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The Plot to Bury Mueller’s Russia Investigation Backfires

This is Part Two of a special report. For Part One see our front page

Collusion Revisited: August 18th: Trump's 2016 campaign chairman had repeated contact with Russian intelligence constituting "a grave counterintelligence threat" is the finding of the Senate Intelligence Committee in its final report on Russian interference, which also cites extensive contacts between key campaign advisers and officials affiliated with Moscow’s government and intelligence services. This is a severe setback to Attorney General Barr's investigation that seeks to negate any premise for the Mueller probe, an attempt that this and our previous story are reporting.


    
In great haste when Mueller turned in his report on March 22 of last year, Attorney General William Barr claimed to have digested the whole report in only two days for him to rush out his infamous four-page mischaracterization. It stated repeatedly that "no U.S. person or

Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated" with Russians.

Mueller — a Justice employee as special counsel — had adhered to the department office of legal counsel opinion that a sitting president could not be indicted. Barr undercut that by intimating that there was no department policy

standing in Mueller's way of the special counsel making "a traditional prosecutorial judgment" about Trump's multiple obstructions; Mueller had simply declined to do so.

Trump, who had for months said “No collusion” countless times, and tweeted "NO COLLUSION" without end, now immediately discarded what the report actually said and tweeted, "No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION".

Barr let his appraisal steep in the public consciousness for the weeks it took for the report to be redacted while refusing to release the "principal conclusion" summaries that the Mueller group had expressly prepared for the public to read during that hiatus. Then, on the report's release to the public, Barr told us of the "unprecedented situation" Trump faced "before and after taking office", that "federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct", that "the President was frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his Presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks”. Finally, Barr said,

“The President took no act that in fact deprived the special counsel of the documents and witnesses necessary to complete his investigation. Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the President had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation.”

Barr was effectively explaining away Trump's intemperance, excusing Trump's obstruction, bathing Trump in innocence, as if to say, don't believe the report I am releasing to you today. His many dismissals of the report launched the "nothing" campaign, as we're calling it, the campaign that said no prosecutions meant Mueller had come up with nothing.

And what Barr said about no corrupt intent was a lie. Trump had refused to be interviewed by Mueller. In June of 2017, a few weeks after Mueller was appointed, Trump said he was willing, “One hundred per cent”, and on a different occasion said "I'm looking forward to it, actually" and "under oath". Then ensued a cat and mouse game with Trump steadily reneging and Mueller successively relenting, knowing that a subpoena would be ineffectual in a hopelessly slow legal system.

Ultimately, Trump would agree only to answer written questions, and took two months to do so, or rather, his lawyers did. Despite his telling us that he has “one of the great memories of all time” or even “the world’s greatest memory”, Trump more than 30 times would answer “I do not remember”, “I do not recall”, “I have no recollection”, “I have no independent recollection”, “I have no current recollection”. Written answers and Trump's refusal to reply to further questions about those answers disabled Mueller from getting at intent, the important criterion for obstruction. It left Mueller ending with a whimper, complaining of answers that are "incomplete or imprecise", and turning the mess of pottage over to Congress, which did nothing (the impeachment being about Ukraine).

Verging on a year and a half, Barr has refused to release the full unredacted report. Clearly, there are things he wants to remain hidden.

Mueller didn't find enough evidence to make a criminal case, but neither was everyone innocent. He clearly found evidence that the Trump campaign operated right on the edge:

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

the fbi's colossal screw-up

The FBI did a thorough job of giving opponents of its Russia interference probe all they needed to paint the agency with bias and corruption. There were the anti-Trump e-mails between Peter Strzok, who led the investigation preceding Mueller, and his paramour at the Bureau, Lisa Page, that made accusations of the FBI's political motivation difficult to counter. Far worse judgment was the use of the Christopher Steele "dossier" as the "essential" document in the FBI's filing for a FISA warrant for surveillance of Carter Page.

The allegations in the dossier had not been verified, were in parts salacious, and thought perhaps to be deliberate misinformation planted by the Russians, but the FBI made them the centerpiece of the FISA application anyway. Bad enough. But then, after 18-months of scrutiny into the FBI's activity, Michael Horowitz, the inspector general at the Justice Department, found 17 violations of process in that FISA application. He also found that an FBI lawyer — who just pleaded guilty — had altered an e-mail to prevent those preparing the application from knowing that Page had told the CIA of some of his meetings with Russians, which would have moderated or ended suspicion. Moreover, the warrant was unjustifiably renewed three times, spanning a year, even though the FBI had found nothing suspect about Page. The Justice Department secretly notified the FISA court that the last two warrant requests lacked substantiation of probable cause and should have been invalid.

Then in June Barr declassified the FBI's January 2017 debriefing of the principal source for Christopher Steele's dossier, turning two documents over to Sen. Lindsey Graham for his investigation. In the first, Steele's source turned out not to be a Russian official or someone with Kremlin connections but only a contract employee of Steele's firm. Moreover, the employee couldn't recall the source of some of the information attributed to him, claimed he never said other information attributed to him, and asserted that Steele implied direct access to information that was indirect.

In the second document, Peter Strzok disagreed with a New York Times article alleging Trump campaign ties with Russian intelligence, saying, "[w]e have not seen evidence of any individuals affiliated with the Trump team in contact with IOs [Intelligence Officials]...We are unaware of ANY Trump advisors engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials.”

In short, collectively and severally, the Steele dossier was grotesquely fabricated, the FBI had disgraced itself on multiple counts for having used it, and had handed Trump supporters a weapon they would use again and again against the entire Russia investigation.

conflation inflation

Republicans and their various investigations have adopted as a standard tactic to go straightaway to the FBI debacle, as if that was the entirety of the Russia interference investigation. Lindsey Graham's Senate Judiciary Committee said about the interview with Steele's sources that it should …

"…question the entire premise of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump Campaign and make it even more outrageous that the Mueller team continued this investigation for almost two and a half years."

Strzok's notes refuted only contact by Trump advisers with "Russian intelligence officials" — a Times article had made that claim — but that was inflated in the Judiciary Committee's proclamation that said Mueller should not have gone on to find all that he did find.

Shouting down the entire investigation to try to make it disappear was often heard from the Right. Examples:

 Just after the Mueller report came out, Holman Jenkins, a columnist at the Journal, put on his willful blinders to make the jaw-drop statement of "the Trump campaign's nonexistent Russian connections" and ask, "Why did the FBI fan a Russia collusion confabulation that it knew was unfounded, false, and baseless?". You might want to review the "nonexistent Russian connections" in the partial list of "unfounded" and "baseless" reasons for the Russia investigation in this section of our Part One.

  In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this June, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley segued from the Mueller report to ripping into witness Rod Rosenstein for "rubber-stamping" one of the dossier-based FISA submissions as if Mueller's report and the dossier were the same.

  Sen. Ron Johnson, in a Journal op-ed, said that how the FBI handled the Steele dossier "seems consistent with how it ran the entire investigation" with no support for that statement, as well as impugning the integrity of the FBI agents investigating for the Mueller team.

 About the interview with Steele's dossier source, Graham said, "As Mr. Grassley and I wrote in our declassification request to Mr. Barr, these footnotes provide 'insight essential for an accurate evaluation of the entire investigation.'” Here again, we are asked to agree that the dossier somehow disqualified the Mueller report even though the Steele dossier played no role, none, in the F.B.I.’s opening of the Russia investigation in July 2016. Mueller did not rely on it for his report, did not investigate the dossier's claims. It is barely mentioned. Forgotten, or so Republicans hope, is that the sprawling FBI investigation wasn't about the dossier that Republicans want to make it all about. The Mueller probe, by mandate, was about Russian election interference and any criminal actions thereto appertaining, with nearly 500 search warrants, interviews of hundreds of witnesses, and a staggering 2,800 subpoenas.

Dianne Feinstein, Democratic senator of California, made the inconvenient point that the FBI officials who opened the inquiry in July of 2016 “had not even seen the Steele dossier", which didn't surface until the fall, "but because the Steele dossier was cited in the Carter Page FISA applications, the president and his allies falsely claim that the entire Russia investigation” would never have happened but for the document.

contrivance

In an ultimate attempt to nullify Mueller's work, Barr wants us to think that Mueller had a preconception of what the Trump campaign was up to and set out to prove it. The two were reportedly once friends, yet here we have Barr speculating on whether Mueller was corrupt:

“One of the things you have to guard against, both as a prosecutor and I think as an investigator, is that if you get too wedded to a particular outcome and you’re pursuing a particular agenda, you close your eyes to anything that sort of doesn’t fit with your preconception. And I think that’s probably the phenomenon we’re looking at here.”

Apart from its being disgraceful, implying withholding of exculpatory evidence, this comment couldn't be more wrong. It suggests that after that two-day speed reading, Barr never went back to truly read the report. Had he done so he would have found himself wading through tortured analysis that looked at every allegation from every angle in Mueller's scrupulous laboring to be fair, "a tortured debate among the special counsel’s team" as Jeffrey Toobin puts it in a new book, and did Barr forget that Mueller did not arrive at anything other than equivocation?

What an extraordinary lack of self-awareness. Barr unwittingly described his own preconceptions that caused him to assign John Durham to canvass the world — travelling to Britain, Australia, Italy — wherever it took to prove the "particular outcome" to which Barr is wedded. Durham's report is what we brought up in Part One, questioning whether Barr might violate tradition by releasing it in the 90-day quiet period before an election. In that window the Justice Department holds off broaching any new discoveries or prosecutions that might harm a candidate, and with too little time to mount an effective response. Then FBI-Director James Comey is vilified by Democrats for having helped Trump win the election by just beforehand reopening the inquiry into a Hillary Clinton associate's e-mail.

Since our preceding article, Barr has come out and said it:

"There are going to be developments, significant developments, before the election, but we're not doing this on the election schedule…We're not going to do anything inappropriate before the election but we're not being dictated to by this schedule. What's dictating the timing of this are developments in the case".

So it's a "case". Which means indictments. Since he already knows of these "developments", how is the timing further to be dictated? Why not now? Is he saving it for an "October surprise", only somehow coincidentally ready at that moment? If so, any argument that it could not have waited a couple of more weeks until after November 3rd will be indefensible.

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