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the Russia files

Did The New York Times Miss the Big Story of the 2016 Election?

A story you haven't seen anywhere

The arrest on January 23rd of Charles McGonigal, the former FBI special agent in charge of the Bureau's counterintelligence division run out of the New York field office, has thrown a new light on the 2016 election. At the same time that
Charles McGonigal

McGonigal's assignment was to oversee the department's investigation of Russian oligarchs, he is accused of violating sanctions against Russia by aiding Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to be removed from the sanctions list. There is no evidence yet that he was paid by the Russian while still with the Bureau, but he did an unusual favor for a Deripaska employee while there and was hired by Deripaska after he retired.

That's only part of the charges against McGonigal, but it's the part that adds an extra dimension to the reporting by Reuters and others at the time that a faction at the New York FBI was hostile to Hillary Clinton. The Guardian reported two days before the election that animosity toward Clinton had intensified in the months since FBI Director James Comey decided not to indict her for trafficking in classified material over a private computer server. That the head of counterintelligence in New York, who had also a role in uncovering Russian interference in the
Vladimir Putin and Oleg Deripaska

2016 election, was simultaneously consorting with a Russian oligarch with close ties to Vladimir Putin suggests even a deliberate policy as explanation for a series of leaks damaging to Clinton's campaign. “The FBI is Trumpland,” said one agent at the time.

It was, after all, the New York FBI and the New York Police Department, not Main Justice in Washington, that discovered e-mails pertinent to the Clinton controversy on computers belonging to former New York congressman Anthony Weiner and his wife, Clinton aide Huma Abedin. It led to Comey notifying Congress, which leaked it to the press, that the FBI had re-awakened the Clinton e-mail investigation on the brink of the election, an action that is widely thought to have swung the election to Donald Trump. Fewer than 78,000 votes across three states decided the Electoral College win.

Reuters subsequently reported that Comey felt compelled to announce the reopening of the e-mail probe to head off the world learning of it from leaks by — as we're pointing out — FBI New York. Just two days before Comey went public, Rudolph Giuliani, who had joined the Trump camp with uncountable contacts as a New Yorker and its ex-mayor, was on Fox News talking about

“a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days. I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises.”

McGonigal may not have been in Deripaska's direct employ while still at the FBI – he retired September 2018 – but while there he tapped a contact in the NYPD to get a job for the daughter of a Deripaska employee, the specific request being in the counterterrorism, intelligence gathering, and “international liaisoning” branch. The indictment said that she told a police sergeant that she had

"an unusually close relationship to 'an FBI agent' who had given her access to confidential FBI files, and it was unusual for a college student to receive such special treatment from the NYPD and FBI.”

where was the Times getting its news?

The McGonigal arrest caused Will Bunch, a veteran reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, to have a backward look at the Times pre-election coverage. Thinking it had found the inside track, had the paper fallen for tips from New York FBI that were designed to subvert Clinton? Bunch asks article illustration
what possibly could have caused the Times to give two-thirds of its front page to the renewal of the Clinton probe, especially when an immediate assumption (such as by this writer at the time) was that the Weiner/Abedin laptop held only the other end of e-mails already seen by the FBI, which proved well after the election to be the case.

That's not all, as Bunch cites. On October 31st, just days before the election, the Times ran what would be a notoriously wrong article. After a summer and fall of one after another revelation about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russians, its headline read, "Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia”. Soon, links would be uncovered as would proof of Russia's implanting fake news stories in social media to interfere with the election in favor of Trump, a favoritism that would be admitted by Putin in Helsinki in 2018. Shouldn't we ask what could have caused the Times to run so gratuitous a piece that cited "law enforcement officials" as their preferred source for ultimate truth rather than the yearlong Pulitzer-award work of the newspaper's own reporters?

"It’s not only that America’s so-called paper of record has never apologized for its over-the-top coverage of the Clinton emails or the deeply flawed story about the FBI Trump-Russia probe. It’s that the Times has shown a stunning lack of curiosity about finding out what went wrong."

the omnipresent mr. deripaska

Deripaska, an aluminum magnate with close connections to Putin, was already a known figure, owing to Trump's unlikely choice in June 2016 of Paul Manafort as his campaign manager. As far back as 2003, Manafort's lobbying firm had been hired by Deripaska to seek a waiver of his visa ban so he could seek investors in the United States. In 2005, Manafort had negotiated a $10 million annual contract with Deripaska to promote Russian interests in Europe and the United States.

While campaign manager, Manafort talked daily to a Russian based in Ukraine, Konstantin Kilimnik, passing him Trump campaign updates and internal polling data that showed Russia what districts in battleground states it should target in its anti-Clinton disinformation campaign. The Senate Intelligence Committee would confirm in its 2020 report that Kilimnik was a Russian intelligence agent. Deripaska reportedly had loaned Manafort $10 million which had remained unpaid while Manafort was working for Trump. Deripaska accused him of stealing the money. It was thought that by passing confidential information to Deripaska through Kilimnik, which the oligarch could use to stay in Putin's favor, that would satisfy the Deripaska debt.

Manafort had been an adviser to Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was closely aligned with Russia and Putin, and who would flee to Russia when overthrown in 2014. When it was reported in the U.S. media that Manafort may have received $12.7 million in off-the-books funds from Yanukovych's political party, he was compelled to resign his post as campaign manager.

In 2019 Manafort was sentenced to six years in prison, specially treated with a transfer to home confinement in 2020 to avoid Covid, then fully pardoned by Trump.

on a mission to rewrite the story

If there was subterfuge to co-opt the media in the summer of the presidential campaign, as is now being wondered, it couldn't be left at that. The multitude of Russia contacts uncovered by the media in 2016 and confirmed by the Mueller report, Trump's openly expressed admiration of Putin, Manafort's collusion with Russian intelligence, had to be erased. Best bet? Make the story instead a Hillary Clinton plot against Trump.

That was taken up by Bill Barr when he became attorney general early in 2019. He had only been on the job a month or so when Mueller turned in the report on Russian influence in the 2016 election. Barr sabotaged two years of work by the special counsel by hastily writing a four-page letter to say, weeks before the redacted report would be released to the public, that Mueller found no conspiracy.

In fact, Mueller bluntly stated that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him", that "The Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome", that the campaign benefitted "from information stolen and released through Russian efforts".

For Barr, though, the Mueller investigation was "a grave injustice”, “unprecedented in American history”, the FBI probe "one of the greatest travesties in American history". Determined to prove that the the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane investigation was illegitimate, Barr set out to investigate the investigators.

He tapped John Durham, U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, to come up with an alternative "origin" story for why article illustration
John Durham

intelligence agencies probed Trump-Russia contacts in the 2016 campaign and whether they had broken laws. That Barr and Durham were determined to come up with a vast, alternative story is evidenced by the staggering intensity of their quest: A Times story reported that the sprawling investigation grew "to more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants, 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence and interviews of about 500 witnesses."

coming up empty

Almost four years on – twice Mueller's timespan – Durham has come up with close to nothing. Looking for deep state scandal, it is his witch hunt that has become the scandal for its costly futility. He produced two indictments for lying to the FBI, both defendants winning acquittal, and a probation and community service verdict for an FBI attorney who altered an email in a surveillance application to the FISA court.

Durham's probe had already been undercut by a report from the Justice Department's inspector general, Michael Horowitz, who found that the FBI's investigation was unaffected by bias and was validly predicated (the agency learned that the Russians were about to drop a trove of hacked Democratic e-mails). There had been plenty buzz about Russian contacts before that.

Barr even attempted to discredit the IG's product of 18 months of digging, saying the FBI had opened its inquiry "on the thinnest of suspicions that in my view were insufficient".

Days ago a long piece in the Times made two discoveries:

 Two of Durham's prosecutors objected to bringing one of the cases for evidence being "too flimsy", and that was after Durham's longtime aide quit following disputes between herself and Durham over prosecutorial ethics.

 The second occurred when Barr and Durham went to London and Rome apparently to find whether intelligence agencies in those countries knew of any malfeasance by the FBI and U.S. intelligence. In Italy, officials gave them a tip that caused them to open a criminal investigation into suspicious financial dealings by an unnamed entity. Barr spoke of that without specifics to leave us to believe some crime must have been committed by the target of their probe, the FBI. He did not reveal that the suspicious financial dealings were by Donald Trump. And rather than appoint a separate prosecutor to pursue the lead, Barr left the criminal referral in Durham's probe where it has vanished.

sticking to the script

From the outset in 2016 it had been a protracted and now suspect effort to make Trump the victim of the FBI and left-slanted media. Those on the right have tried to paper over Durham's failings, claiming a breakthrough revelation of the Clinton campaign’s involvement in "Russiagate". By that they mean only the Clinton funding of the notorious Christopher Steele dossier, funding that has long been known, as evidenced by Barr narrowing Durham's supposed breakthrough to no more than that, by saying, "I think he crystallized the central role played by the Hillary campaign in launching, as a dirty trick, the whole Russiagate collusion narrative and fanning the flames of it”.

The use of the dossier has certainly given the FBI a deserved black eye, but as if by clandestine agreement, right-slanted media has resolved to speak only of Clinton and the Steele dossier as how best to disappear all the rest — the well over a hundred contacts between Russians and the Trump campaign in 2016, as if they had never happened. Opinion pages in publications such as the Washington Examiner and especially The Wall Street Journal are studded with the phrase "the Russia collusion hoax" – those exact words, in chorus, constantly repeated to this day.

Over six years later there is now the concerted effort to expunge any notion that Russia disinformation influenced the 2016 election. Trump is obsessed with that claim believing it threatens the legitimacy of his election. His former aide, Hope Hicks, said that is his "Achilles heel". A Newsweek source said that in the documents at Mar-a-Lago that "Trump had been collecting since early in his administration", he hoped to find exoneration of any Russian connection or influence.

he's seen this movie before

Yale history professor Timothy Snyder found an unusual parallel between the 2016 election campaign and the follow-on investigations. He said in a television interview that the 2016 election was for him "kind of a re-run… something that was very familiar from eastern Europe", which is his area of specialization. Just as there had been Paul Manafort there, on Deripaska's payroll, coaching Viktor Yanukovych, a candidate favored by Russia in a bid to be Ukraine's president, there was in 2016 in the U.S. Donald Trump, favored by Putin, coached by that same Manafort, and this time McGonigal on Deripaska's payroll.

"When I look back at the investigation of 2016, Crossfire Hurricane by the FBI New York office, now I'm thinking, the person who ran that was taking money from foreign actors … was investigating the Russian oligarch who he then went to work for according to these indictments, which suggests to me that there was something off about that investigation and not that it went too far but rather that it certainly almost, certainly didn't go far enough. And some of the strange things about that year, like for example the way that the FBI right at the end of the election cycle weirdly announced that they were once again opening the question of Hillary Clinton's emails just in time, basically, to take several points of support away from her. Like the way the FBI was very slow to tell the Democratic Party that they'd been hacked…It's not that those investigation had no merit. It's that they had much merit than we actually realized, and that actually we need to go much deeper now to know what happened."

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