Why Did Obama Tell The FBI To Hide Its Activities From Trump?
In 1980, a teenage Amy Carter left a burnt cake in the oven of the White House’s family quarters in a reflex of childish revenge for her father’s landslide loss to Ronald Reagan. In 2017, Barack Obama and Joe Biden avenged Donald Trump’s surprise victory over Hillary Clinton by leaving what they claim was a Russian agent in the West Wing.
That conclusion inevitably follows if one accepts as credible the FBI’s supposed predicates for launching the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the Trump campaign and the four related probes into George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn.
On July 31, 2016, the FBI opened the Crossfire Hurricane counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign, purportedly to learn if members of the Trump team were “coordinating or cooperating” with the Russian government to influence or interfere with the 2016 elections. By August 16, 2016, the FBI had opened four subsidiary investigations on individuals connected to the campaign, claiming their connections to Russian businesses, pro-Russian factions, or Russian-owned entities “reasonably indicated” they “may wittingly or unwittingly be involved in activity on behalf of the Russian Federation which may constitute a federal crime or threat to the national security.”
Let the ‘Russian Spy’ Keep Spying
The FBI maintained that it opened the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, rather than providing Trump a defensive briefing on the report from a “friendly foreign government” that Russia had reached out to a member of his campaign to release damaging information on Hillary Clinton, because agents “had no indication as to which person in the Trump campaign allegedly received the offer from the Russians.” According to Counterintelligence Division Assistant Director E.W. “Bill” Priestap, “had we provided a defensive briefing to someone on the Trump campaign, we would have alerted the campaign to what we were looking into, and, if someone on the campaign was engaged with the Russians, he/she would very likely change his/her tactics and/or otherwise seek to cover-up his/her activities, thereby preventing us from finding the truth.”
Former deputy director of the FBI Andy McCabe likewise told Inspector General Michael Horowitz “that he did not consider a defensive briefing as an alternative to opening a counterintelligence case” because, “based on the [Friendly Foreign Government] information, the FBI did not know if any member of the campaign was coordinating with Russia and that the FBI did not brief people who ‘could potentially be the subjects that you are investigating or looking for.’”
McCabe further explained that “in a sensitive counterintelligence matter, it was essential to have a better understanding of what was occurring before taking an overt step such as providing a defensive briefing.”
While “there are plenty of problems with Priestap and McCabe’s rationale, as well as the entire predicate for Crossfire Hurricane,” a bigger problem arises if you take them at their word, because by the time Americans elected Trump president on November 8, 2016, the FBI had “a better understanding of what was occurring,” and had identified four individuals of concern. But still the FBI did not provide president-elect Trump a defensive briefing.
Instructing Holdovers to Keep Serving Obama
Then came the January 5, 2017, meeting in the Oval Office where Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, FBI Director James Comey, CIA Director John Brennan, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper briefed President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Russia-related issues.
Rice later wrote an email to herself on January 20, 2017—Trump’s inauguration day and her last day in the White House—purporting to summarize that meeting. “On January 5, following a briefing by IC leadership on Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election,” Rice wrote, “President Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office. Vice President Biden and I were also present.”
According to Rice, “President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book.’” But then she added a significant caveat to that “commitment”: “From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.”
The next portion of the email is classified, but Rice then noted that “the President asked Comey to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team. Comey said he would.”
At the time Obama suggested to Yates and Comey—who were to keep their posts under the Trump administration—that the hold-overs consider withholding information from the incoming administration, Obama knew that President Trump had named Flynn to serve as national security advisor. Obama also knew there was an ongoing FBI investigation into Flynn premised on Flynn being a Russian agent.
Yet, rather than direct his team to provide the president-elect a briefing on the Russia investigation as it related to Flynn, Obama suggested it would be appropriate to withhold such information from the Trump administration.
That is just what Comey did. The following day, Comey provided “an ostensibly similar briefing about Russian interference efforts during the 2016 campaign,” and then “[a]fter that briefing, Comey privately briefed Trump on the most salacious and absurd ‘pee tape’ allegation in the Christopher Steele dossier.”
Lying to the President
While Comey found it important to tell the incoming commander-in-chief of the ridiculous “pee tape” “intel,” following Obama’s guidance the then-FBI director did not tell Trump that the FBI had an active investigation into Trump’s incoming national security advisor predicated on the idea that Flynn was potentially a Russian agent.
Even after Obama had left office and Comey had a new commander-in-chief to report to, Comey continued to follow Obama’s prompt by withholding intel from Trump. Recently released documents included as exhibits to the Department of Justice’s motion to dismiss the criminal charges against Flynn reveal this reality.
During that same January 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting in which Obama counseled Comey to be cautious in sharing information about Russia with the Trump administration, Obama and Comey discussed Flynn’s late-December telephone calls with the Russian ambassador.
Following Trump’s inauguration, Comey remained adamant that Trump not be briefed of the details of Flynn’s call with the Russian ambassador, and then “broke every protocol” to preempt Yates’s directive that he inform the White House of the conversation, by sending agents to interview Flynn in the West Wing on January 24, 2017.
But it wasn’t just Obama and Comey’s secreting of the supposed intel about Flynn that shows they put damaging the incoming Trump administration above protecting the country from purported Russian agents. The Flynn investigation was but one aspect of the Crossfire Hurricane probe, and Trump was not briefed on the other investigations either—most significantly the continuing investigation of Carter Page.
Secrets and Lies
The FBI’s targeting of Page included the use of four constitutionally defective Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act surveillance warrants. The recent declassification of additional aspects of the four FISA applications exposes that the FBI believed Page continued to communicate with higher-ups in the Trump administration: The April 7, 2017 and the June 28, 2017, FISA renewal applications that sought continued surveillance on Page stated that “the FBI assesses that Page continues to have access to senior U.S. Government officials.”
They put damaging the incoming Trump administration above protecting the country from purported Russian agents.
The renewal applications added that “the FBI further assesses that Page is attempting to downplay his contacts with the Russian Government and to dispel the controversy surrounding him, so as to make him more viable as a foreign policy expert who will be in a position, due to his continued contacts with senior U.S. Government officials, to influence U.S. foreign policy towards Russia.”
Yet the FBI did not brief Trump on its supposed belief “that Russia sought to use Page’s connections with administration officials to influence America’s foreign policy. Instead, as the newly declassified information reveals, following Trump’s inauguration, the FBI sought to, and apparently succeeded in, intercepting communications between Page and members of the Trump administration.”
So, not only was the FBI content with leaving a supposed Russian agent in the West Wing, it had no qualms about allowing another purported Russian agent to communicate with “senior U.S. Government officials” with the goal of influencing the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
Obama Told Us To
The FBI, however, is not solely to blame for keeping this “important” information from Trump: They were only following the counsel of former President Barack Obama.
While a young Amy Carter can be forgiven for her juvenile vision of departing the White House “content with the picture of Nancy Reagan struggling to clean out the oven,” there is no excuse for an outgoing president to withhold “intel” on supposed Russian agents from the president-elect. And there is no excuse for an outgoing president to advise hold-over high-ranking officials to do likewise once the new president has taken office.
Or, rather, the only excuse is an equally scandalous one: Obama knew the Russia investigation was a hoax from the get-go.
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame.
The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.