Did FBI try to take down Trump? Three questions about DOJ’s report

Why We Wrote This

President Trump has alleged for years that the FBI’s investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia was politically motivated. The 434-page report examines the origins of the probe – and recommends reforms.

Faith Ninivaggi/Reuters
FBI Director Christopher Wray leaves the stage after speaking at the 2018 Boston Conference on Cyber Security at Boston College in Boston, Mass., March 7, 2018.

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More than three years after the FBI launched a covert investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, the Department of Justice has some answers.

At issue is whether the FBI adhered to its own policies and protocols, and whether those policies and protocols are adequate. Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that, according to the FBI’s threshold, a friendly government’s firsthand account of possible collusion was sufficient to predicate the investigation.

But the report also identifies a pattern of errors and omissions, some in contravention of the FBI’s own policies, that led top decision-makers to act based on uncorroborated, inaccurate, or incomplete information.

Asked directly in an interview with ABC News whether he believes the FBI improperly targeted the Trump campaign, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “I do not.”

President Donald Trump, who appointed Mr. Wray, blasted him on Twitter this morning: “I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me.”

Here are answers to three questions about the report.

More than three years after the FBI launched a covert investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, the Department of Justice has some answers.

The inspector general’s 434-page report, which relies on more than 1 million documents and upwards of 170 interviews with over 100 witnesses, covers a period between July 2016 and June 2017. During this period, the FBI investigated four Trump campaign associates: Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos.

Two main issues are examined: whether the FBI adhered to its own policies and protocols, and whether those policies and protocols are sufficient, particularly in the case of such a sensitive investigation involving a presidential candidate. In particular, the report examines the process for obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that, according to the FBI’s low threshold, a friendly government’s firsthand account of possible collusion was sufficient to predicate the initial investigation. “This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring.”

However, the report also identifies a pattern of errors and omissions, some in contravention of the FBI’s own policies, that led top decision-makers to take action based on uncorroborated, inaccurate, or incomplete information. Here are three questions about the report (all quotations below are from the Horowitz report, unless otherwise noted).

Was the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign politically motivated?

The formal documentation opening each of the four investigations in August 2016 was approved by Peter Strzok, whom a previous report found to have exchanged text messages with an FBI colleague that “included statements of hostility toward then candidate Trump and statements of support for then candidate Hillary Clinton.”

However, the inspector general found that the decisions to open the investigations were reached by consensus and included FBI decision-makers above Mr. Strzok. Mr. Horowitz concludes: “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations” or “the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page,” an adviser to the Trump campaign.

The report also determined, however, that the FBI omitted information about the political motivations of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and his reports, known as the Steele dossier, upon which the FISA warrant for Mr. Page was “substantially” based.

A month after the initial FISA order was issued in October 2016, the FBI learned that Mr. Steele was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being the U.S. President.” However, the FBI did not reveal this during three subsequent FISA warrant renewals, and relied on Mr. Steele’s largely uncorroborated allegations despite speculating and later confirming that his assignment was politically motivated.

To what extent did the FBI rely on the Steele dossier?

The FBI had considered requesting a FISA warrant for Carter Page as early as August 2016, but shelved the idea because it didn’t have enough evidence to “support probable cause that Mr. Page was an agent of a foreign power.” The day it received Mr. Steele’s election reporting on Sept. 19, 2016, they initiated the process for obtaining a FISA warrant, which was granted a month later.

A key aspect of the FISA warrant application – “Page’s alleged coordination with the Russian government on 2016 U.S. presidential election activities” – “relied entirely” on Mr. Steele’s reports without any corroborating information. The decision to do so, with a footnote indicating FBI “speculation” that Mr. Steele’s assignment was politically motivated, was approved at the highest levels, including by then-Director James Comey. By early 2017, FBI team members learned that the firm which hired Mr. Steele, Fusion GPS, had been engaged by the Democratic National Committee to investigate Mr. Trump’s Russia ties.

The first FISA warrant overstated the case for Mr. Steele’s credibility, and as more information about his work and its political origins came to light during the course of the year, this was largely omitted from subsequent FISA warrant renewals.

This information included concerns expressed by people who knew Mr. Steele or his work and raised questions about his judgment. Also, that the key source upon whom Mr. Steele’s election reporting relied – whom the FBI met and deemed credible – “rais[ed] significant questions about the reliability of allegations included in the FISA applications.” And the FBI failed “to provide accurate and complete information” about Mr. Page’s prior relationship with another U.S. intelligence agency, to whom he had disclosed his contacts with a Russian intelligence officer – contacts which the FBI cited in the original FISA warrant application.

In total, the Horowitz report identifies at least 17 “significant errors or omissions” in the applications for a FISA warrant on Mr. Page, and criticizes the FBI for “serious performance failures” regarding the FISA applications.    

Did the report uncover any systemic problems beyond this specific case?

Yes. The inspector general concluded that “given the extensive compliance failures we identified in this review, we believe that additional OIG [Office of the Inspector General] oversight work is required to assess the FBI’s compliance with Department and FBI FISA-related policies that seek to protect the civil liberties of U.S. persons.” It added: “Accordingly, we have today initiated an OIG audit that will further examine the FBI’s compliance with the Woods Procedures in FISA applications that target U.S. persons in both counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations.”

After reviewing the report, FBI Director Christopher Wray wrote that while the “investigation and related investigations of certain individuals were opened in 2016 for an authorized purpose and with adequate factual predication,” the FBI “accepts the Report’s findings and embraces the need for thoughtful, meaningful remedial action.” He is ordering more than 40 corrective steps to modify the FISA process to include more stringent verifications.

Asked directly in an interview with ABC News whether he believes the FBI improperly targeted the Trump campaign, Mr. Wray said, “I do not.”

President Trump, who appointed Mr. Wray after firing Mr. Comey, blasted him on Twitter this morning: “I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me. With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!”

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