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How the Clinton machine flooded the FBI with Trump-Russia dirt … until agents bit
When at first you don't succeed, try, try again. That's what Hillary Clinton's machine did in 2016, eventually getting the FBI to bite on an uncorroborated narrative that Donald Trump and Russia were trying to hijack the presidential election.
Between July and October 2016, Clinton-connected lawyers, emissaries and apologists made more than a half-dozen overtures to U.S. officials, each tapping a political connection to get suspect evidence into FBI counterintelligence agents' hands, according to internal documents and testimonies I reviewed and interviews I conducted.
In each situation, the overture was uninvited. And as the election drew closer, the point of contact moved higher up the FBI chain.
It was, as one of my own FBI sources called it, a "classic case of information saturation" designed to inject political opposition research into a counterintelligence machinery that should have suspected a political dirty trick was underway.
Ex-FBI general counsel James Baker, one of the more senior bureau executives to be targeted, gave a memorable answer when congressional investigators asked how attorney Michael Sussmann from the Perkins Coie law firm, which represented the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party, came to personally deliver him dirt on Trump.
"You'd have to ask him why he decided to pick me," Baker said last year in testimony that has not yet been released publicly. The FBI's top lawyer turned over a calendar notation to Congress, indicating that he met Sussmann on Sept. 19, 2016, less than two months before Election Day.
Sussmann's firm paid Glenn Simpson's Fusion GPS opposition-research firm to hire British intelligence operative Christopher Steele to create the now-infamous dossier suggesting Trump and Moscow colluded during the 2016 election.
By the time Sussmann reached out, Steele's dossier already was inside the FBI. Sussmann augmented it with cyber evidence that he claimed showed a further connection between the GOP campaign and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some was put on a thumb drive, according to Baker.
Baker's detailed account illustrates how a political connection - Sussmann and Baker knew each other - was leveraged to get anti-Trump research to FBI leaders.
"[Sussmann] told me he had cyber experts that had obtained some information that they thought they should get into the hands of the FBI," Baker testified.
"I referred this to investigators, and I believe they made a record of it," he testified, adding that he believed he reached out to Peter Strzok, the agent in charge of the Russia case, or William Priestap, the head of FBI counterintelligence.
"Please come get this," he recalled telling his colleagues. Baker acknowledged it was not the normal way for counterintelligence evidence to enter the FBI.
But when the bureau's top lawyer makes a request, things happen in the rank-and-file.
The overture was neither the first nor the last instance of Clinton-connected Trump dirt reaching the FBI.
The tsunami began when former MI6 agent Steele first approached an FBI supervisor, his handler in an earlier criminal case, in London. That approach remarkably occurred on July 5, 2016, the same day then-FBI Director James Comey announced he would not pursue criminal charges against Clinton for mishandling classified emails on a private server.
If ever there were a day for the Clinton campaign to want to change the public narrative, it was July 5, 2016.
But the bureau apparently did not initially embrace Steele's research, and no immediate action was taken, according to congressional investigators who have been briefed.
That's when the escalation began.
During a trip to Washington later that month, Steele reached out to two political contacts with the credentials to influence the FBI.
Then-senior State Department official Jonathan Winer, who worked for then-Secretary John Kerry, wrote that Steele first approached him in the summer with his Trump research and then met again with him in September. Winer consulted his boss, Assistant Secretary for Eurasia Affairs Victoria Nuland, who said she first learned of Steele's allegations in late July and urged Winer to send it to the FBI.
(If you need further intrigue, Winer worked from 2008 to 2013 for the lobbying and public relations firm APCO Worldwide, the same firm that was a contractor for both the Clinton Global Initiative and Russia's main nuclear fuel company that won big decisions from the Obama administration.)
When the State Department office that oversees Russian affairs sends something to the FBI, agents take note.
But Steele was hardly done. He reached out to his longtime Justice Department contact, Bruce Ohr, then a deputy to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Steele had breakfast July 30, 2016, with Ohr and his wife, Nellie, to discuss the Russia-Trump dirt.
(To thicken the plot, you should know that Nellie Ohr was a Russia expert working at the time for the same Fusion GPS firm that hired Steele and was hired by the Clinton campaign through Sussmann's Perkins Coie.)
Bruce Ohr immediately took Steele's dirt on July 31, 2016, to then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.
When the deputy attorney general's office contacts the FBI, things happen. And, soon, Ohr was connected to the agents running the new Russia probe.
Around the same time, Australia's ambassador to London, Alexander Downer, reached out to U.S. officials. Like so many characters in this narrative, Downer had his own connection to the Clintons: He secured a $25 million donation from Australia's government to the Clinton Foundation in the early 2000s.
Downer claims WikiLeaks's release of hacked Clinton emails that month caused him to remember a conversation in May, in a London tavern, with a Trump adviser named George Papadopoulos. So he reported it to the FBI.
The saturation campaign kept building. Sometime in September, Winer and Nuland got another version of Steele-like research suggesting Trump-Russia collusion, this time from known associates of the Clintons: Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer.
Again, it was sent to the FBI.
Sussmann's contact with Baker at the FBI occurred that same month.
By mid-September - less than a month before Election Day - there likely was agitation inside the Clinton machine: After so many overtures to the FBI, there was no visible sign of an investigation.
Simpson and Steele began briefing reporters with the hope of getting the word out. It is taboo for an FBI source such as Steele to talk to the media about his work. Yet, he took the risk, eventually getting fired for it, according to FBI documents.
Baker, the FBI's top lawyer, testified to Congress that he was clearly aware Simpson's team was shopping the media. "My understanding at the time was that Simpson was going around Washington giving this out to a lot of different people and trying to elevate its profile," Baker told congressional investigators.
Ohr, through his contacts with Steele and Simpson, also knew the media had been contacted. In handwritten notes from late 2016, Ohr quoted Simpson as saying his outreach to reporters was a "Hail Mary attempt" to sway voters.
The next and final overture came from one of Clinton's top acolytes in Congress.
Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, having been briefed by then-CIA Director John Brennan on the Russia allegations, sent a letter to the FBI in late October demanding to know if agents were pursuing the evidence. Before long, the letter leaked.
The political pressure from Team Clinton had come from many directions: State, Congress, Justice, a top Democratic lawyer.
Yet, no one in the FBI seemed to tap the brakes, noticing the obvious: Its counterintelligence apparatus was being weaponized with political opposition research from one campaign against its rival.
Leaking. Politically motivated evidence. Ex parte contacts outside the normal FBI evidence-gathering chain.
None of it seemed to raise a red flag.
That is a troubling legacy.
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.