A trail of evidence appearing in major news outlets suggests a campaign to undermine President Trump from within the government through illegal leaks of classified information, and then thwart congressional investigators probing the disclosures.
On Monday the Justice Department released a handful of texts and other documents that included two former officials known for their anti-Trump bias – Peter Strzok and Lisa Page of the FBI – discussing the DOJ’s “media leak strategy.” Strzok now says, through his lawyer, that that strategy was aimed at preventing leaks. Nevertheless, days later he and Page approvingly mention forthcoming news articles critical of Trump associates.
“The leaks that have been coming out of the FBI and DOJ since 2016 are unconscionable,” said retired FBI supervisory special agent James Gagliano. “There’s a difference between whistleblowing and leaking for self-serving or partisan purposes.”
Past and present U.S. officials say the template for the leak campaign can be traced back to the Obama administration’s efforts to sell the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which made the press reliant on background conversations and favorable leaks from government officials. Obama adviser Ben Rhodes told the New York Times in 2016 that “we created an echo chamber” that “helped retail the administration’s narrative.”
“That same configuration,” said Michael Doran, a senior official in the George W. Bush White House, “the press, political operatives, newly minted experts, social media validators—was repurposed to target Trump, his campaign, transition team, then presidency.” The echo chamber’s primary instrument in attacking the current White House, said Doran, “is the Russia collusion narrative.”
RCI has found that the anti-Trump leaks fall into two broad categories, or phases. Initially the leaking was an offensive operation aimed at disrupting Trump’s agenda, especially through leaks alleging connections between his campaign and the Russians. Its early successes included leaks of highly classified material that led to the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions from overseeing that probe.
The second phase – which began roughly a year into the Trump administration – has been more defensive, pushing back against congressional oversight committees that had uncovered irregularities in the FBI’s investigation of Trump. This phase has been marked by the willingness of press outlets to run stories backing off earlier reported leaks that proved to be deeply misleading – including the roots of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign and the relationship between Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr and the opposition research firm that produced a central document of that probe, the largely discredited “Steele dossier.”
This second phase has also included articles and opinion pieces – some written by journalists who have published classified information – dismissing suspicions of an orchestrated campaign against Trump as a "conspiracy theory," to use the phrase invoked in a recent New Yorker article.
“Former Obama officials and their press allies can call it a ‘conspiracy theory’ or whatever they want,” a senior U.S. official -- familiar with how Obama holdovers and the media jointly targeted Trump figures -- told RCI. “But they can’t say it’s not true that former Obama officials were furiously leaking to keep people close to Trump out of the White House.”
The focus of the ongoing anti-Trump campaign became clear in March 2016 when the candidate identified Carter Page and George Papadopoulos as foreign policy advisers. For reasons that remain unclear, FBI officials decided that Page, in particular, was a Russian asset and that others on the team might be as well. Instead of alerting Trump to this possibility, law enforcement set up a sting operation.
As RCI has previously reported, FBI informants and figures associated with Western intelligence approached the Trump team with offers of Russian-sourced dirt on Clinton. Among the seven mysterious approaches, the most significant, as RCI recently reported, was a Russian lawyer’s June 9 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan with Donald Trump Jr. and others.
That meeting now appears especially suspicious, but not for reasons cited by Trump critics: it was revealed that the Russian lawyer, Natalia V. Veselnitskaya, met the day before and the day after the tower meeting with Glenn Simpson, whose opposition research firm Fusion GPS was being retained by her as well as the Clinton campaign.
At the same time, Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, was working with a former British spy, Christopher Steele, and Nellie Ohr, Bruce Ohr’s wife, to assemble a series of reports alleging Trump’s ties to the Kremlin.
In late summer the “Steele dossier” -- portrayed by media outlets as the work of a conscientious foreign analyst frightened by Trump’s unsavory connections -- was circulated to Washington newsrooms. Yahoo News and Mother Jones published articles based on Steele’s briefings. High-profile columnists at other publications – the Atlantic, the Washington Post, Slate, the New Yorker, Newsweek, and the Weekly Standard – rehashed dossier talking points.
The collusion narrative became fully operational at the end of October when the anti-Trump efforts of the Clinton campaign, the media and the FBI intersected. Even though then-Director James B. Comey considered the dossier “salacious and unverified,” the FBI used it, and a Yahoo News article based on Steele’s reports, to obtain a warrant to spy on Page weeks before the election.
Those efforts might have been lost to history but for a stunning event: Trump’s victory. As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes reported in their book, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign”: “Within 24 hours of her concession speech, [campaign chairman John Podesta and manager Robby Mook] assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. … Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.”
Still in power in the lame-duck period, members of the Obama administration started to play offense, illegally leaking highly classified information aimed undermining the new administration’s agenda by raising concerns about Russian interference.
A week before inauguration, a January 12, 2017 article by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius revealed that incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn – whom President Obama had fired and warned Trump against hiring – had a phone conversation with the Russian ambassador. That information came from a highly classified NSA intercept.
A Feb. 9 news story in the Post drew on more illegally leaked material to provide a fuller account of Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. They discussed sanctions that had been imposed by the Obama administration before leaving office.
Other news outlets – especially CNN, BuzzFeed and the New York Times – published such material. But the Feb. 9 Post story is especially telling because one of its reporters was Adam Entous – who was also a co-author of the recent New Yorker article dismissing the idea of a leak campaign coordinated between Obama-era officials and the press as a “conspiracy theory.”
Before leaving the Post, Entous co-wrote a series of 2017 pieces regarding Trump associates based on leaks of classified intelligence. A March 1 article about Jeff Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador was sourced to intercepts of the diplomat’s communications. An April 11 article that has now caught the attention of House oversight committees revealed the active FBI investigation on Page.
Entous’ recent New Yorker article dismissing concerns about leaks, co-written with Ronan Farrow, does not mention these stories. When reached by RealClearInvestigations, Entous said he had no immediate comment.
The first phase of the leak campaign was largely successful in raising doubts about whether the Trump administration really did put America first. It normalized charges of treason lodged against the president by Democrats and former Obama officials now working for the media, including former CIA Director John Brennan.
But the landscape began to change near end of Trump’s first year in the office, forcing his opponents to shift from playing offense to defense. By then, the White House had replaced many Obama-era holdovers and “Never Trump” Republicans. A number of senior officials at the DOJ and FBI, for instance, resigned, were fired or reassigned and no longer in position to feed the news cycle with a steady stream of classified intelligence.
More important, the leakers presumably knew they were being watched. As congressional oversight committees found evidence of irregularities regarding the FBI’s 2016 investigation, anti-Trump operatives inside and outside the government used new leaks in an apparent effort to cover their tracks.
For instance, after pressure from congressional Republicans showed that the Steele dossier was funded by the Democrats, a new origin story for the FBI’s probe was leaked. In December 2017, the New York Times reported that the investigation actually began with a tip from another presumably apolitical foreign national, Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. According to the Times, he reported that Trump campaign adviser Papadopoulos had informed him that the Russians had political “dirt” on Hillary Clinton during what the Times characterized as “a night of heavy drinking.” Downer never mentioned emails but the Times states that the dirt he referred to was almost certainly the emails stolen from Democrats and published by Wikileaks in 2016.
That version is now in doubt as Papadopoulos – who was just sentenced to 14 days in prison for lying about other matters in the Russia probe – says he doesn’t remember saying anything to Downer about Russia; while standing firm on his central allegation about Russian dirt, Downer says they only had a single drink and a brief discussion.
Favored media outlets also began running stories aimed at discrediting congressional oversight committees that challenged their reporting. In the spring, congressional Republicans asked the DOJ for information regarding any FBI informants ordered to follow the Trump campaign. The press quoted anonymous officials warning that oversight committees were endangering national security — but it was they who leaked to the press personal details of an informant’s identity. A May 21 Washington Post article produced the informant’s name — Stefan Halper, a 74-year-old academic researcher with longstanding ties to American and British intelligence.
The leaks were intended to paint Republicans as reckless partisans willing to risk the safety of constituents, a congressional investigator said. The purpose, explained the source, “is to warn Trump against declassifying, and to shape public reception against him if he does.”
Now congressional Republicans are urging the president to declassify three sets of documents — 20 pages of the final renewal of the warrant to spy on Carter Page in June 2017; records of the FBI’s 12 interviews with Bruce Ohr; and exculpatory material related to the warrant on Page. And anti-Trump officials continue to dig in, pre-emptively leaking information about CIA and FBI Russia-related operations that appears to combine classified intelligence with some degree of fiction intended to obscure wrongdoings.
Halper’s name popped up again last month in the New York Times. A veteran GOP operative, Halper collected intelligence on Trump associates. But according to unnamed officials quoted in the story, uncovering his identity has “had a chilling effect on intelligence collection” against Russian targets.
“Informants close to President Vladimir V. Putin and in the Kremlin who provided crucial details” to U.S. intelligence about the 2016 race have gone silent, the Times reported.
A Washington Post article last year, co-written by Entous, made similar claims about U.S. intelligence sources close to Putin. According to the story, the Obama White House knew of “Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race” based on “a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government.”
If the 2017 Post story is true, that would explain why U.S. intelligence is blind on Russia going into the 2018 midterm elections. After American spies leaked classified intelligence regarding informants in Putin’s inner circles, Moscow would have moved quickly to shut down those channels.
But present and former intelligence officials doubt the veracity of both the Times and the Post stories. “Our sources and methods are sacred, and what we do regarding Russia is extraordinarily secret,” former CIA Moscow station chief Daniel Hoffman told RCI.
“The stuff we do on Russia is so highly compartmentalized that only a handful of people in the CIA know anything about it, never mind the intelligence community as a whole,” said Hoffman. “Journalists wouldn’t get to speak with anyone who does know. I guarantee the authors of these stories don’t know anyone who runs our Russian operations.”
U.S. intelligence officials in the know, say former and current officials, are unlikely to inform Putin via the American press that the U.S. previously infiltrated his inner circles. The apparent purpose of the article, say sources, is to deter Trump from declassifying documents damaging to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Another recent Times story that has raised eybrows is its Sept. 1 account of the FBI’s efforts to recruit Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska, an oligarch close to Putin, as an informant. Published just days after the release of documents showing that the DOJ’s Bruce Ohr was in close contact with Christopher Steele, who was employed by Deripaska’s London lawyer, the Times story reports that the FBI operation included Ohr and Steele. According to the Times, Deripaska was one among half a dozen Putin associates that the FBI attempted to recruit for the purpose of reporting on Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
A congressional Republican source who spoke to RCI on the condition of anonymity is skeptical of the Times’ account. “The takeaway is that in trying to flip a Putin-allied oligarch, the FBI told Putin that they’re investigating his interference in the 2016 elections. That is not a good look. It looks like the story they’re trying to bury is that in the period leading up to the FBI’s using the dossier to get a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign, a senior DOJ official whose wife [Nellie Ohr] worked on the dossier is meeting with the author of the dossier, who works for a Putin ally.”
Sources say the Ohr story is evidence that the leak campaign is continuing, even as it is being exposed.
And a precedent has been established with this joining together of political operatives, law enforcement and intelligence officials to prosecute a campaign based on illegal leaks of classified intelligence. It's not hard to imagine it happening again, regardless of who the next president is, and regardless of party.