The primary bogeyman that’s been seared into our consciousness during the sprawling, ongoing investigations into Russian interference into the 2016 election has been the specter of collusion between members of and adjacent to President Donald Trump’s inner circle and Russian malefactors. There’s a solid argument to be made that the intense attention to this alleged connivance has been, as Just Security’s Julian Sanchez puts it, “misplaced.” But, as recent revelations demonstrate, you don’t need to connect the dots of collusion to conclude that Russian actors managed to breed some dire discord into our democracy.
And, if you think we might soon retrieve a sense of order from this chaos anytime soon, let’s briefly consider the Curious Case Of The Dubious Russian Document, which has caught former FBI Director James Comey and his defenders spinning some contradictory tales.
Back in April, the public learned about the document in question when it made an appearance in a New York Times magazine piece penned by Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman, and Eric Lichtblau. In it, they describe how U.S. intelligence agencies could, from time to time, successfully “peer ... into Russian networks and see what has been taken” during “Russia’s hacking campaign against the United States.” On one of those occasions, FBI agents saw something unusual in a tranche of hacked documents. As the Times reported:
The document, which has been described as both a memo and an email, was written by a Democratic operative who expressed confidence that [U.S. Attorney General Loretta] Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far, according to several former officials familiar with the document.
As the Times’ report makes clear, this document was discovered at a time during which Comey was apparently more and more certain that Hillary Clinton was not going to be charged with any crime, and the case into her email server was going to be closed. However, as the Times went on to report, the implications this document presented colored everything Comey did from there. If the FBI recommended that the case be closed, there was going to necessarily be a public to-do about it. So, who would stand in front of the press and make the announcement? If it fell to Lynch, then the threat of this document becoming public would raise serious questions about the independence and credibility of the investigation.
In the end, Comey took it upon himself to explain the closure of the case. This left Justice Department officials feeling like the FBI director just wanted some attention for himself. However, as the Times noted, “Mr. Comey’s defenders regard this as one of the untold stories of the Clinton investigation, one they say helps to explain his decision making.”
So let’s pause right here to review. This New York Times story, in which Comey’s defenders are contending that this whole matter “helps to explain his decision making,” was published on April 22, 2017. So it was just one month ago that the Comey-backing sources of this story were contending that this document was the key to unlock Comey’s mindset on the Clinton case back in the summer of 2016.
Now, let’s flash-forward. Earlier this week, The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian and Devlin Barrett returned to the story about a “secret document that officials say played a key role in then-FBI director James B. Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.” The Post provided further details about the document ― which apparently described an email correspondence between then-DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to an official with the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundation. Per The Washington Post:
In the supposed email, Wasserman Schultz claimed [U.S. Attorney General Loretta] Lynch had been in private communication with a senior Clinton campaign staffer named Amanda Renteria during the campaign. The document indicated Lynch had told Renteria that she would not let the FBI investigation into Clinton go too far, according to people familiar with it.
But I’m burying the lede. The most important revelation that the Post provided this week was that this document was actually a forgery ― and that it had “long been viewed within the FBI as unreliable.”
How long had it been viewed that way though? Per the Post:
Current and former officials have said that Comey relied on the document in making his July decision to announce on his own, without Justice Department involvement, that the investigation was over. That public announcement — in which he criticized Clinton and made extensive comments about the evidence — set in motion a chain of other FBI moves that Democrats now say helped Trump win the presidential election.
But according to the FBI’s own assessment, the document was bad intelligence — and according to people familiar with its contents, possibly even a fake sent to confuse the bureau. The Americans mentioned in the Russian document insist they do not know each other, do not speak to each other and never had any conversations remotely like the ones described in the document. Investigators have long doubted its veracity, and by August the FBI had concluded it was unreliable.
In the most charitable interpretation of these events, we can allow that if consensus within the FBI about the document’s lack of authenticity had not yet been achieved by August, then Comey could have been understandably influenced by its contents in July, when he abruptly closed the case amid a controversy that would only swing back with a fury at the end of October, when Comey announced that new emails had been discovered.
But why were FBI sources ― Comey defenders ― treating the document as if it were legitimate, in conversations with New York Times reporters months after this consensus had been reached, assuring them that this was the linchpin in Comey’s strategy?
This does not add up, and so it’s no surprise to see some damage-control efforts being manifested. Here’s the new version of the story, being woven Friday morning on the pages of CNN.com:
Then-FBI Director James Comey knew that a critical piece of information relating to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email was fake ― created by Russian intelligence ― but he feared that if it became public it would undermine the probe and the Justice Department itself, according to multiple officials with knowledge of the process.
That’s right, sources are now telling CNN’s Dana Bash, Shimon Prokupecz, and Gloria Borger, that “Comey and FBI officials actually knew early on that this intelligence was indeed false,” and that if Russians ever released this document, then ― false or not ― it would cloud the entire case and put the FBI in a no-win situation, where agents could not “discredit it without burning intelligence sources and methods.”
“It is unclear why Comey was not more forthcoming in a classified setting,” reports CNN. Yeah, I’ll say!
Still, it’s not hard to see why Comey might have been reticent to disclose that this document was a forgery. Without revealing sources and methods, he wouldn’t have been able to demonstrate the fakery. He’d have been asking the public to trust him ― and walking straight into a partisan buzzsaw that would have likely dogged those efforts. Reasonable people can probably understand that he and his agency might have emerged from that effort with diminished public trust.
But that doesn’t explain why Comey-backing sources were treating the document as authentic in conversations with reporters from The New York Times in April. Once it was clear that discussion of this dubious document was going to happen in full view of the public, it’s puzzling why no one simply reverted to the story that’s being told by CNN today. After all, the threat posed to trust and credibility is the same: As soon as The New York Times reports the document as legitimate, the clock starts ticking on the eventual reveal that it’s not.
At the very moment the FBI, through these sources, should have been cutting its losses and giving The New York Times the straight story, it was instead running a cover-your-ass operation ― and a misguided one at that, considering it didn’t diminish any of the risk to which the bureau would be exposed when the truth about the forged document came out. The end result is that the FBI has ended up with the same diminished trust and credibility over the matter that it feared in the first place. And, as an added bonus, four very reliable and clear-eyed Times reporters now know they got burned in the process.
There are some obvious missing pieces here, and matters worthy of further explanation. We still don’t know why The New York Times’ sources didn’t just try to come clean on the nature of this document once they had the chance ― in hindsight it looks like that this would have been the more advantageous option. There is a clue, perhaps, elsewhere in CNN’s reporting from Friday (emphasis mine):
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that this Russian intelligence was unreliable. U.S. officials now tell CNN that Comey and FBI officials actually knew early on that this intelligence was indeed false.
In fact, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe went to Capitol Hill Thursday to push back on the notion that the FBI was duped, according to a source familiar with a meeting McCabe had with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
There you go. All of this michegas may have simply been caused by the fact that nobody wanted it to be known that they had ever, at any time, been tricked, even briefly.
This is the saddest, and most “Beltway” explanation ― which is why it’s also the most plausible reason why this happened. This is an unforgiving town where a lacerated pride is a fatal wound, and admitting error is a mortal sin. For Pete’s sake, the entire existence of a “Hillary Clinton private email server” scandal is completely down to the fact that Clinton didn’t just simply and forthrightly say something to the effect of, “Yeah, I screwed up.” Instead, she hardened her defenses to preserve her amour-propre.
And, as anyone who’s even done a cursory study of Beltway mores might say, “Typical, typical, typical.” From Clinton, to Comey, to Congress, and everywhere in between, our dumb political culture ― which holds that admitting a mistake is the worst thing you can do, and where the incentive to build a warren of spin and bullshit overrides everyone’s good judgment ― proves again and again to be the undoing of everything. And to a Russian spy, it might be the easiest and most obvious exploit of all.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.