Former FBI lawyer defends agency's probe into Trump campaign officials

Former FBI lawyer defends agency's probe into Trump campaign officials
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Former FBI General Counsel James Baker on Friday defended the agency's investigation into Trump campaign officials' interactions with Russia, saying he wanted to “reassure” the nation that it was conducted for “legitimate reasons.”

Baker, who served as the FBI's general counsel in 2016, said that not investigating the Trump campaign's relationship with Russia would have been “malpractice” and “a dereliction of duty.” 

Baker emphasized that the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the election did not focus on the Trump campaign officials' interactions with Russia until a “trusted, reliable foreign partner” sent information to the agency that George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosInquiry into origins of Russia investigation is a scam Trump accuses Democrats of crime amid rising calls for impeachment Comey: Trump peddling 'dumb lies' MORE, a former campaign aide, was interacting with “a person who claimed to have email dirt on Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonYoung Turks founder says Democrats should avoid repeat of 2016 and pick a progressive Young Turks founder says Democrats should avoid repeat of 2016 and pick a progressive Trump highlights polls that showed Clinton beating him by double digits MORE.”

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“That was the nugget of information that got everything going,” Baker said at a Brookings Institution event.

“The important thing to remember, and it’s said sometimes, but I don’t think people focus on it enough, was the case was about Russia. We’ve written about this. It was about Russia, period, full stop. That was the focus of the investigation," he added. "When the Papadopoulos information comes across our radar screen, it’s coming across in the sense that we were always looking at Russia.”

Baker said that he would have considered not investigating the information about Papadopoulous as “a dereliction of our duty” and “highly, highly inappropriate for us not to pursue it, and pursue it aggressively.”

"There was a point in time relatively recently where I just became sick about all the BS that is said about the origins of the investigation, and I got fed up with it, and so I want to speak as openly as I possibly can," Baker said. "But I want to talk about the origin of the investigation to reassure the American people that it was done for lawful, legitimate reasons, and was apolitical throughout in my experience.” 

“There was no attempted coup,” Baker continued. “There was no way in hell that I was going to allow some coup or coup attempt to take place on my watch.”

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE concluded in a more than 400-page report that the Trump campaign had not conspired with Russia in 2016.

While testifying to Congress about the report, Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrTrump rips Democrats for contempt vote: 'Republicans will remember' Trump rips Democrats for contempt vote: 'Republicans will remember' The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE sparked controversy after saying he was reviewing the “genesis" of the intelligence collection and "conduct” of the investigators in the Trump campaign probe, saying he believed the campaign was spied on.

“I am going to be reviewing both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016,” Barr said. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal.” 

Barr later emphasized that he wasn’t saying that “improper surveillance” occurred, but that he was looking into whether it had.

But FBI Director Christopher Wray said Tuesday that he wouldn’t use the term “spying” to describe lawful FBI investigative activities in response to a question about Barr's use of the word at a hearing last month.

“Well, that’s not the term I would use,” Wray said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in prison in 2018 after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts he had with agents of the Russian government while working for the Trump campaign. 

Baker has previously testified before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees during the last Congress as part of his role as the FBI general counsel during the 2016 presidential election.

Baker, who stepped down from the FBI last year, is now the director of national security and cybersecurity at the R Street Institute.