year in review

By Ivan Pentchoukov

In the saga of “Spygate,” 2019 has shaped up to be the year the tables turned.

In the first days of January 2019, a federal judge extended the term of the grand jury in the special counsel investigation by Robert Mueller. Later that month, the FBI raided the home of veteran Republican strategist Roger Stone in front of CNN cameras.

The raid and indictment of Stone were symbolic of the spectacle that was the Russia investigation. Mueller charged Stone with process crimes; the indictment included no allegations related to the central theme of the Russia probe—whether anyone on the Trump 2016 presidential campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Meanwhile, the “Russiagate” media frenzy (sparked long before Mueller’s appointment) continued, with CNN treating the footage of the early-morning, guns-drawn raid as the late-stage operation in a takedown of a criminal empire.

Mueller’s final report would state that there was no evidence that any American colluded with Russia in the 2016 elections.

But the tables have turned as the year draws to a close.

Even before Mueller published his report on President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Barr sent shockwaves through the establishment by stating plainly that he believed spying did occur on the Trump campaign. As the year draws to a close, the Justice Department (DOJ) watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, has confirmed the long-running claims of significant errors in the applications to surveil Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

In 2020, the foundation laid by these developments will be a useful reference as U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation of the malfeasance continues. While not an exhaustive list, the 20 moments below are representative of the reversal and are helpful for viewing the events in the year ahead.

20. Senate Intelligence Committee Finds No Evidence of Trump–Russia Collusion

While the House Intelligence Committee had come to the same conclusion a year earlier, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s findings in February were significant because the committee has a track record for bipartisanship. At the time, both Democratic and Republican sources on the committee confirmed that the investigation didn’t turn up any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

19. Rosenstein Removed McCabe From Russia Probe After Appointing Mueller

In mid-February, we learned that in May 2017, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had removed then-FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe from the Russia investigation shortly after appointing special counsel Robert Mueller to lead the probe. The revelation added to an emerging picture of the events surrounding Mueller’s appointment. The DOJ statement from which the news originated appeared to imply that Mueller’s appointment had something to do with actions taken by McCabe.

18. Trump Innocent of Collusion and Obstruction, DOJ Concludes

In late March, Attorney General William Barr released a summary of conclusions based on Mueller’s report. The special counsel concluded the investigation, finding no evidence that Trump or anyone on Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. While Mueller didn’t make a call on whether Trump obstructed justice, Barr and Rosenstein reviewed the report and found insufficient evidence to bring charges.

17. Spying on Trump Campaign Did Occur, Barr Says

In testimony before Congress in early April, Barr explicitly stated that the Trump campaign was spied on. The affirmation from the attorney general was significant because the mainstream media had long labeled claims of spying on the campaign as conspiracy theories. With the nation’s top attorney on the record, the media had to grapple with explaining Barr’s view to the American people.

16. Mueller Report Shatters Credibility of Steele Dossier

In addition to revealing, in great detail, the lack of evidence for the allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the final report by the special counsel hammered one of the final nails in the credibility of the Steele dossier. The voluminous report included no evidence to support any of the claims damaging to Trump that were featured in the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, using second- and third-hand sources with ties to the Kremlin. The Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee ultimately funded the dossier, which the FBI used to secure a spy warrant on Trump campaign associate Carter Page.

15. New York Times Identifies Second Spy Who Targeted Trump Campaign

In early May, The New York Times revealed the activities of a second spy tasked by the government to probe the Trump campaign.

14. Barr Appoints Durham to Investigate Spying on Trump Campaign

In mid-May, Barr appointed Durham to investigate the origins of the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. His selection stood out because Durham previously exposed a vast conspiracy between bureau agents and mobsters that led to reforms to the FBI’s Confidential Human Source Program.

13. Transcript in Mueller Report Selectively Edited to Cast Suspicion on Trump

Although a small event in the larger Spygate story, the revelation that even a transcript cited in the Mueller report was edited to cast suspicion on Trump was representative of the report and the special counsel’s work as a whole. The defense team representing former Trump national security adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn forced the release of the transcript, which showed that the writers of the Mueller report skipped over portions of a phone call, which, if included, would have made the recording seem harmless.

12. Steele Agrees to Questioning by US Officials

By June, Steele, the man behind the dossier used by the FBI, had already agreed to speak to U.S. authorities. Steele’s testimony is crucial because he was at the center of a nexus of U.S officials, media, and politicians who gave the dossier validity by spreading its unverified claims throughout the government and to the public.

11. Spygate Probe Expands to Include Foreign Intelligence Agencies

Not long after the leak about Steele’s cooperation with U.S. authorities, the DOJ went on the record as saying that the Spygate inquiry had expanded to foreign intelligence agencies.

10. Mueller Silent as Republicans Question Conflicts, Omissions in Russia Probe

Mueller’s testimony was to be a watershed moment for those who, for years, had pushed the Russia-collusion narrative. The performance in late July instead fell flat as Mueller remained strictly within the bounds of the report, which concluded that no evidence of collusion was found. The special counsel also was mum about why he appeared to have spent no time looking into instances of malfeasance in the FBI investigation that he took over in May 2017.

9. DOJ Official’s Wife Funneled Clinton-Funded Dossier on Manafort to FBI

Much was known about Nellie Ohr, the wife of senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, by August. But FBI papers released that month became the first documentary evidence that the couple served as a conduit for anti-Trump research being funneled to federal law enforcement. Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS, the same firm that employed Steele. Bruce Ohr was the link between Steele and the FBI after the bureau fired the former British intelligence officer for leaking to the media.

8. Comey Leaked Classified Info, Violated FBI Policies, Horowitz Concludes

In late August, Horowitz castigated former FBI Director James Comey for setting a “dangerous example” by leaking government documents in violation of bureau policies. The memos Comey leaked triggered the appointment of the special counsel. Horowitz referred a classified leak for criminal prosecution, although the DOJ declined to take up the case.

7. McCabe Opened Formal Investigation of Trump a Day Before Mueller’s Appointment, Memo Reveals

The release of a McCabe memo in late September added further evidence to the theory that the firing of Comey wasn’t the only reason for the appointment of a special counsel. The memo showed that McCabe had opened an investigation of President Donald Trump on May 16, 2017. A day later, Rosenstein appointed Mueller and removed McCabe from any participation in the Russia investigation.

6. Justice Department to Question Brennan in Spygate Inquiry

Durham’s probe had reached the top tier of the Obama administration by October. Former CIA Director John Brennan said he was to be interviewed by Durham. Brennan had previously told Congress that intelligence he received from foreign intelligence partners served as the foundation for the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign.

5. Durham’s Spygate Review Turns Into Criminal Investigation

In late October, The New York Times and The Associated Press both reported that Durham’s probe had evolved into a criminal inquiry. The evolution of the inquiry into a criminal case was the definitive turning-of-the tables moment, when the investigators of the Trump campaign became the investigated.

4. Horowitz Finds ’17 Significant Errors’ in Applications for Spying on Page

The inspector general’s nearly two-year probe found that the FBI warrant applications to surveil Page included significant errors, including several instances of the bureau withholding evidence that was detrimental to its case. The failures implicated the entire chain of command at the bureau, the report concluded.

3. Barr, Durham Issue Rare Statements Challenging Some IG Report Findings

On the heels of Horowitz’s report, Barr and Durham issued statements that took issue with some of its key findings. Barr slammed the malfeasance exposed in the report as an abuse of spy powers. Durham voiced a difference of opinion about whether the opening of the investigation of the Trump campaign was adequately predicated.

2. Top FISA Court Judge Condemns FBI for Providing ‘False Information’ to Court

A late December order from a top Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court judge followed shortly after Horowitz’s report. The judge demanded that the DOJ explain why the court should keep trusting the information provided by the FBI, a stunning challenge to the nation’s top law enforcement agency.

1. FISA Court Orders Review of Filings Handled by FBI Lawyer Who Altered Email

Days after the first order, the court released a declassified order issued earlier the same month. The court ordered the DOJ to review all FISA applications processed by an FBI lawyer who was found to have altered an email in order to conceal that Page was a source for another government agency. An FBI agent relied on the altered email to swear out a FISA renewal application for a warrant on Page. The court approved that application.

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