion.
“Comey told the OIG that he did not recall having such a conversation with Lynch, and that he did not think it was possible for such conversation to have occurred in the spring of 2016,” the report said.
An Australian diplomat had not yet tipped the FBI that a Trump adviser in London, George Papadopoulos, said over a glass of wine that he heard that Moscow owned dirt on Mrs. Clinton. That message alone, without any other evidence, triggered the Crossfire Hurricane investigation to start on July 31, 2016.
“[Mr. Comey] also said that he did not recall himself having any knowledge of Carter Page’s existence until the middle of 2016,” the report said.
Mr. McCabe provided the same testimony — he didn’t remember such a discussion.
The FBI held its second discussion about briefing the Trump campaign in July. Bill Priestap, who headed the counterintelligence unit, took steps to open Crossfire Hurricane. He said the campaign could have solicited information about Papadopoulos’ talk in London, so he didn’t want to tip off anyone.
Mr. Priestap told the inspector general: “Had we provided a defensive briefing to someone on the Trump campaign, we would have alerted the campaign to what we were looking into, and, if someone on the campaign was engaged with the Russians, he/she would very likely change his/her tactics and/or otherwise seek to cover-up his/her activities, thereby preventing us from finding the truth. On the other hand, if no one on the Trump campaign was working with the Russians, an investigation could prove that. Because the possibility existed that someone on the Trump campaign could have taken the Russians up on their offer, I thought it wise to open an investigation to look into the situation.”
The inspector general’s report says Mr. Priestap had not chosen which Trump people he would investigate. He later targeted Mr. Page, Papadopoulos, Manafort and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
The inspector general said the FBI had no information from U.S. intelligence agencies that any Trump campaign worker was involved in Russian interference — only the Australian message.
Mr. McCabe told the inspector general that the FBI did provide a counterintelligence briefing to the Clinton team because it was hit by Russian hacking.
Trump supporters say today that opening such a broad, intrusive probe based on one snippet of information was wrong. What’s more, they say, the FBI never found any hacking collusion.
“If we would have received a genuine defensive briefing, I believe Mr. Trump would have fired the four individuals under FBI investigation on the spot,” Mr. Gordon said. “Trump-Russia would never have become an issue. Looking back, it was clearly a Third World-type setup.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said at Mr. Horowitz’s hearing Wednesday that the lack of a defense briefing showed political bias.
“The FBI was spying on the Trump campaign. They were not working to protect him,” Mr. Graham said. “In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was given a proper defensive briefing, which further shows the FBI had political bias and their motive was to get Hillary elected president while simultaneously taking down Trump.”
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