Relying in large part on discredited claims by a New York Times reporter, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff led a call by Democratic House leaders for independent watchdogs of the Justice Department and intelligence community to investigate issues related to the counterintelligence inquiry of President Trump by special counsel Robert Mueller and the FBI.
A six-page letter sent to the inspectors general this week repeatedly quotes and cites a New York Times report in August, adapted from a book by reporter Michael Schmidt, Donald Trump v. The United States: Inside the Struggle to Stop a President, in which he wrote that Justice Department leadership, namely former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, secretly blocked Mueller’s team from conducting a Trump-Russia counterintelligence investigation and hid that from the FBI.
But fired FBI agent Peter Strzok and Mueller’s “pitbull” prosecutor Andrew Weissmann — both harsh critics of Trump — both disputed the reporting and Mueller’s own report and testimony also contradicted the key claims that were made by the New York Times and relied upon by Schiff and House Democrats in calling for investigations by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz and acting Intelligence Community Inspector General Thomas Monheim.
“The Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation into Russian election interference and any links to the Trump campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, keeping investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia,” the New York Times reported on Aug. 30, adding the FBI opened the counterintelligence investigation in May 2017, but “within days,” Rosenstein “curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere.”
The letter, led by Schiff and signed off on by Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters, Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, and others, quoted that article at length as a key premise of their call for investigations and cited it in footnotes three times, saying that “recent reports indicate that neither the FBI nor the Special Counsel’s office ever conducted a comprehensive investigation of these matters” and “the American people deserve to know whether the Trump Administration may have deliberately sought to shield the President from a thorough counterintelligence inquiry of his finances at the expense of our national security.”
Strzok, who was a key member in the FBI’s investigation into both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s improper private email server and Crossfire Hurricane’s Trump-Russia inquiry, was asked by Anne Applebaum of the Atlantic during a September interview about the New York Times report, which she said, “suggests that the Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation, precisely so that it would not touch on the president’s long-standing relationship with Russia.”
“During the time I worked at the Special Counsel’s Office, I didn’t feel such a limitation,” Strzok replied. “When I discussed this with Mueller and others, it was agreed that FBI personnel attached to the Special Counsel’s Office would do the counterintelligence work, which necessarily included the president. But that’s an extraordinarily complex task, one of the most difficult counterintelligence investigations in the FBI’s history.”
Strzok added that “perhaps the FBI is somehow carrying out a comprehensive survey, with the full involvement of the CIA and NSA and the entire U.S. intelligence community,” but said he worried that the inquiry “largely died on the vine.”
In his new book, Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump, Strzok further asserted that Mueller’s team and the FBI members on it were looking into alleged counterintelligence concerns related to Trump in 2017. “The broader counterintelligence concerns about the president — which included the ways in which his suspected obstruction of the Russia probe might have been coerced by or intended to aid Russia — were investigated by multiple teams. Even at the time that I left Mueller’s team, we were still looking for the right way to investigate those counterintelligence concerns,” he wrote.
Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team when numerous anti-Trump texts he exchanged with then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, were unearthed, and he was fired in 2018. Strzok is currently suing the Justice Department.
Weissmann, a former DOJ official and FBI general counsel, also said the New York Times was wrong about its FBI counterintelligence story. “NYT story today is wrong re: alleged secret DOJ order prohibiting a counterintelligence investigation by Mueller, ‘without telling the bureau.’ Dozens of FBI agents/analysts were embedded in Special Counsel’s Office and we were never told to keep anything from them,” Weissmann said.
New York Times director of communications Ari Isaacman Bevacqua told the Washington Examiner that “we stand by our reporting” when asked about Weissmann’s comments.
In addition, Mueller’s report seemed to contradict the New York Times.
“From its inception, the Office recognized that its investigation could identify foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information relevant to the FBI’s broader national security mission. FBI personnel who assisted the Office established procedures to identify and convey such information to the FBI,” the 448-page report said. “The FBI’s Counterintelligence Division met with the Office regularly for that purpose for most of the Office’s tenure. For more than the past year, the FBI also embedded personnel at the Office who did not work on the Special Counsel’s investigation, but whose purpose was to review the results of the investigation and to send — in writing — summaries of foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information to FBIHQ and FBI Field Offices.”
The New York Times also reported that Rosenstein “concluded the FBI lacked sufficient reason to conduct an investigation into the president’s links to a foreign adversary.”
But Weissmann said that was “also erroneous” and pointed to Rosenstein’s order appointing Mueller in May 2017, which stated Mueller was “authorized” to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly.”
Trump’s critics have re-raised concerns in recent months about whether Trump’s possible financial ties to Russia were investigated by the FBI after acting Director Andrew McCabe approved opening a counterintelligence inquiry into Trump following the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
McCabe was fired in 2018 after Horowitz concluded he “lacked candor” with investigators regarding a media leak related to an FBI investigation into the Clinton Foundation. The New York Times further reported that “Mr. Rosenstein never told Mr. McCabe about his decision, leaving the FBI with the impression that the special counsel would take on the investigation into the president as part of his broader duties,” and “Mr. McCabe said in an interview that had he known Mr. Mueller would not continue the inquiry, he would have had the FBI perform it.”
But Mueller’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in July 2019 cast doubt on the idea that Rosenstein or the Justice Department secretly curtailed Mueller. Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi asked whether Mueller obtained Trump’s tax returns or whether Trump’s personal finances were “outside the purview” of his investigation. Mueller declined to answer. But when Krishnamoorthi asked if Mueller was ever instructed not to investigate Trump’s financials, Mueller said, “No.”
The special counsel told Congress that there were FBI agents and analysts “whose job it was to identify counterintelligence information in our files and disseminate that information to the FBI.” Mueller said that “questions about what the FBI has done with the counterintelligence information obtained from our investigation should be directed to the FBI.”
The New York Times story was touted on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC and elsewhere on TV. It was also picked up by the Guardian , Salon , the Daily Beast , the Washington Post , Vanity Fair , Mediate , The Week , and other outlets before being used by Schiff and Democrats in a call for watchdog inquiries.
Mueller concluded Russia interfered in 2016 in a “sweeping and systematic fashion” but “did not establish” any criminal conspiracy between Russia and Trump’s campaign. U.S. Attorney John Durham is conducting an investigation into the origins and conduct of the Trump-Russia investigation.
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