Ignatius: The Trump-Russia collusion investigation is far from a 'witch hunt'
WASHINGTON — "Does this concern you at all?" asks a tart email message from a Trump supporter who wonders why the mainstream media doesn't take a closer look at allegations that the Justice Department's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election has been tainted by bias.
It's a fair question. President Trump has made very serious charges, tweeting in December that the FBI's "reputation is in Tatters — worst in History!" And Republicans in Congress have claimed that the bureau was manipulated by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele, who supposedly pumped up allegations about Trump-Russia collusion with a "dossier" that was financed by Hillary Clinton.
What's true here and what's false? A careful look at the evidence rebuts the claim that the FBI was misused by Steele, and that the bureau's operations are in disarray. The FBI isn't perfect, and text messages show that some officials favored Clinton (just as others supported Trump). But Republicans delude themselves in claiming that the Russia probe is a partisan concoction. Trump operatives have admitted in plea agreements that they lied to the FBI about their contacts with Russia.
In a rational world, Trump would apologize for smearing America's top investigative agency, but that's not where we live right now. So let's instead listen to FBI Director Christopher Wray, who was appointed by Trump after James Comey was fired. Wray told a House committee last month:
"What I can tell you is [I see] tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe from the next terrorist attack, gang violence, child predators, spies from Russia, China and North Korea, and Iran."
A senior official of one of the nation's largest police departments agrees: "I work with the FBI every day, and I don't see tatters." Several bureau veterans offered similar assessments; Trump's comments offended even Comey's detractors in the FBI.
What about Republican claims that Steele spawned what Trump calls a "witch hunt"? It's true that Steele was hired by Fusion GPS, an investigative firm paid to dig up dirt on Trump, first by Republican opponents, then by Clinton supporters. But Steele went through well-established contacts, and the FBI got serious only after it obtained its own independent information.
Steele's main FBI connection was a senior agent he had met in 2010, when he shared information about corruption in the international soccer federation known as FIFA. Steele, who had retired from MI6 the year before, had been retained as a private investigator by the Football Association in England. His FBI contact was involved in international organized-crime investigations. The FIFA investigation helped bring Justice Department indictments in 2015 that toppled the organization's leadership.
So, when Steele contacted the FBI in mid-2016 with information about Trump and the Russians, he was already a valued source. On about July 4, 2016, he met with his FBI friend in London to share what he had gathered for a June 20 Fusion GPS report, the first chapter of his eventual dossier. In that first report, Steele's sources claimed that Russia had been "cultivating" Trump for at least five years.
Steele's information didn't get much high-level attention at first. But bells began ringing in July, after Australian intelligence told the FBI about an unusual conversation two months earlier between Australia's London ambassador and George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign-policy adviser. As The New York Times reported last month, Papadopoulos had told the Australian official that Russia had damaging political information about Hillary Clinton. The Australians decided to share this intelligence with the FBI after hacked Democratic emails were published in July.
The FBI was now very interested. Based on the Australian account, knowledgeable sources say, the bureau requested another meeting with Steele to dig deeper. That encounter took place around Oct. 1 in Rome with Steele's old FBI contact. At this meeting, the FBI official asked Steele if he had ever heard of Papadopoulos, according to an official familiar with the meeting. Steele hadn't.
What does this narrative tell us? Far from a yarn concocted by Steele, the FBI probe was driven by its own independent reporting about Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last October to lying about his Russia contacts. The bottom line: There may be something in tatters at the center of this investigation, but it isn't the FBI.
A question for Republicans in Congress who have been so quick to trash FBI officials and defend Trump: Does this concern you at all?