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London ‘bridges’ falling down: Curious origins of FBI’s Trump-Russia probe
The bridge to the Russia investigation wasn't erected in Moscow during the summer of the 2016 election.
It originated earlier, 1,700 miles away in London, where foreign figures contacted Trump campaign advisers and provided the FBI with hearsay allegations of Trump-Russia collusion, bureau documents and interviews of government insiders reveal. These contacts in spring 2016 - some from trusted intelligence sources, others from Hillary Clinton supporters - occurred well before FBI headquarters authorized an official counterintelligence investigation on July 31, 2016.
The new timeline makes one wonder: Did the FBI follow its rules governing informants?
Here's what a congressman and an intelligence expert think.
"The revelation of purposeful contact initiated by alleged confidential human sources prior to any FBI investigation is troublesome," Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), an ally of President Trump and chairman of a House subcommittee that's taking an increasingly aggressive oversight role in the scandal, told me. "This new information begs the questions: Who were the informants working for, who were they reporting to and why has the [Department of Justice] and FBI gone to such great lengths to hide these contacts?"
Kevin Brock agrees that Congress has legitimate questions. The retired FBI assistant director for intelligence supervised the rewriting of bureau rules governing sources, under then-director Robert Mueller a decade ago. Those rules forbid the FBI from directing a human source to target an American until a formally predicated investigative file is opened.
Brock sees oddities in how the Russia case began. "These types of investigations aren't normally run by assistant directors and deputy directors at headquarters," he told me. "All that happens normally in a field office, but that isn't the case here and so it becomes a red flag. Congress would have legitimate oversight interests in the conditions and timing of the targeting of a confidential human source against a U.S. person."
Other congressional and law enforcement sources express similar concerns, heightened by FBI communications suggesting political pressures around the time the probe officially opened.
"We're not going to withstand the pressure soon," FBI lawyer Lisa Page texted fellow agent Peter Strzok on Aug. 3, 2016, days after Strzok opened the official probe and returned from a trip to London. At the time, they were dealing with simultaneous challenges: the wrap-up of the Hillary Clinton email scandal and the start of the Russia-Trump probe.
Over several days, they exchanged texts that appear to express fears of political meddling or leaking by the Obama White House, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the CIA.
"This is MUCH more tasty for one of those DOJ aholes to leak," Strzok wrote as the two FBI colleagues - then having an affair, the bureau later told Congress - debated how long they could delay a CIA-FBI meeting so as to "not play into the agency's BS game."
They voiced alarm when an FBI colleague - "Liz" - suggested the Obama White House was about to hijack the investigation. "Went well, best we could have expected," Strzok texted Page after an Aug. 5, 2016, meeting. "Other than Liz quote 'the White House is running this.' " Page then texted to assure Strzok of a paper trail showing the FBI in charge: "We got emails that say otherwise."
The next day, they went into further detail about their White House concerns. "So maybe not the best national security president, but a genuinely good and decent human being," Page texted Strzok, referencing former President Obama. Strzok replied: "Yeah, I like him. Just not a fan of the weakness globally. Was thinking about what the administration will be willing to do re Russia."
In the end, the FBI secretly investigated the Trump campaign for months, engaging with other agencies on a more limited inquiry of Russian efforts to hack Clinton's campaign.
The summer 2016 text messages are bookends to a series of London contacts that pre-date the official opening of the investigation and produced the evidence the FBI used that fall to justify its court-ordered surveillance of presidential campaign figures.
According to documents and government interviews, one of the FBI's most senior counterintelligence agents visited London the first week of May 2016. Congress never got the FBI to explain that trip - but, soon after it, one of the most consequential moments of the scandal occurred: On May 10, Australian diplomat Alexander Downer met in a London bar with Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, who boasted of knowing that Russia would release dirt on Clinton.
That contact was not immediately reported to U.S. intelligence.
By early June, a second overture to a Trump campaign adviser occurred in London. In a "Dear Carter" email, a Cambridge University graduate student invited Trump campaign adviser Carter Page to attend a popular July security conference in London.
Carter Page declined to tell me the student's identify but confirmed the student studied under Stefan Halper, a Cambridge University professor who helped organize the conference and has been identified in media reports as a confidential FBI source.
Carter Page said conference organizers paid his airfare and provided him dorm lodging, and Halper spent time with him during the conference, then continued conversations with him for months.
He says Halper asked to be introduced to a high-ranking Trump campaign official, Sam Clovis. On July 16, 2016, Carter Page relayed the overture to Clovis: "Professor Stef Halper spends part of the year in Virginia where he has a home in Falls Church; he's a big fan of yours having followed you on CNN and offered a range of possibilities regarding how he and the University might be able to help."
Halper, a month later, emailed Clovis, referencing his contacts with Carter Page. "May I suggest we set a time to meet when you are next in Washington?" Halper invited on Aug. 29, 2016.
In the ensuing months, Carter Page, Clovis and Papadopoulos all became FBI focuses. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in 2017 to a misleading statement about his knowledge of facts in the Russia case. Page become the subject of four surveillance warrants, and Clovis was interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller; neither has been accused of wrongdoing.
The FBI received two more contacts about Trump-Russia allegations before formally opening its probe, both from people tied to Clinton.
A week before Carter Page left for London, the FBI was contacted by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, recently hired by the Fusion GPS research firm to find Trump-Russia dirt; Fusion was paid by the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party.
The FBI did not act on Steele's July 5, 2016, overture but, weeks later, Steele began working with agents. His now-infamous dossier became a key document justifying the surveillance warrants against Carter Page.
On July 23, 2016, shortly after WikiLeaks released the first hacked Clinton campaign emails, the Australian government contacted the State Department's deputy chief of mission in London about Downer's May 10 conversation with Papadopoulos. State forwarded the information to FBI headquarters.
A decade earlier, as Australia's foreign minister, Downer arranged a $25 million grant to the Clinton family foundation to help fight AIDS.
Downer's information moved FBI headquarters into action. Strzok was dispatched to London; a formal investigation was opened by month's end.
This timeline doesn't prove wrongdoing; these contacts could have occurred organically, or been directed legally through intelligence channels. Yet, congressional investigators and FBI insiders tell me, they raise questions about when the investigation officially started and how.
"There is no doubt the FBI kept getting 'snowflakes' in spring 2016 pointing toward Russia and Trump, and the bridges to the case ... clearly were built in London," a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the investigation said.
The question is whether those bridges, as the children's rhyme goes, come falling down when more facts surface.
John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists' misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill's executive vice president for video.