By Paul Sperry, RealClearInvestigations
December 12, 2019; 5:46 PM Eastern
The FBI and Special Counsel Robert Mueller repeatedly kept alive a damning narrative that investigators knew to be false: namely, that a junior Trump campaign aide as a favor to the Kremlin had “gutted” an anti-Russia and pro-Ukraine plank in the Republican Party platform at the GOP’s 2016 convention.
Federal authorities used this claim to help secure spy warrants on the aide in question, Carter Page, suggesting to the court that he was “an agent of Russia” – even though investigators knew that Page was working for U.S., not Russian, intelligence, and that they had learned from witnesses, emails and other evidence that Page had no role in drafting the Ukraine platform plank.
The revelation is buried in the Justice Department watchdog’s just-released report on FISA surveillance abuses. RealClearInvestigations fleshed out this unreported story with footnotes from the Mueller report and exclusive interviews with Trump campaign officials who worked on the convention platform.
Of all the Trump-Russia rumors, insinuations and falsehoods – from secret payments for shadowy hackers, to videotaped prostitutes with active bladders, to a clandestine rendezvous with Kremlin figures in Prague – the supposedly pro-Russia Ukraine platform alteration stands out. It seemed to offer early, public, concrete evidence of an actual bending of prospective U.S. policy to suit Moscow. The false narrative is also significant because it was initially pushed not by Democrats, but by associates of Republican Sen. John McCain and other so-called Never Trumpers. As a bipartisan red flag, it helped build momentum around a narrative of Trump treachery with, then as now, Ukraine playing a central role. It also shows how the Russia and Ukraine controversies were linked from the beginning by Trump’s foes.
This episode loomed so large that the first person Mueller’s team interviewed after taking over the Russia investigation in May 2017 was Rachel Hoff, who was serving as McCain’s policy adviser on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Like her boss, Hoff was no fan of President Trump. Agents sought to confirm with her reports that the Trump campaign had “gutted” the GOP’s platform plank on Ukraine to favor Russia during the party's convention in Cleveland in early July 2016.
As a disgruntled convention delegate, Hoff got the story started by putting Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin in touch with another Never Trump delegate, Diana Denman, who had lost her bid to amend the GOP plank to call for providing “lethal” weapons to Ukraine to help fend off Russian incursions, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. Instead, the platform called for “appropriate assistance to the armed forces of Ukraine.”
Denman was overruled because heavily arming Ukraine was out of step with the GOP consensus at the time – to say nothing of the Obama administration’s policy, which refused to arm the Ukrainians. And it was at odds with Trump’s stated position, which sought to avoid military escalation in the region, while encouraging the European Union to take a larger peacekeeping role.
On July 18, 2016, the Post ran Rogin’s sensational story under the misleading headline, “Trump Campaign Guts GOP’s Anti-Russia Stance on Ukraine.” Pushing the narrative that Trump was doing the Kremlin’s bidding, it quoted Hoff warning that Trump “would be dangerous for America and the world.” The story left out the key part of the final Trump-approved plank pledging aid “to the armed forces of Ukraine.” Reached by phone, Rogin declined comment.
This story was quickly amplified in the Steele dossier, the series of now-debunked opposition research memos alleging Trump-Russia collusion. Compiled by ex-British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for the Clinton campaign, those memos became a foundation for the FBI and Mueller probes even though – as this week’s IG report established – bureau agents knew that the material in them included demonstrably false assertions and exaggerated gossip dismissed as nonsense by Steele’s own purported source.
Steele also embellished the GOP convention story by claiming that Carter Page had played a key role in drafting the Ukraine plank as part of a commitment he had allegedly made to his Kremlin handlers "to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue.”
None of this was true. And the FBI — and Mueller — knew it, the Justice inspector general reveals in his report.
Still, the FBI presented the Steele dossier's smear, cataloged as “Steele Report 95,” as key evidence in all four of its warrant applications to obtain wiretaps to eavesdrop on Page, according to the IG report.
To keep renewing the spy warrants, the FBI had to produce fresh evidence for FISA judges to support suspicions Page was “an agent of Russia.” Just a few weeks before the FISA warrant was set to expire in June 2017, Mueller had his investigators interview Hoff, as his first witness, followed by Denman, hoping they could provide fresh details to keep building an espionage case against Page and the Trump campaign.
But Mueller struck out.
According to agents’ notes documenting their June 2017 interview, as revealed in the IG report, Denham told the FBI that Page was not involved in the drafting of the Ukraine plank. But Mueller’s team did not update its fourth and final FISA warrant application on Page with this exculpatory information. Instead, it recited the same baseless claim that he had shaped the Ukraine policy with guidance from Russia. And the court renewed the warrant that June to electronically monitor Page, allowing the government to continue vacuuming up all of his emails, phone calls, text messages and other communications for another 90 days.
“Although the FBI did not develop any information that Carter Page was involved in the Republican Platform Committee’s change, the FBI did not alter its assessment of Page’s involvement in the FISA applications,” Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted in his 476-page report released Monday.
Added Horowitz: “We found that, other than this information from Report 95 [of the Steele dossier], the FBI’s investigation did not reveal any information to demonstrate that Page had any involvement with the Republican Platform Committee.” Yet, “all four FISA applications relied upon information in the Steele reporting” alleging Page’s role in drafting the Republican plank on Ukraine and Russia.
A former U.S. Navy lieutenant, Page was never charged with espionage or any crime. He told RealClearInvestigations that he has received “numerous death threats that directly resulted from the false allegations” that he was a traitor.
The FBI and Mueller failed to correct the record about Page in their FISA warrant applications even after they identified the Trump campaign officials who actually had a hand in influencing the GOP plank, J.D. Gordon and Matt Miller. A July 14, 2016, email from Gordon confirmed what Page had personally told the FBI in an interview — that he had not taken part in the decision. The FBI knew about the email since at least March 2017, when agents sat down with Page. (Gordon and Page were chatting by email about the convention, and it’s clear from Page’s responses he had no idea what Gordon had done in the Ukraine-Russia platform drafting sessions. IG Horowitz published the relevant excerpt in his report and noted the FBI had the email in its possession.)
Still, Horowitz found, “The FBI never altered the assessment.”
Horowitz further concluded that the FBI should not have included the dossier’s rumor even in its original October 2016 application for a FISA warrant targeting Page, let alone its three renewals, because a confidential source the FBI assigned to spy on Page at the time found no basis for it. In the IG report, Horowitz noted that during that same month of October 2016, the FBI informant met with Page and tape-recorded him denying he was involved in the drafting of the Ukraine plank. Page told the informant, Stefan Halper, that he “stayed clear of that.”
Horowitz’s investigators established that the informant’s recorded statements were sent to the FBI agent assigned at the time to Page’s case, and were copied to a supporting team of other agents, supervisors and analysts. Yet the FBI also withheld that critical exculpatory evidence from the FISA court in the initial application for a warrant on Page (and then continued to deny the court the information in subsequent requests to monitor Page).
The lead case agent, unnamed in the report, told investigators the FBI was operating on a “belief” that Page was involved in the Ukraine and Russia platform, and that he and the FISA team were “hoping to find evidence of that” from the wiretaps. Despite all the snooping on Page, the FBI never collected the hoped-for proof.
The lead supervisor, also unidentified, told investigators “he did not recall why Page’s denial was not included."
Horowitz reports that the exculpatory documents were also sent to a Justice Department attorney before the warrant was renewed for the first time in January 2017, “[y]et, the information remained unchanged in the renewal applications.”
Added Horowitz: “The attorney told us that he did not recall the circumstances surrounding this, but he acknowledged that he should have updated the descriptions in the renewal applications to include Page’s denials.”
The FBI also failed to inform surveillance court judges that Page was an “operational contact” for the CIA for several years, according to the Horowitz report. In 2013, Page also volunteered as a cooperating witness in an FBI espionage case, and helped put away a real Russian agent in 2016. This was additional exculpatory evidence the FBI kept from the FISA court, as RealClearInvestigations first reported last year.
Peter Strzok, then the FBI’s top counterintelligence official, rode herd on the Page wiretap requests and reported back to FBI attorney Lisa Page (no relation to Carter), who in turn, updated then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe.
Text messages previously uncovered by Horowitz and shared with Mueller revealed that Strzok and Page, who were having an affair, rooted for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign and held Trump in complete contempt. In one exchange, they discussed the need to “stop” Trump from winning the election. And the two of them had also huddled with McCabe in his office to devise an “insurance policy” in the “unlikely event" Trump ended up winning.
The inspector general’s report points out that it was McCabe who urged investigators to look at the Clinton-funded dossier. The previous year, his Democratic politician wife, Jill, received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations arranged by Clinton ally and Virginia’s governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe.
Strzok remained central to the investigation well into 2017 – until Mueller was forced to kick him off his team when the anti-Trump bias was revealed. The bureau fired him in 2018, the same year Lisa Page resigned from the FBI. In spite of their anti-Trump political bias, Horowitz said he found “no evidence” their bias influenced their investigative decisions.
Lawyers for Strzok and McCabe did not respond to requests for comment. The FBI and a spokesman for Mueller declined comment.
Putting Carter Page under surveillance starting in October 2016 effectively let the FBI spy on the Trump campaign since its beginnings, because it allowed the bureau to scoop up all of Page’s prior communications. Former Trump officials who have reviewed Horowitz’s new findings confirmed their view that the bureau was trying to make it look like Page and the Trump campaign were doing something sinister to help Russia.
“Page actually had no role in the platform, whatsoever,” Gordon, the Trump campaign’s director of national security, told RCI. “Failing to include the exculpatory information in the FISA application is horrifying."
While it’s true that Trump sought better relations with Russia, Gordon said, there was nothing nefarious about the drafting of the Ukraine platform. He said the FBI simply assumed it was watered down as a favor to Russia based on a false narrative driven by liberal media outlets like the Post and Never Trumpers such as Rachel Hoff. He said the FBI, under the direction of McCabe, Mueller and former FBI Director James Comey, also wanted to believe the worst about Trump, whom they simply did not like.
Gordon noted that, except for the two Never Trump delegates, nobody in the platform drafting sessions raised a fuss about the Ukraine plank — not even the press.
“The media was present in the room, yet not one person wrote about the Ukraine issue,” he said — until, that is, the Never Trumpers went to the Washington Post that July and helped launch the Trump-Russia “collusion” myth.
Moreover, the narrative was untrue even on its own terms – without the spurious inclusion of Carter Page. Internal platform committee documents show the Ukraine plank could not have been weakened as claimed, because the “lethal” weapons language was never part of the GOP platform in the first place. The final language actually strengthened the platform by pledging direct assistance not just to the country of Ukraine, but to its military in its struggle against Russian-backed forces.
Far from “gutting” assistance, the Trump administration approved the transfer of tank-busting Javelin missiles to Kiev — something the Obama administration refused to do. More than 200 of those weapons have been sold to Ukraine since Trump took office. And the sale and delivery of Javelins never stopped even during this year's temporary suspension of military aid to Ukraine that is now the subject of the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings.
The final draft of the Ukraine plank also branded Russia a menace, and pledged to stand against “any territorial change imposed by force in Ukraine.” Yet Mueller and his prosecuting staff of mostly Democratic donors still suspected collusion, and they dispatched FBI agents to grill Gordon about the drafting of the platform three times between 2017 and 2019. They also got a grand jury to subpoena his phone records.
In the end, the Mueller report found no Russian influence in the platform.
But the false narrative – that the Ukraine plank stood as early proof of the “extensive conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and Moscow that Steele alleged in his now-debunked dossier – has persisted.
Earlier this year, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler demanded Gordon provide additional documents, and he has complied. Nadler is now marking up articles of impeachment against Trump over a request he lodged with Ukraine’s new president this summer to help investigate the former Clinton-friendly regime’s attempts to “sabotage" Trump's election bid in 2016. Trump also asked Kiev to look into possible corruption involving former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter and a Ukrainian energy oligarch.
Meanwhile, Nadler's impeachment partner, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, continues to insist that the Trump team “softened" the GOP platform to accommodate “Putin’s invasion of Ukraine."
A retired Navy commander and former Pentagon spokesman, Gordon said he has run up a five-figure legal bill defending against what he calls a “hoax” perpetrated by Never Trumpers, the media, Comey, Mueller, and now congressional Democrats.
"In the vicious frenzy to destroy President Trump and his associates at all costs, they attempted to turn a routine foreign policy debate in conjunction with the four-year renewal of the GOP platform into a crime scene,” Gordon said in an interview with RCI.
“Incredibly,” he added, "the GOP platform change hoax [later] became the very first order of business in Mueller's nearly two-year investigation."