For the last seven years, conventional wisdom has told us a singular story about the FBI and Hillary Clinton. That story had a clear headline: the FBI was out to get her.
Let’s go back to 2016, when the FBI was investigating both major presidential candidates in the run-up to the election.
At the time, the bureau was looking into Donald Trump’s campaign’s ties to Russia as well as Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
In July of 2016, FBI Director James Comey announced that no charges would be brought against the Democratic nominee. Then, eleven days before the election, he said that in light of new information having surfaced, the Clinton investigation had been reopened. Finally, on November 6, two days before Election Day, Comey announced that the matter was closed—again.
To this day, Democrats remain convinced that Comey’s second to last announcement—which, we can all agree, was ham-handed—cast a pall over the campaign, tipping the scales in favor of the Republican nominee.
It’s a neat story. But it’s only half of it.
That’s the big reveal in Special Counsel John Durham’s 306-page Report on Matters Related to Intelligence Activities and Investigations Arising Out of the 2016 Presidential Campaigns, which came out late last week.
If the Durham report shows anything, it is that the FBI leadership bent over backward to protect Clinton’s campaign while launching a full investigation into Trump’s campaign on the thinnest of pretexts. In other words, the FBI was not really the Clinton campaign’s persecutor, as so many insisted over the past few years, as much as its protector.
“The speed and manner in which the FBI opened and investigated Crossfire Hurricane during the presidential election season based on raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence,” the Durham report observes, referring to the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign, “reflected a noticeable departure from how it approached prior matters involving possible attempted foreign election interference plans aimed at the Clinton campaign.”
Consider the bureau’s approach to Clinton.
The Durham report notes that, in early 2016, a confidential FBI source arranged for a sizable donation to Clinton’s campaign from a foreign country. Instead of taking steps to learn what might be in the works, the bureau eventually instructed the source to stay away from the Clinton campaign. Then, it offered Clinton’s lawyers what is known as a defensive briefing, so Clinton was aware of the foreign country’s efforts to help her.
The double standard is unmistakable: Trump was never offered a defensive briefing when the FBI began probing his campaign, whereas the bureau gave Clinton not one but two such briefings between 2014 and 2016.
On a separate occasion, the report points out, FBI agents strongly suspected another foreign government of planning to contribute to Clinton’s campaign—hoping to curry favor with the person they expected would be the next American president. But when the FBI field office requested sign-off on a surveillance warrant application for a non-U.S. citizen suspected of having been in contact with Clinton, headquarters demurred. “They were pretty ‘tippy-toeing’ around HRC because there was a chance she would be the next President,” an FBI official told Durham.
Possibly the most egregious example of special treatment was the FBI’s probe of the Clinton Foundation, a charitable organization that raised money from foreign governments—even when Hillary Clinton was a senator and, later, secretary of state. By the beginning of 2016, three FBI field offices were investigating the Clinton Foundation.
Eventually, headquarters got involved. At a meeting chaired by Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, at the end of February of that year, he initially urged the three field offices to close the investigations. Only later, according to the Durham report, did he back down—partially. The G-men were instructed that any “overt investigative steps” would require sign-off from McCabe. Durham quotes one FBI agent expressing frustration on the straitjacket placed on his investigation.
Then, in May of 2016, a Comey aide called the New York field office to ask that the investigation cease and desist, citing an “undisclosed counterintelligence concern,” according to the report. Eventually, the three investigations were consolidated in New York, but U.S. attorneys declined to issue any subpoenas—effectively ending the probe before the 2016 election.
Then there was the bureau’s approach to Trump.
This point is best illustrated in the launch of Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign. The probe was opened in response to a memo from the government of Australia to the U.S. embassy in London. It was based on two casual meetings that involved a Trump campaign volunteer, George Papadopoulos. The first meeting was with Australian diplomats and the second was with the country’s former foreign minister, Alexander Downer.
That memo was deliberately vague. It said that Papadopoulos “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).” This is hardly a smoking gun. And yet, this memo alone was the sole justification the FBI used to open a full investigation of a major presidential candidate during an election year.
Consider that the bureau did not even bother to interview the Australian diplomats before launching the probe. Nor did the bureau check with other intelligence agencies, the State Department, or its own analysts to find out if there was any other information to suggest Trump or his campaign had been in contact with senior Russian officials. As it turns out, not a single U.S. government agency or bureau had any evidence corroborating the theory that Trump and his campaign were colluding with Russia, according to the Durham report.
Stranger still, the FBI opened a “full investigation” instead of a “preliminary” one or an even less intrusive “assessment.” These may sound like insignificant, technical distinctions. They’re not. A full investigation gives the bureau more resources and options to use intrusive investigative techniques, such as deploying informants to record conversations with suspects. Again, this stands in contrast with the restrictions that FBI leaders placed on investigations into Clinton and her campaign.
Finally, the bureau more than once relied on information generated by Clinton’s own campaign. Case in point: its spy warrant on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. To obtain the warrant, the Justice Department’s inspector general earlier disclosed, the bureau relied on the infamous Clinton campaign-financed Steele dossier—named after former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele—alleging Trump’s campaign was engaged in a “well developed conspiracy” with Russia to cheat in the 2016 election.
After BuzzFeed, in January 2017, first published the Steele dossier, many journalists rushed to portray it as the work of a world-class spy. It turned out to be junk. The alleged intelligence was collected not by Steele but by a Russian national, Igor Danchenko.
At first, the bureau did not even try to corroborate the dossier. It passed on the dossier’s claims to a secret federal court overseeing government requests for surveillance warrants—without bothering to check their veracity. In late January 2017, shortly after BuzzFeed published the dossier, the bureau finally interviewed Danchenko, who walked away from its most explosive claims over the course of several months.
Nonetheless, the bureau decided to pay Mr. Danchenko as a confidential source, even though Durham discovered that Danchenko was himself the target of an unresolved 2010 FBI investigation for being a Russian agent. The FBI dropped that investigation after it wrongly concluded that Danchenko had moved from the U.S. to Russia. He hadn’t. In any event, when FBI agents subsequently interviewed Danchenko in connection with the Steele dossier, they did not bother to resolve the earlier investigation into whether Danchenko was a Russian spy.
To say the least, this was sloppy tradecraft. The Durham report notes that “it appears the FBI never gave appropriate consideration to the possibility that the intelligence Danchenko was providing to Steele—which, again, according to Danchenko himself, made up a significant majority of the information in the Steele Dossier reports—was, in whole or in part, Russian disinformation.” That is an extraordinary indictment. Two of our country’s leading opponents of so-called disinformation—the FBI and the Democratic Party—helped inject what may have been Russian disinformation into the American political discourse.
All of this is a black eye for the FBI. The bureau is supposed to be above politics. Its leaders are supposed to show fidelity to the law and act without partisan favor. Comey, McCabe, and their deputies were guilty of a confirmation bias so severe it led them to embrace partisan falsehoods to get their man, and the republic is still paying the price for their failures. To this day, millions of loyal MSNBC viewers and most Democrats in Congress still act like it’s 2017, and Donald Trump is a Kremlin agent.
It was a hoax six years ago. It’s a farce today.
Eli Lake is a columnist at the New York Sun. Follow him on Twitter at @EliLake.