Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book, “Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency,” finds the white whale that eluded Special Counsel Robert Mueller for two years – evidence of a wide conspiracy to undermine American democracy.
It wasn’t the Trump campaign, McCarthy reports, but agents of the federal government who intentionally perpetrated a fraud on the American people through the Russia collusion hoax in order to undermine the duly elected president of the United States.
McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor, draws on his own distinguished analysis of the Trump-Russia investigation for National Review and Fox News, as well as the work of journalists who tirelessly challenged the collusion narrative trumpeted by leading news outlets, to provide a smart and brisk account of the broad effort to delegitimize Trump.
“Ball of Collusion” covers the major revelations discovered so far about how top officials in the Obama administration – including the FBI and the CIA, the departments of Justice, State and the White House itself – turned government power into a political weapon to sabotage the Trump administration.
Still, many questions remain about the origins of Trump-Russia hoax – especially the role of President Obama. In this excerpt from “Ball of Collusion,” McCarthy details the Obama administration’s fearful yet calculated response to Trump’s surprising election.
Flood Is Coming
On her way out the door and out of her job as national-security adviser, Susan Rice wrote an email-to-self. Except it was not really an email-to-self. It was quite consciously an email for the record.
As she stroked her White House keyboard fifteen minutes after noon on January 20, 2017, Rice was technically back in private life, back where private people have private email accounts – even notepads if they want to scratch out a reminder the old-fashioned way. Yet, for a little bit longer, Rice still had access to her government email account. She was, as ever, the aide-de-camp – the confidant President Obama had trusted in 2012 to peddle the anti-Muslim video fable to the Sunday shows just days after the Benghazi jihadist attack. Now, though no longer a government official, she was still in a position to generate an official record. With a foot-and-a-half out the door, it was time.
It was the memo born in a crossfire hurricane. Rice was attempting to sculpt the dispositive historical account of a meeting the Obama White House was fretting over, along with its Justice Department, FBI, and intelligence agencies. The email would masquerade as the contemporaneous account of a powwow that had happened over two weeks earlier, when everything was finally in place to trigger the insurance policy: the plan to envelope the Trump presidency in an investigation the president would be powerless to end; the plan to portray Trump publicly as exactly the compromised tool of the Kremlin the Obama administration had been secretly telling the FISC he was. The plan would subject the new administration to close monitoring by unaccountable bureaucrats, while politically devastating intelligence leaks made Donald Trump a one-term president, if not less.
“By the book.” Rice was emphatic on that. President Obama, we’re told, insisted that the top national security officials of what he hilariously describes as his “scandal-free” administration must do everything in the Trump–Russia investigation “by the book.” Of course, the Book of Common Sense tells you that people who’ve been doing things by the book for years don’t need to be told that. Just as it tells you that a memo like the one Rice hastily planted on January 20, purporting to summarize decisions made fifteen tumultuous days earlier, is not written to preserve an accurate, real-time record of what was decided. It is written to rationalize those decisions in the wake of cataclysmic events – and the storm sure to follow. …
Obama Knew All About Russia’s Espionage in Real Time
Rice’s memo concerns January 5, 2017, when President Obama met with national security officials regarding their assessment of Russia’s interference in the election. Of course, Russia had not actually interfered in the election; it interfered in the campaign by publicizing stolen emails and peddling propaganda, most of which was too ridiculous to influence anyone (except, I suppose, the rare voter who decided based on the depiction of Hillary, in Satan’s horns and boxing gloves, squaring off against Jesus). No ballots or voting processes were manipulated.
But let’s not quibble over a good story, which was then being composed. The president had ordered this intelligence assessment to be rushed to completion while he was still in office. By the time of the January 5 Oval Office confab, Obama had already started taking theatrical action based on it. So, let’s pause over the president’s sudden, post-election decision to treat Russia’s provocation as if it were a national security emergency, if not an act of war.
In reality, Obama and U.S. intelligence agencies had been intimately aware of the Kremlin’s cyber operations while they were taking place during the campaign. Indeed, on August 4, 2016, CIA Director John Brennan cawed about it to his Russian counterpart, FSB chief Alexander Bortnikov. Subsequently, in early September 2016, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in China, Obama himself delivered directly to Putin what we’re assured was a stern warning to cease and desist. The administration knew exactly what Russia did, in real time and well in advance of the election. In fact, on October 6, Obama’s Office of the National Intelligence Director (James Clapper) and Department of Homeland Security (under Secretary Jeh Johnson) issued a joint statement expressing “confiden[ce] that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” such as the DNC.
Yet, the president refrained from any meaningful response. Not only that. When White House National Security Council staffers urged that Moscow be hit with countermeasures that had actual teeth, rather than stern warnings, Rice issued a stand-down order. In the meantime, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton, just days before the election, lambasted candidate Trump for daring to question the integrity and legitimacy of the election. At that moment, everything of importance we now know about Russia’s cyber hijinks was already known to the incumbent Democratic administration.
The chief executive, who had the power to expose and punish Putin’s perfidy, knew all about it and did nothing. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of the election, before a transparently political pivot to the collusion narrative, Obama himself conceded that Russia makes a habit of interfering in American elections, and that its mischief-making is always futile. He acknowledged that 2016 had been no different, neither the nuisance nor its futility.
The Kremlin’s “manipulations were not particularly sophisticated,” he opined. “This was not some elaborate, complicated espionage scheme.” Instead, the Russians had merely “hacked into some Democratic party emails that contained pretty routine stuff” – sure, any of us would find that “embarrassing or uncomfortable” if it were our own emails, but “there was not anything particularly illegal or controversial about” the emails at issue here.
The blunt fact is that the officials best informed about Russia’s provocation fully understood that it was par for a course played many times over. In the greater scheme of things, it was trivial – as campaign spending and messaging, it was a drop in the ocean. And Democrats, who had spent the entire campaign insisting that Hillary Clinton’s own emails were immaterial to voters, were in no position to claim that the exposure of forgettable emails written by nondescript Democrats was even relevant, much less decisive.
No one – not Obama, not Clinton, not Putin, and probably not Trump himself – believed Trump was going to win the election. Because Clinton was the certain victor, Democrats made a calculated decision that nothing said or done would even hint that her coronation reflected anything other than the will of the people. Since Russia’s shenanigans had no effect on the election, there would be no retaliation. No escalation would prevent the new Clinton administration from persisting in the Obama legacy of risibly weak responses to Russian aggression. No action would be taken that might inhibit Clinton from entering deals with Putin – maybe more nuclear arms treaties like Obama’s New Start debacle, the kind that get progressives swooning while Moscow builds up its arsenal (and we cut ours).
Ten Weeks ... and a Choice to Make
Once Clinton lost, however, all bets were off. Now, in a mere ten weeks, President Trump would take charge of the government’s intelligence agencies and files.
What did that mean? In just ten weeks, the new president would be positioned to discover that the Obama administration had exploited its foreign counterintelligence powers to spy on the opposition party’s presidential campaign. Donald Trump would learn of the embarrassment, now being kept under wraps, that rampant abuses of surveillance authorities during Obama’s tenure, and energetic efforts to conceal them, had prompted the FISC, during a secret October 2016 hearing, to scald the intelligence agencies’ “institutional lack of candor.”
It would become apparent to Trump that the Obama administration had been telling the FISC that his campaign was traitorously complicit in Russia’s hacking of Democratic email accounts. Trump would be poised to find out that the FBI, in coordination with the CIA, the State Department, and friendly foreign governments, had for months been running informants at Trump campaign advisers, aggressively asking them loaded questions designed implicate the campaign in Russia’s hacking operations. He would hear of the “unmasking” of Trump associates in intelligence reporting so that Obama officials, such as Rice and Brennan, could monitor them. It would become clear to Trump that these steps were taken in stealth, withheld even from the Gang of Eight that was created precisely to prevent such audacious executive action in the absence of high-level congressional oversight.
Most significantly, Trump would grasp that he, as the Republican nominee and now the president, was the target of the investigation. Not the campaign; Trump himself.
It would inevitably dawn on the new president that, had he not been the target, Obama national-security officials would have given him or one of his surrogates with strong national security credentials (Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Jeff Sessions, etc.) a defensive briefing to warn that the campaign might be infiltrated by agents of Russia. As Obama Attorney General Loretta Lynch later admitted to congressional investigators, giving such a briefing “is not an uncommon thing to do ... in intelligence matters.” But instead, Obama officials made a conscious decision to use against their political opposition the counterintelligence powers entrusted in them for the protection of national security against foreign threats. That is, although Obama officials fully realized that providing a defensive debriefing to the campaign would be the standard practice to address concerns about some campaign participants (such as Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos), they rejected that option and made a willful decision to investigate the campaign as a corrupt enterprise. Donald Trump’s corrupt enterprise.
Given the scandalous modern American legacy of domestic political spying, the Obama administration had to know this was an extremely controversial choice to make. The choice made perfect sense, though, if it was the candidate himself, not just sundry campaign hangers-on, whom intelligence agents suspected of being a foreign agent. What defensive brief could possibly eradicate a rival foreign power’s infiltration of the Trump campaign if the Obama administration had made up its mind that Trump himself was the problem? The Trump campaign wasn’t going to remove Trump.
Donald Trump is nothing if not shrewd. He would realize all of this. Furthermore, Trump would know that Obama’s Justice Department and the FBI largely based their suspicions – suspicions they took to a secret federal court – on unverified, multiple-hearsay rumor-mongering generated by the Clinton campaign. Simultaneously, it would be clear to Trump, these same officials were burying a criminal case against Clinton, one supported by such daunting evidence of guilt that the plain language of criminal statutes had to be distorted to avoid enforcing them.
Ten weeks. That is when Trump would inherit the keys to the intelligence kingdom. President Obama and his top advisers thus had a stark choice.
They could sit back passively and hope Trump would be content with the power and trappings of the nation’s highest office, willing to excuse his opponents’ excesses after a heated campaign, quietly convinced to look forward rather than backward. There were even some indications he could be reasoned with: In the days following his election victory, Trump took pains to say he was not actually hot to have Hillary Clinton prosecuted for mishandling classified information and destroying government records – even though he’d spent the campaign whipping up his base’s “lock her up” fervor. Maybe Trump would see the sense in keeping a top-secret shroud over the Russia investigation’s targeting of the Trump campaign. Maybe the Obama administration should refrain from any anticipatory damage control.
Or instead, Obama officials could assume that Trump would be Trump, that he’d be enraged, and that he’d be too mercurial to keep the investigation concealed, even if disclosure was not necessarily in his interests (after all, because of the FBI’s excellent reputation, many Americans would believe that if there was smoke, there must have been fire – that maybe Trump really was a Putin stooge). The current administration had to figure that the new president, who reveled in his “punch back twice as hard” image, would be inclined to reveal everything and then go on offense. Consequently, if the investigation was going to be disclosed anyway, Obama officials had to figure it would be better for them if they orchestrated the disclosure themselves, rather than leaving it to Trump.
That way, instead of a political liability, the investigation would be a political weapon – an insurance policy.
Through a campaign of government action and stealthy intelligence leaks, the public could be convinced that there truly was a sinister Trump–Russia conspiracy. The media could be depended on to play along. As the investigation of the Trump campaign was gradually revealed, the public might be increasingly convinced that Obama officials had simply done what duty demanded. The president and his minions could use their waning days of control over the levers of power to cement the Trump – Russia collusion narrative into conventional wisdom. If done methodically enough, the new president and his staff, Washington novices, might even be intimidated into allowing the investigation to continue – for fear of being seen as obstructing it.
For Obama officials, the latter course was the only choice. You want to say it’s the choice that came naturally to an administration run by an Alinskyite progressive schooled in the extortionate use of power, process, and the press against political foes? I’m in no position to say you’re wrong. But there was more to it than that. There was the adamantine conviction of Obama officials that Trump was deeply corrupt.
The portrayal of Trump and his minions as compromised by the Kremlin was more than just political posturing. For many Obama officials, it was an article of faith. Never forget: In making the Obama administration’s application for a FISA surveillance warrant, the FBI represented to the FISC that Trump’s campaign was likely complicit in Russia’s cyberespionage. This representation continued to be made through the first nine months of Trump’s presidency. Of course, when Obama officials first posited this allegation, they never expected it to see the light of day. Still, no such asseveration would have been made unless some of these officials believed it in their bones. That they could not prove it was seen, at the time, as a temporary inconvenience that time would overcome.
They believed it. In their obdurate disdain for Trump – not disdain for a mere political adversary but for a man they’d internalized as an irredeemable villain, a white supremacist nationalist bent on disrupting social progress and the international community – they abandoned the cool professional’s detached objectivity. They convinced themselves that Christopher Steele was a reliable British intelligence pro, rather than a well-paid partisan hack. They were confident that Steele’s claim of an elaborate Trump – Russia conspiracy must be true . . . they just hadn’t been able to corroborate it yet. Surely that would happen any day now . . . if they could just keep the investigation alive.
Just as in the Clinton’s email scandal, the key decision – this time to project a case against Trump rather than bury a case against Clinton – traces directly back to President Obama.