FBI Ignored Hundreds of Exculpatory Statements, Pushing Trump-Russia Probe: Durham Report

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Keeping alive its investigation of supposed collusion between Donald Trump and Russia, the FBI ignored hundreds of exculpatory statements Trump aides made when secretly recorded by FBI informants. In some cases, the FBI spun the utterings to mean the opposite of what was said, according to the final report by special counsel John Durham.

The group running the Trump-Russia probe at the FBI headquarters in 2016 and 2017 went to great lengths to try to elicit statements from various Trump aides that could implicate the campaign, and later the president, in an alleged scheme to collude with Russia to sway the 2016 election.

Again and again, the agents sent informants to talk to people tied to the campaign and slip into conversations questions about Russia helping the campaign.

After months of efforts and dozens of hours of recorded conversations, the bureau came up empty-handed. On the contrary, they collected hundreds of statements denying any collusion with Russia—sometimes indirectly, other times explicitly, Durham’s report details.

The agents and officials running the probe, however, seemed impervious to the deluge of evidence contradicting their premise. In fact, they went as far as to spin clearly exculpatory statements to make them sound incriminating, according to the report.

The probe was launched on July 31, 2016, based on a single uncorroborated claim that a campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, “suggested” during a casual talk with an Australian diplomat that the campaign received “some kind of suggestion” that Russia may help it by releasing info damaging to Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Durham later learned that Papadopoulos may have never made any such suggestion.

Just days later, one of the agents on the case, Stephen Somma, reached out to a longtime FBI informant he handled, Stefan Halper. Somma and two other agents met with Halper on Aug. 11, 2016. They asked if he knew Papadopoulos, but he didn’t. Yet supposedly by sheer luck, Halper knew the two other targets of the probe: Paul Manafort, then-chair of the Trump campaign who was about to get fired for keeping from the campaign his Russian connections, and Carter Page, a junior adviser to the campaign with whom Halper talked at a London security symposium and a subsequent private meeting.

The symposium was overseen by Halper, who vetted its attendants, Durham’s report noted. Page came to it right after returning from a trip to Moscow, where he gave a commencement speech at a university.

Halper also volunteered a false story that insinuated that another Trump campaign adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, had an affair with a Russian-born doctoral student in London several years prior. Somma wrote a report from the meeting with Halper, dating it Aug. 15, 2016. The report already referred to Flynn by a code name, “Crossfire Razor,” even though the agents only opened a case on Flynn on Aug. 16, 2016 (pdf).

The opening document on Flynn cited Halper’s false story as well as his giving a paid interview at a gala in Moscow held by state-funded Russian TV in 2015.

Halper agreed to talk to and run operations against Papadopoulos and Page. Somma’s report indicates that Halper failed to mention to the FBI his overtures to the Trump campaign. As Durham found, Halper sent an email to the campaign on May 2, 2016, with his resumé and an offer to informally advise the campaign.

The Page Meetings

Halper met with Page on Aug. 20, 2016, surreptitiously recording the conversation. He tried to bait Page into saying something about the campaign colluding with Russia, but Page never did. Page mentioned a “conspiracy theory” that Russia had deleted emails from Clinton’s private server—an allegation that was swirling online and seeping into the media for months without corroboration. But Page explicitly said he didn’t know whether it was true or not. He also denied ever speaking to Manafort. That was important because a month later, agents on the case received the infamous Steele dossier, a collection of baseless claims about Trump-Russia collusion. One of the claims was that Manafort was conspiring with Russia on behalf of the campaign using Page as a conduit.

Halper met with Page again in October 2016, December 2016, and January 2017, gathering an ever-growing list of exculpatory statements.

“During all of his meetings with [Halper], Page never provided any information, evidence, or documentation indicating knowledge of any relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Durham’s report said.

Despite that, FBI leadership, including then-Director James Comey and then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, pushed for a warrant to spy on Page and blocked case agents from interviewing him. The warrant, obtained in a secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), included false allegations from the Steele dossier that Page met with sanctioned Russian officials during his Moscow trip. Page repeatedly denied the meetings, both publicly and in private, to Halper, but the FBI kept renewing the warrant well into 2017.

Meanwhile, information about the investigation was being leaked to the media, smearing Page and other Trump aides as possibly colluding with Russia.

The FISA warrant application not only omitted Page’s exculpatory statements, but also twisted what he told Halper about the false claims about him in the media.

“Page did not provide any specific details to refute, dispel, or clarify the media reporting [and] he made vague statements that minimized his activities,” the application said.

“This assertion … seriously misrepresents Page’s recorded statements,” Durham’s report commented.

In early September 2016, Halper met with Trump campaign adviser Sam Clovis. Halper again tried to elicit some admission of collusion but without success.

“The tenor of the conversation between [Halper] and the advisor provided no indication of assistance being provided to the campaign by the Russians,” Durham’s report said.

FBI agents were apparently cautious about this meeting. Most of the conversation centered on campaign issues and the recording de facto provided the FBI with intelligence on the Trump campaign.

Durham didn’t find any evidence the FBI used the recording in any way. Not even a transcript was produced, the report said.

The Papadopoulos Meetings

Papadopoulos was extensively recorded in secret many times, starting in September 2016.

First, two undercover FBI agents met with him, but all he said was either irrelevant or exculpatory, according to Durham’s report.

On Sept. 15, 2016, Halper met twice with Papadopoulos under the pretext of commissioning him to write a paper on energy in Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, Russia, and Syria.

During the meeting, Halper tried to tease out the campaign’s supposed cooperation with Russia, but Papadopoulos made no such indication. In fact, he offered a lengthy and explicit denial.

“As a campaign, of course, we don’t advocate for this type of activity because at the end of the day, it’s, ah, illegal. First and foremost, it compromises the U.S. national security and third it sets a very bad precedence,” he said, according to a transcript of the conversation.

He then doubled and tripled down, saying that “no one does that,” “it’s illegal activity,” and “espionage is, ah, treason.”

“No one’s looking to, um, obviously get into trouble like that and, you know, as far as I understand that’s, no one’s collaborating, there’s been no collusion and it’s going to remain that way,” he said.

The FBI is supposed to include exculpatory information in FISA applications, but in this instance, the agents found a way to dismiss it, according to Durham’s report.

“This was arguably the most significant information the FBI had gathered after approximately six weeks of investigative effort to evaluate the information it had received from Australia,” his report said.

“Yet the FBI chose to discount the information and assessed it to mean the opposite of what was explicitly said.”

Agents described Papadopoulos’s denials as “weird,” “rote,” “canned,” and “rehearsed.” They argued that his “free flowing conversation” with Halper suddenly changed “to almost a canned response,” according to the report.

The bureau’s top brass, up to McCabe, was briefed on the recording, and “the general consensus of the group after the briefing was that one of the statements made by Papadopoulos in his meeting with [Halper], which would normally be considered exculpatory, was instead assessed as an outlier and intentionally scripted by him to give a false impression,” Durham’s report said, adding, “Our investigators listened very carefully to this recording and did not detect any change in Papadopoulos’ s tone of voice when he made these statements to [Halper].”

Between Oct. 23, 2016, and May 6, 2017, Papadopoulos also met many times with another FBI informant, who was also a longtime acquaintance of his. The two engaged in more than 120 hours of freewheeling conversations sometimes during trips and outings, all recorded.

The informant “challenged Papadopoulos with approximately 200 prompts or baited statements which elicited approximately 174 clearly exculpatory statements from Papadopoulos,” the Durham report said, noting that “Papadopoulos repeatedly denied that he, the Trump campaign, and Russia had some type of cooperative relationship.”

“You don’t think anyone from the Trump campaign hacked her [Clinton’s] emails,” the informant asked in one Oct. 29, 2016, talk.

“No, no,” Papadopoulos replied.

“You don’t think anyone from the Trump campaign had anything to do with [expletive] over at the DNC?” the informant pressed.

“No, I know that for a fact,” said Papadopoulos.

“How do you know that for a fact?” the informant continued.

“Because I have been working for them the last nine months that’s how I know. And all of this stuff has been happening, what, over the last four months?” he replied.

Again, none of the statements were disclosed to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approved the Page warrants.

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