The FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign has taken a beating in the last six months. Late last year, the Justice Department’s inspector general found the bureau’s application to eavesdrop on a former aide to then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign was riddled with factual errors and omissions. The surveillance court that approved that warrant has barred the agents who submitted it from appearing before it. And last month the Justice Department dropped its case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
On Wednesday, things got worse. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that all of the irregularities and short cuts exposed in recent Justice Department reviews were kept from him when he signed the warrant applications into that campaign aide, Carter Page. Had he known about them at the time, he said, he would have never signed them.
Rosenstein even reluctantly acknowledged that his own August 2017 memo specifying the parameters of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation was deeply flawed.
By August 2017, it was clear that there was no support for “the whole concept that the campaign was colluding with the Russians,” said Senator Lindsey Graham at the hearing. “There was no there there.”
“I agree with that general statement,” Rosenstein responded.
In normal times this would be a bombshell. Rosenstein’s memo listed the alleged crimes that Mueller’s team was investigating. Rosenstein said that Mueller’s office helped him draft it. This reflects poorly on Rosenstein. As the most senior Justice Department official overseeing the Mueller investigation, his job was to check its work. He didn’t.
This also reflects poorly on the FBI. The bureau knew, for example, that the opposition research dossier on which it relied to seek the Page warrant was not reliable. By January 2017, the dossier’s primary source had told FBI agents that its most explosive claims were rumor. The former British spy who helped prepare it was fired as an FBI source after the bureau learned he had been speaking to reporters. The Justice Department’s inspector general concluded that none of the unique information in the dossier was corroborated.
It doesn’t stop there. Rosenstein also acknowledged that the FBI never shared its draft memo from January 2017 to close the counter-intelligence investigation into Flynn. That investigation was kept open after former FBI Director James Comey discovered Flynn’s calls with Russia’s ambassador at the end of 2016. While such communications would be unusual for most private citizens, the calls were routine for an incoming national security adviser.
Rosenstein also said exculpatory information collected from FBI informant approaches to the investigation’s targets were not shared with him. One such example involved Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos, who told an informant that a campaign reaching out to Russia to obtain stolen emails would be treason.
Add it all up, and it’s clear that the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged coordination with Russia was out of control. It was bad enough that Comey and former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe never shared this exculpatory information with the public as Washington became obsessed with the prospect that the president was a traitor. Comey and later McCabe also kept all this from the deputy attorney general. In both cases, it was an egregious breach of the public’s trust.