2022-06-02 08:30:10 By : Ms. Katy Xu

Donald Trump began assailing stories about Russia’s effort to aid his 2016 election even before he took office as president. A few weeks after the election was over, the first reports about that interference emerged, prompting Trump — smarting over having lost the popular vote — to disparage the idea that his victory was a function of anything other than his own aptitude. When BuzzFeed published the dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, Trump’s fury escalated. The Russia allegations were a “WITCH HUNT,” he wrote for the first time that same day. On the day following, he suggested that intelligence agencies had released the document, an act akin to “living in Nazi Germany.”

This was more than a week before he even became president.

Over time, a pattern emerged. Trump would make broad claims about how investigations into Russian interference — and, we later learned, contacts between his campaign team and Russian actors — were contrived to damage him personally. His allies would then scramble to prove him right either in the abstract or to validate the specific claims he had made, however loosely they could.

And over and over and over those efforts to cast Trump as the victim of a plot aimed at undermining his candidacy or his presidency came up short.

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Two things bear mentioning at the outset. It is true that the investigation into Russian interference and possible overlap with Trump’s campaign team suffered from flaws and errors. It’s quite possible that no massive investigation could escape some level of error of the sorts exposed by the scrutiny paid to the Russia investigation, but it is true that the scrutiny paid here did reveal questionable actions and decisions that don’t alter our understanding of what occurred.

The other thing worth mentioning is that the details were never the point. Trump’s play from the outset was to raise doubt and then simply refit the evidence as needed. His supporters always champion how he turned out to be “right” about various things, a function of ignoring all the times he was obviously wrong — the kid guessing a number between 1 and 10 who guesses each number and then claims he nailed it. The operating assumption is that Trump is right about being unfairly targeted by the Russia probe and so any new claim that bolsters that assumption is elevated — even after being debunked — until a new, not-yet-debunked claim emerges.

What triggered the Russia investigation is simple. Russia actively sought to influence the 2016 election both through the much-hyped but less-significant effort to contribute to the social media conversation and through the hacking of the Democratic Party and a top adviser to Hillary Clinton. As this was known to be going on, federal investigators began investigating whether people close to Trump might have been actively working with Russia. People like Paul Manafort, his campaign manager and consultant to Russia-linked actors; and like Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser who had previously been identified as a target for Russian intelligence efforts and who traveled to Moscow in early July 2016; and like George Papadopoulos, another adviser who had been told by a guy who was helping him set up a meeting between Trump and Russia’s president that Russia had some of Clinton’s emails. That Russia had hacked the Democrats was known by mid-June 2016 and the Russia probe was opened by the end of July.

In the years since, that simple explanation for the investigation has been muddied by a variety of alternate theories, claims that objective analysis has shown to be either false or irrelevant to the central question.

One of the first egregious claims Trump made about the Russia investigation was that it involved having the “wires tapped” at Trump Tower during the campaign. This would become a pattern: Trump would take an overblown claim from conservative media and inflate it further. (There is no evidence that Trump Tower was wiretapped; the government has repeatedly denied that it did so.)

Within days, Trump was claiming that his unfounded assertion was proved right not by evidence of wiretapping but by evidence that communications involving a member of his transition team, Michael Flynn, had been “unmasked” by the administration of Barack Obama. It’s always been odd to try to conflate this with wiretapping Trump Tower unless you recognize the intermediate step: Trump Tower was wiretapped, meaning that Trump was spied on, meaning that anyone working with Trump being spied on validates the claim. This is how it works.

The “Flynn unmasking” argument was clunky, too, because it depended on understanding how surveillance works. The government monitors communications with people like the Russian ambassador. But since the CIA and NSA aren’t supposed to surveil American citizens, the identities of Americans talking to the ambassador are “masked,” which is to say anonymized. Other officials can ask that the identity be unmasked, however, to understand who’s talking to that ambassador in the first place. Which Obama officials did, learning the person talking to Russia’s ambassador was Flynn. (Incidentally, Flynn had visited Moscow in late 2015, sitting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner.)

This was trumpeted repeatedly as the Obama administration spying on Flynn and, therefore, Trump. But a review from Trump’s own Justice Department later determined that there was no evidence that the unmasking was politically motivated. That Flynn later lied to investigators about the conversation, though, led to his pleading guilty to making false statements.

Shortly after the “unmasking” brouhaha, Trump’s irritation about the Russia probe led him to fire FBI Director James B. Comey (though Trump claimed this was about how the FBI handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server). Shortly thereafter, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was assigned to investigate Russian interference and possible overlap with Trump’s campaign team — an assignment made by a Trump appointee aimed at protecting the investigation from interference.

In the public sphere, the dossier published by BuzzFeed had attracted outsize attention, despite obvious questions about what it alleged. Most media outlets treated it with skepticism or treated it as unconfirmed. As time passed and many of its claims remained unsubstantiated or had been undermined, it gained unexpected importance — among Trump’s defenders. After all, if the dossier could be identified as the primary trigger for the Russia probe and it was contrived, that made the entire investigation dubious.

This line of argument became more appealing after it was learned that Steele had been hired by a firm called Fusion GPS that was itself hired by a law firm working for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party. The line of argument skipped a few middle steps to become that Clinton had paid for a dossier of false claims — perhaps itself seeded by Russian intelligence! — and triggered the Russia probe.

The problem is that this assertion both ignores the known predicates for the Russia probe, and it doesn’t fit with the timeline of when the probe began. The FBI didn’t obtain the dossier until mid-September 2016, according to an internal inspector general report, after the Russia investigation was already underway.

In 2018, it was revealed that the dossier had been an important part of an application to obtain a warrant surveilling Carter Page. That warrant, obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), included allegations from the dossier as a reason to surveil him. (The application acknowledged that Steele was “was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit” Trump’s campaign.) The warrant was granted and later renewed several times.

Only after Page left the campaign, however. When allegations from the Steele dossier were made public (apparently by Steele), Page resigned from the campaign. It was after that point that the surveillance warrant was granted. This problem with the timeline has been attributed to some multidimensional chess — that the warrant was a back door to investigate others close to Trump, for example — but that Page had previously been identified by a Russian intelligence agent as a possible recruitment target seems salient.

The dossier’s allegations have by now been shown to not be credible. There are valid questions about including its claims in the FISA warrant. But neither that warrant nor the dossier itself were predicates for the Russia investigation itself. For years, Trump and his allies have claimed that the Russia investigation stemmed from the dossier because it was sketchy and because it was paid for indirectly by lawyers working for Clinton. But that doesn’t make it true.

A few months after Mueller took over the Russia investigation, we learned that an FBI officials working on his team had been removed. That official, Peter Strzok, was a counterintelligence officer who had also been central to launching Crossfire Hurricane — the internal code name for the Russia investigation — in the first place. He was removed by Mueller after it was discovered that he had exchanged messages disparaging Trump and other elected officials with another FBI official, Lisa Page.

Those messages launched a slew of arguments aimed at undermining the Russia investigation broadly. Strzok was accused of ginning up the probe out of animus toward Trump, a belief that a later investigation by the Justice Department inspector general found to be unwarranted. His exchange with Page in which he referred to the need to probe possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russia as being akin to a young person getting an “insurance policy” was repeatedly cited as evidence he wanted to blackmail Trump — although he explained credibly under oath that he was simply stating that they couldn’t allow the possibility of a connection to go unexamined in the event that Trump won (which at the time seemed unlikely).

The huge trove of messages (which, despite a different set of rumors, were not intentionally destroyed) allowed for Trump supporters to pick out various phrases as sinister or significant even when they weren’t. There was a brief flurry of attention paid to a message about “OCONUS lures” — an apparent reference to informants outside of the continental United States (OCONUS). But this was part of Strzok’s job and was not shown to be related to the Russia probe.

That particular idea gained some traction after it was revealed that the FBI had employed a confidential informant to probe members of Trump’s team. This was dubbed Spygate and became Trump’s new explanation for how he was right about having been under surveillance all along. (Trump told an ally that he liked to call the informant a “spy” specifically for the pejorative connotations.)

That informant, though, reached out to Carter Page and George Papadopoulos only after they were already on the FBI’s radar screen. That same inspector general report determined that there was “no evidence that the FBI used CHSs” — confidential human sources — “or UCEs” — undercover employees — “to interact with members of the Trump campaign prior to the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”

“After the opening of the investigation,” it continues, “we found no evidence that the FBI placed any CHSs or UCEs within the Trump campaign or tasked any CHSs or UCEs to report on the Trump campaign.”

As should be obvious, that inspector general report did a lot to undercut the narratives promoted by Trump and his allies. So, as soon as it came out, Attorney General William P. Barr released a statement in concert with U.S. Attorney John Durham undercutting its determinations.

By then, Durham had already been tapped to conduct an investigation into the investigation: to figure out whether Trump’s efforts to cast himself as unfairly targeted held water. The inspector general report, by making an objective assessment that it didn’t, stepped on Durham’s (and therefore Barr’s and therefore Trump’s) toes, hence the statement.

Durham and Barr began scouring the available evidence, going so far as to travel to Italy to evaluate whether the understood predicate for the investigation — Papadopoulos being told that Russia had Clinton emails — was valid. But, for months, no alternate explanation emerged.

Before Trump left office, Durham’s role was shifted to special counsel, giving him the same protection from President Biden that Mueller had from Trump. But Durham has not produced much. He obtained an indictment against Igor Danchenko, one of the sources for the Steele dossier and one against an attorney who worked for the law firm employed by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Which brings us to this week.

In October 2020, the campaign looming, the political ally Trump put in charge of the national intelligence directorate released a letter pointedly suggesting that the Russia investigation was a function of Clinton’s campaign. The evidence? Apparently that the CIA had identified discussion among Russian sources alleging that Clinton had approved a campaign message trying to link Trump to Russia on July 26, 2016.

This was, in fact, five days before Crossfire Hurricane was launched. But it was after there were already numerous public questions about Trump’s connections to and sympathies toward Russia and Putin. That Russia got intelligence that Clinton had made linking Trump to Russia part of her campaign strategy in late July is both unremarkable (her campaign manager, Robby Mook, had already raised it in television interviews) and unrelated to the FBI probe.

The appeal here is obvious, though, as it was with the Steele dossier. Blaming Clinton for the Russia probe scratches two itches at once: casts Trump as innocent and Clinton as guilty.

Durham’s indictment of Michael Sussman, the attorney who worked for the firm hired by Clinton’s campaign, prompted a flurry of similar allegations. He had come to the FBI with a dubious claim about a connection between Trump’s private company and a Russian bank — which to Trump supporters became proof that Clinton had tried to gin up this controversy and therefore the Russia probe. But that allegation was incidental to the Russia investigation (far more even than the Carter Page FISA warrant), coming months after the investigation began. During Sussman’s trial, Mook testified that Clinton had approved a messaging campaign elevating the dubious claim, an admission that titillated Fox News types. But it was completely irrelevant to the Russia investigation. Like the October 2020 story, it was about campaign messaging, not federal investigations.

The Sussman prosecution included other efforts to elevate minor points as dispositive of Trump’s having been unfairly targeted. There was the flutter of excitement over the Trump White House having been surveilled by Sussman as hinted at in a Durham court filing — but that didn’t happen. Instead, researchers who were clients of Sussman’s had obtained data from the White House during the Obama administration that they had analyzed.

One would think that, by that point, Trump’s allies would be skeptical of new assertions about how the Russia investigation began. After all, not only have there been repeated claims about what happened that have been shown to be baseless, but there also has been nothing that has undercut the official story about how the probe began (even after Barr and Durham went to Italy in the apparent hope of doing so).

But, again, the point isn’t the evidence. The point is the belief that Trump was unfairly accused. That belief is not driven by evidence, so it can’t be undercut by a lack of evidence.

It is still important to note that there is no evidence for it. And not for lack of trying to find some.