Right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic nearly 85,000 Americans have been killed so farPresident Donald Trump has revived his attacks on the Russia investigation – and on the Obama administration, which he says orchestrated the whole thing to trick him into it.
Trump is now trying “OBAMAGATE!” one thing, although it is really just the latest version of the pony theory that President Barack Obama and “deep state” remnants of his administration have made illegal plans since the beginning to undermine Trump’s presidency.
Trump has not really explained what those illegal acts are. When asked Monday what crimes Obama had committed, Trump said to reporters, “Uh, Obamagate. It has been happening for a long time. It went on before I was even elected, and it’s a shame it happened. ”
The case of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, appears to be the latest “evidence” of the alleged conspiracy. Trump and his allies have been suggest that the Obama administration acted illegally when it brought a case against Flynn, who lied to the FBI (and Vice President Mike Pence) about his contacts with Russia and admitted under oath that he did that.
Obamagate is nonsense and distracts from the Trump administration’s sloppy response to the coronavirus crisis. But Trump’s reinforcement is not. To be defenders in congress and in right-wing media stimulate it, using benign facts trump Trump’s 2020 opponent in the melee.
It has led to new ‘investigator investigations’, including a new congressional probe announced Thursday by Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The central question now is whether Trump’s battle cry is powerful enough to rewrite the history of the Mueller investigation.
Think of “Obamagate” as a kind of “witch hunt” rebrand
“OBAMAGATE!” Trump tweeted during a particularly busy online weekend in which he tweeted and retweeted a number of right-wing conspiracies. “By far the greatest political crime in American history!” he wrote in response to one.
Sounds huge. But Trump himself finds it difficult to formulate exactly what happened. When asked by a reporter this week what Trump meant, he replied, “You know what the crime is. The crime is very clear to everyone. ‘
Unless you spend a lot of time in peripheral areas of the Internet, it is not. But this is the gist of what Trump claims: Obama and officials in his administration tried to sabotage Trump’s presidential campaign; when that didn’t work and he was elected anyway, Obama’s team tried to undermine Trump’s presidency by letting deep-state agents loyal to Obama remain in the government and work to bring Trump down from the inside. The main way they supposedly did that, of course, was through the investigation in Russia.
In that sense, Obamagate is a kind of rebranding of the “witch hunt” or “Russian hoax”.
The details of the crimes that would make Obamagate more difficult to analyze. This is partly because there have been multiple iterations of this conspiracy. The first versions concerned Trump claiming that Obama had “tapped his wires” and it was “Spying on his campaign” or sent spies to try to “catch” members of his campaign.
The latest incarnation seems to revolve around Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his talks with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak, whose case is now trying to fire the Justice Department.
There seem to be two threads in the Flynn part of the conspiracy theory; how they overlap is less clear, but here’s a stitch.
First a brief summary of the Flynn case
Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal law enforcement officials about his communications during the presidential transition (after Trump was elected but before taking office) with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
In December 2016, during Trump’s presidential transition, the Obama administration sanctioned Russia for its role in interfering in the 2016 elections. Flynn communicated with Kislyak and asked him not to retaliate.
When FBI agents – who were investigating Russia’s role in the elections and possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia at the time – asked Flynn about those talks in early 2017, he denied that he had imposed any sanctions. Prosecutors also found evidence that Flynn had violated the law in other cases, including not registering as a foreign lobbyist, but prosecutors only accused him of that one count of lying to the FBI, which Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017.
In return, Flynn agreed to cooperate with the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. At the time, it was a major development in the probe that someone directly associated with Trump’s White House worked with prosecutors. And initially Flynn participated in several investigations. The Mueller team described his cooperation as “substantial” and advised him to serve little or no prison time.
But then Flynn started to change his mind, suggesting that he had been impeached by FBI officials who had not warned him that it was a crime to lie to the FBI, or that he insisted on interviewing him without a lawyer present used to be.
The Mueller team dismissed Flynn’s allegations, basically saying that Flynn, a 33-year-old veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces, had known it was a crime to lie to federal officials. Mueller pointed out that Flynn also told this fake story – which he had not discussed sanctions with Russia – to members of the Trump administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, at least that’s what they told the audience.
But Flynn’s lawyers persisted in this “pinch” argument, and Trump and his conservative allies joined in. They pressed the fact that Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who sent anti-Trump text messages, participated in the Flynn interview.
Flynn then went so far as to attempt to withdraw his guilty plea.
How Flynn is at the heart of this new conspiracy, Part 1
When Flynn started fighting his case in court, a few other things happened.
The big one: Mueller closed his investigation in the spring of 2019. In his final report, Mueller confirmed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election and did it for Trump’s benefit. However, the probe did not find enough evidence to establish that the Trump campaign had conspired with the Russian government because of its interference efforts.
This allowed Trump to claim justification “NO COLLUSION!” although the Mueller report is more nuanced than that. For example, the report notes that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia was hindered in many cases because respondents were not always sincere. “Those lies have seriously hampered investigations into Russian election interference”, Mueller wrote.
The second big thing that happened: Attorney General Bill Barr took over the Department of Justice (and the surveillance of the Mueller probe) in February 2019 and he expressed his skepticism about the investigation. He testified in April that he wanted to determine whether the Russia probe was “sufficiently appropriate” – that is, whether it had a legitimate basis.
Barr appointed a federal prosecutor, the Connecticut attorney, John Durham, to review the origins of the Russian case (more on that later), and later appointed another prosecutor, St. Louis US Lawyer Jeff Jensen, to assess the case of Flynn.
As part of that investigation, FBI documents related to the case were not closed in April. The partially edited materials outline some of the deliberations between agents prior to the Flynn interview in January 2017.
In a handwritten note, an FBI official (presumably based on the initials Bill Priestap, the former head of the FBI counterintelligence) wrote that the purpose of the interview with Flynn was “To determine if he’s going to tell the truth [about] his relationship with Russians. ‘ In another section, the note reads, “What is our goal? Truth / confession or … make him lie so we can prosecute or fire him? ‘
The author also writes in the note on a certain moment: “If we let him admit that he broke the Logan Act, give DOJ + facts and let them decide … If we are seen playing games, WH will be furious. Protect our institution by not playing games.”
The Flynn defenders pointed to these documents – especially the note asking whether the aim was “to let him lie so we can prosecute or fire him.” – as proof that the FBI entered the interrogation with the intention of letting Flynn lie. His lawyers used the memos to claim that Flynn was set up.
And Bill Barr’s Department of Justice agreed. The DOJ moved last week to drop his case against Flynn completely. “Even if Flynn told the truth, Mr. Flynn’s statements might not have” influenced “an investigation that had no legitimate counter-espionage or criminal purpose,” the proposing States, filed by Timothy Shea, an American lawyer in the District of Columbia.
None of the prosecutors who previously worked on the Flynn case signed the court requesting that the charges be dropped, and one of the chief attorneys withdrew from the case.
Priestap has told prosecutors that they had reviewed the case that the Flynn interview notes were “misunderstood.” according to the New York Timesalthough the Justice Department has not informed the court of the interview in its attempt to drop the charges against Flynn. (The judge has temporarily suspended Flynn’s dismissal.)
But the DOJ’s movement seems to have confirmed the cries of Trump and others, reinforcing that Flynn was a martyr framed as part of Obama’s campaign to take down Trump.
Oh, and there’s more: the ‘unmasking’
This week, Ric Grenell, the acting director of the National Intelligence Service and a Trump loyalist, sent Senate Republicans a released list of Obama-era officials who can have received information about Flynn during the presidential transition. Republicans of the Senate released that list.
Remember, Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were discovered as part of the National Security Agency’s routine surveillance of communications from Russian officials. Usually, the identities of American citizens who happen to be in this intercepted communication are protected, as the NSA should not spy on Americans unless they are given a special order.
But US officials – including members of Congress – can ask the NSA to “unmask” the names of these US citizens to better understand the interceptions of foreign intelligence.
The list provided by Grenell includes the names of the top Obama government officials authorized to access the intelligence agencies, although NSA chief Paul Nakasone was unable to confirm that the individuals on the list actually saw “The exposed information.”
Before you “bombshell!” Calls: Unmasking is standard practice. The Obama administration has done it. The Trump administration is doing it. According to data from the NSAFrom August 2015 to August 2016, approximately 9,000 U.S. citizens were exposed in communications. More than 9,500 in 2017. In 2018 – Trump’s first full year as President – more than 16,700 American persons were exposed.
The memo from the NSA revealing the names of the Obama officials who may have seen information about Flynn also says that “each individual was an authorized recipient of the original report and that the exposure was approved through the standard process of the NSA, which assesses the rationale for the request. ”
Again, unmasking should take place when U.S. officials need to know a person’s identity legitimately to better understand an intelligence report they are getting, as Charlie Savage of the New York Times explains.
But Grenell’s released document lacks this context. It does not state which intelligence reports about Flynn have been exposed or why. The dates on the document provided run from the specific period from November 8, 2016 to January 31, 2017; At least in December, Flynn had talks about sanctions with Kisylak, at least as far as the Russia investigation is concerned. Some of those intelligence reports date from before, so it’s not even clear whether it has anything to do with the investigation in Russia. (Flynn was also doing strange things with Turkey.)
This, of course, is not exactly how Trump’s Republican allies turn this. “In light of the Obama administration’s exposure of General Flynn, Congress is tasked with overseeing these debunking requests to ensure that the trial was used for legitimate national security concerns, not for reprisals or political curiosity, “Sen. Graham tweeted Wednesday.
In general, the Flynn case was a recurring theme in an extensive investigation with many difficult discussions. Russia got involved in the 2016 elections and Trump seemed to welcome it. In January 2017, the question was: Why exactly was Flynn lying to everyone about his conversations with the Russians, especially since they had just interfered in the American elections? That question has still not been fully answered. The Justice Department has still released documents that appear beneficial to Flynn refused to make the transcript of Flynn’s conversation with Kisylak public.
This is not to say that the research in Russia was perfect. Inspector General Michael Horowitz, the DOJ’s independent watchdog, documented “serious performance errors” in how the FBI handled certain elements of the investigation, most notably the tapping of former Trump campaign leader Carter Page. Some of this can be attributed to carelessness and negligence, but Horowitz did find a case of real misconduct, specifically a lawyer who falsifies information related to Page.
Those findings were undoubtedly disturbing. But they may not be unique to the research in Russia, but rather endemic to the service itself. And, critically, Horowitz found that the research in Russia was properly based. He failed to find “documentary or testimony data that drove political bias or improper motivation” the investigation.
That undermines Trump’s allegation of some sort of plot against him. But Barr disagreed – and he continues his own review of the Russian probe.
The research Trump defenders are counting on
In May 2019, Attorney General Bill Barr testified before the Republican-led Senate Committee, where the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller were the main topic of discussion. And Barr made it clear that he had to deal with some unfinished business about the investigation.
“These are the things I have to look at. And I have to say, as I said before, you know, the extent to which there was an overreach, “Barr testified.” I think it was a few people in the upper echelons of the agency and maybe the department. “
Shortly after that appearance in the Senate, Barr tapped John Durham, Connecticut’s American lawyer, to investigate the origins of the Russian probe and the FBI’s actions in counterintelligence investigations.
Durham has worked for both democratic and republican administrations to assess law enforcement conduct, including in two high-profile cases with the FBI dealing with informant and mob boss Whitey Bulger and the use of torture by the CIA after September 11.
Durham had the proper resume and bipartisan credentials to review the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation. But his appointment was still unusual, especially because the watchdog of the Ministry of Justice, Horowitz, was already reviewing the origins of the study in Russia.
So far, Durham’s review has been matched Mueller’s research to keep details hidden. However, what started as a review was reportedly extended to a criminal investigation this fall, meaning Durham now has the power to subpoena witnesses and convene a grand jury.
Beyond that, news reports have suggested the broad outlines of his research, which includes research the assessment of the intelligence community in 2017 that Russia intervened in the 2016 elections to boost Trump, and not just sow chaos.
In particular, Durham can investigate whether top intelligence may have attempted manipulation or selective sharing information to investigate Trump. That included watching former CIA director John Brennan, a critic of Trump and a target of the president’s anger. Durham reportedly asked for Brennan’s communications, including his emails and call logs.
There was also some disagreement between intelligence agencies as to how confident they were in the conclusion that the Kremlin supported Trump. “We also assess Putin and the Russian government aspiring to help President-elect Trump’s election opportunities wherever possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly adversely affecting him. All three agencies agree with this verdict, ” the 2017 intelligence community’s assessment isadding that the “CIA and FBI have great confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”
Durham is reportedly investigating this agency mismatch, which may not necessarily be bad. Individual intelligence services do not always reach exactly the same conclusions because they can rely on different sources. (Also, a Republican-led Senate Commission just confirmed the intelligence community’s assessment in 2017.)
Apparently Durham is also investigating how deep the intelligence services are relied on the Steele file, the opposition investigation conducted by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele on Trump’s ties to Russia. That file has been scrutinized, and even Horowitz noted in his report that the FBI believed that much of its information had been discredited.
And Durham reportedly looks leak into media about the probe, including some around that Steele file. The New York Times reported in April that Durham also investigated leaks in the early days of Trump’s presidency, highlighting ties to the new president in Russia, including a column in the Washington Post about Flynn’s communication with a Russian official. The question Durham may ask is whether these leaks were intentionally designed to interfere with Trump’s presidency.
Barr’s visibility in the probe has also helped provide some pointers. In late 2019, Barr personally requested other countries to cooperate with the probe, even through a jet setting to Italy (likely involving a professor who met Trump campaign leader George Papadopoulos).
Barr also urged officials in the UK and Australia to work together. Ukraine was also on the list, due to the groundless conspiracy theory that had fooled Kiev in 2016 for hacking Democratic Party officials. You know, the conspiracy theory and failed attempts to prove that it eventually became part of a impeachment investigation.
Durham was the Department of Justice said in September 2019, “Investigating the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, have played a role in counter-espionage investigations into the Trump campaign during the 2016 elections.”
All this information has come out in bits and pieces. Durham himself had remained silent, except in one notable case: commenting on DOJ inspector general’s findings on the origins of the Russian investigation.
Horowitz once again discredited Trump’s main assertion and his allies that law enforcement and intelligence officials wanted to undermine Trump. But Durham responded with a pretty extraordinary statement:
Our research is not limited to developing information within the Department of Justice, ”Durham said. “Our research included developing information from other individuals and entities, both in the US and beyond. Based on the evidence gathered so far, and while our investigation is ongoing, we informed the Inspector General last month that we disagree with some of the conclusions of the report on predication and how the FBI case was opened.
Durham didn’t say what conclusions he disagreed with, but it leaves one big, overarching question: whether Barr and Durham are conducting a truly independent assessment, or whether they’re looking for information that fits the President’s story about rogue Trump haters at the FBI and CIA – in other words, a version of Obamagate.
This debate should be about whether the Trump administration is politicizing intelligence
It’s easy to dismiss Trump’s wanderings. The president has been complaining about the deep state for most of three years, but right now, the people who run his intelligence services are nearly all Trump-appointed persons.
Trump’s allegations about the Obama administration need to be taken seriously. Not because they have earnings – they don’t – but because the president could use institutions and selective intelligence in an attempt to smudge, in particular, a former Obama government official: Joe Biden.
The possibility that Trump would misuse his powers as president to try to undermine his political opponent is by no means inconceivable. It feels like a lifetime now, but Trump was charged with pressuring Ukraine to get him dirty for Biden, when the former vice president was not even the Democratic candidate. Trump already uses the Obamagate conspiracy theory to attack Biden.
All this also detracts from reality Russia is interfering in the 2020 elections. Trump’s antics can have a chilling effect on the work of intelligence and law enforcement, especially when there is fear those certain conclusions about that interference could come with political reprisals.
Obamagate is a complicated mess of conspiracy theories that are separate from reality. It is a deflection of the total catastrophe that unfolds daily due to the Trump administration’s disastrous coronavirus response.
That may not matter. Trump has used the “witch-hunting” strategy since the beginning of his presidency and, when it comes to his base and his allies in Congress and government, it functions.