The Federal Bureau of Investigation formally opened its Trump investigation after Western intelligence assets and Clinton-affiliated political operatives repeatedly approached the Trump campaign and tried but failed to damage it through associations with Russia, a growing body of evidence suggests.
Before the FBI began investigating the Trump campaign in an operation code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” there were at least seven different instances when campaign advisers were approached with Russia-related offers. Most of those contacts — including Donald Trump Jr.’s much-publicized meeting with a Russian lawyer and others in June 2016 — offered the prospect of information damaging to Donald Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Two of these approaches were made by one U.S. government informant already publicly identified as such, Stefan Halper. Another was made by a man who swore in court that he had worked as an FBI informant. Two others were made by figures associated with Western intelligence agencies. Another two approaches included political operatives, one foreign, with ties to the Clintons.
President Obama’s director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has asserted that dispatching Halper to follow the Trump campaign "protected" it from the Russians.
But Mark Wauck, a former FBI agent with experience in such tactics, sees an effort at entrapment. “What appear to have been repeated attempts to implicate the Trump campaign, in some sort of quid pro quo arrangement with Russians who claimed to have ‘dirt’ on Hillary,” Wauck told RealClearInvestigations, “look like efforts to manufacture evidence against members of the Trump campaign or create pretexts to investigate it.”
At the same time, in early spring, the Clinton campaign commissioned, through its law firm, the Washington, D.C.-based communications firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. The result was the infamous 35-page dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
It appears that neither the FBI nor the Clinton campaign’s paid operatives came up with anything of substance. The seven approaches to the Trump campaign, as far as is publicly known, generated no evidence of coordination with the Russians. No evidence has emerged to change former FBI Director James B. Comey’s description of key parts of the Steele dossier as “salacious and unverified.”
Nevertheless, the report of one person who reached out to a Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, was reportedly used to launch an official Department of Justice and FBI probe into the Trump campaign and the dossier was evidently a key piece of evidence used to secure a FISA surveillance warrant against Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Congressional Republicans are demanding that the DOJ and FBI inform Congress whether the FBI tasked informants to follow the Trump campaign before it officially opened its full investigation of the Trump team’s possible ties to Russia on July 31, 2016.
RealClearInvestigations pieced together the following efforts to connect the Trump campaign to Russia through published reports; court documents, including charges filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller; interviews with former FBI agents; and congressional investigators. RCI’s investigation raises questions about events routinely described as evidence of a Trump conspiracy to collude with Russia. As former agent Wauck suggests, taken together these efforts could be interpreted not as an investigation but a sting operation intended to dirty a presidential campaign.
First Approach and Follow-Up
The first approach appears to have occurred on April 24, 2016. Over breakfast in a London hotel, a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud allegedly told Papadopoulos, a volunteer adviser with the Trump campaign, that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. According to the Mueller team’s charges against Papadopoulos, the information potentially damaging to Clinton was “in the form of thousands of emails.”
As RCI previously reported, Mifsud denies having said anything about emails. It’s not clear what information regarding Clinton, emails, or Russia he may have mentioned to Papadopoulos. According to the same indictment, Mifsud was believed to have “substantial connections to Russian government officials.” However, as RCI has previously reported, the bulk of Mifsud’s network consisted of Western, mostly British and Italian, intelligence officials, diplomats, and politicians.
Mifsud also tried to attach himself to the Trump campaign. According to a New York Times article in December 2017, Mifsud proposed to Papadopoulos that he “serve as a campaign surrogate” and follow Trump “as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from the inside the campaign.”
Mifsud was never taken on by the campaign. And Papadopoulos never mentioned Clinton emails to anyone in the campaign. But over a drink at a London bar, he told Australia’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, that the Russians had some potentially damaging information on Clinton.
Downer, according to an interview in the Australian press, had asked for the meeting with the then 28-year-old Trump aide. Like Mifsud, Downer was an associate of several former high-ranking British intelligence officials. Downer also had long ties to the Clinton Foundation, once arranging for Australia to donate $25 million to its AIDS prevention and education efforts.
Downer’s was the second approach made to the Trump campaign. Congressional investigators believe that Downer may have been assigned to collect whatever damaging information that the Maltese academic deposited with Papadopoulos.
Shortly after the meeting, Downer contacted the U.S. Embassy in London to report his conversation with an American citizen. This was unusual. As Australia’s former foreign minister, a post charged with overseeing the country’s foreign intelligence service, Downer knew that such information must be shared through official intelligence channels. The person he instead chose to share this information with was Elizabeth Dibble, the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission who had previously served under Hillary Clinton as the principal deputy assistant secretary of state.
It is unclear whether Dibble passed the information directly to the DOJ or to her superiors at the State Department. In any case, nearly two months passed before the FBI launched its full investigation into Trump/Russia ties -- and another 18 months would pass before it was leaked to the New York Times that that decision was a response to the Downer tip.
The reasons for the two-month delay are not clear. Dibble did not respond to request for comment. Nor did DOJ spokespersons.
Three More May Approaches
The Papadopoulos/Downer meeting, however, was just the best known approach in May. When it became clear after the May 3 Indiana primary that Trump would almost certainly win the GOP nomination, his campaign received at least three more curious approaches related to Russia.
In late May, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, a man calling himself Henry Greenberg approached two Trump campaign figures to offer “dirt” on Clinton. Greenberg, a Russian national who has resided in the United States for more than three decades, is known under several aliases, and has a criminal record in both countries. In a 2015 affidavit sworn in a U.S. court, Greenberg claimed that he had been an FBI informant for 17 years.
The Post reported that Greenberg contacted Trump campaign communications adviser Michael Caputo, who arranged for him to meet with another campaign aide, Roger Stone, in Miami. Dressed in a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap and T-shirt, Greenberg told Stone that he could provide “damaging information” on Clinton in exchange for $2 million.
Stone brushed him off, and he and Caputo later claimed to have forgotten the incident until members of the Mueller team showed them text messages documenting the meeting. Caputo said that jarred his memory and he set to work compiling a long file documenting Greenberg’s record. He and Stone now believe that Greenberg was part of an FBI sting operation.
Also that May, Trump adviser Stephen Miller received an invitation to attend a symposium in Cambridge, England in July. Miller declined the offer. It was at the same panel that Stefan Halper, the government informant since identified in the press, and an academic with extensive contacts in the CIA and British intelligence services, first met Trump foreign policy adviser Page. Public records show that the Department of Defense paid Halper a little over $1 million between 2012 and 2018 for consulting work.
After the FBI investigation formally began July 31, the Daily Caller reports, Halper contacted two other Trump advisers, Sam Clovis on Aug. 29, and Papadopoulos on Sept. 2. Halper paid Papadopoulos $3,000 for a research paper and paid for a trip to London. According to a Daily Caller report, Halper asked him, “George, you know about hacking the emails from Russia, right?”
While Papadopoulos said he denied knowing anything about emails or Russian hacking, it appears that Halper was picking up on a theme first articulated by Mifsud before the full investigation opened.
The May contacts included another, frequently overlooked, Russia-related approach to the Trump campaign. That month, conservative political activist Paul Erickson emailed Trump campaign adviser Rick Dearborn under the subject line “Kremlin Connection.” Erickson sought to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Erickson wrote: “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump. He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election.”
Although Erickson’s contact fits a pattern of efforts to connect the Trump campaign to Russia, he is the only figure who approached the campaign without any discernible ties to the FBI, Western intelligence agencies, the Clintons – or the Russians. This makes his offer to broker a meeting with Putin – a highly improbable proposal that would never normally be communicated through such channels – all the more mysterious.
Efforts to reach Erickson for comment were unsuccessful.
Fusion GPS Enters the Picture
Up to this point, the public evidence suggests, the Trump team had dismissed approaches from figures offering Russian dirt or proposing meetings with Russian officials. That changed at the beginning of June when Donald Trump Jr. responded favorably to British music publicist Rob Goldstone’s email relaying Russia’s alleged offer to supply incriminating information on Clinton.
This was the sixth approach apparently designed to incriminate the Trump campaign. Goldstone, according to a New York Times article, included a line that succinctly laid the groundwork for later claims of collusion: “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
The future president’s son wrote back: “If it’s what you say I love it.”
The documents, explained Goldstone, would be conveyed by a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has longtime links to the Kremlin. At a June 9 meeting in Trump Tower, however, Veselnitskaya arrived empty-handed. Instead of bringing incriminating information on Clinton, she wanted to discuss a U.S. court case brought against Putin-allied Russian officials whose defense she was spearheading.
Veselnitskaya had at least two other significant meetings the day before and the day after her Trump Tower appointment. Both were with the same man: Glenn Simpson.
In addition to providing litigation support to Veselnitskaya for the U.S. court case she was handling, Simpson’s communications firm, Fusion GPS, had been hired by the Clinton campaign to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia.
In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Simpson claimed he had no knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting. Simpson also contended that the meeting – with his own client -- validated one of the key claims made in the Steele dossier: that the Trump campaign was eager to collude with Russia for dirt on Clinton.
About a month later, on July 5, Steele summoned FBI agent Michael Gaeta to London to brief him on the information he’d stitched together on the Trump team’s ties to Russia. Steele, according to reports, supposedly was astonished by the grave and dire nature of his own findings.
The timeline, however, suggests that Steele didn’t have much to show. The only report included in Steele’s dossier dated prior to his meeting with Gaeta was a June 20 memo that seems to have turned the Trump Tower meeting, and perhaps other approaches rebuffed by the Trump campaign, into evidence of collusion.
“Trump and his circle,” Steele wrote, “have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin” on political rivals, including Clinton. The June 20 memo also included allegations of Trump’s sexual activities at a Moscow hotel in 2013. This claim may have simply been recycled from the two memos that, as RCI previously reported, Clinton operative Cody Shearer began compiling in March and April.
The seventh, and apparently final, approach before the full investigation opened occurred less than a week after Steele met Gaeta in London, when Trump campaign adviser Carter Page attended the July 11 symposium in Cambridge, England, to which Stephen Miller had also been invited. In Cambridge, Page met Halper, the government informant, whose graduate assistant had invited the Trump adviser to the symposium. Halper mentioned in passing that he knew Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.
Just days before Page arrived in England, he had been in Moscow to deliver a speech. A July 19 memo in the Steele dossier records his Russia trip and alleged that Manafort was using him as an intermediary in a “well-developed conspiracy of co-operation [with] Russian leadership.”
Page has denied the allegations against him in Steele’s dossier.
FBI Launches ‘Crossfire Hurricane’
The opening of the FBI’s full investigation into the Trump campaign on July 31, 2016 was an extraordinary event, launched despite the DOJ’s traditional reluctance to investigate political campaigns in the middle of an election. That decision has raised even more questions following the report this month from the Justice Department’s inspector general, which detailed many instances of anti-Trump bias in the upper echelons of the FBI.
“Crossfire Hurricane” was reportedly initiated because of the vague tip regarding Russian dirt that Alexander Downer had passed on to the State Department almost two months earlier. The six other Russia-related approaches that occurred before July 31 might have shown the FBI that the Trump team was free of Russian influence.
All the offers were rebuffed or ignored — except Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer who was partnered with a political operative paid by Hillary Clinton and who provided no untoward information.
Nevertheless, the FBI still opened its investigation. In October, the bureau also used the Clinton-financed Steele dossier to obtain a FISA warrant on Carter Page – which allowed it to monitor his communications and those of anyone on the Trump team with whom he was in contact.
And in May 2017, much of this information was cited to justify appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel.
Correction, June 26, 2018, 5:08 PM Eastern
An earlier version of this article misidentified the Trump adviser who was the subject of an informant's account reportedly used to launch the official Trump-Russia investigation. He was George Papadopoulos, not Carter Page.