On Monday, Dan Bongino — a host I particularly enjoy — tackled the “Spygate” issue on his show. He took issue with last Thursday’s show, in which I expressed my doubts about the veracity of the narrative going around that the FBI maliciously targeted the Trump campaign during the 2016 race in order to undermine Trump himself. In particular, I expressed three doubts. First, I asked why the FBI and Hillary campaign didn’t release the most damaging information about supposed Trump/Russia collusion during the campaign; second, I asked why the FBI didn’t target members of the Trump campaign other than those most obviously connected with Russia if they were truly going beyond their brief to target Trump himself; finally, I asked why Trump didn’t just declassify the underlying materials showing the alleged conspiracy.
Bongino responded thoroughly, and I thought it worthwhile to respond to his response.
1. Why Didn’t Hillary/FBI Release The Most Damaging Information During The Campaign? Bongino said I was vague about the question, which is possible. With that said, we didn’t find out about the Donald Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower until after the election; we didn’t find out about George Papadopoulos until after the election; we didn’t get the nasty details in the Steele dossier. We already knew about Paul Manafort’s Russian connections for years, and people questioned Manafort’s appointment at the time. We already knew about Flynn’s Russia Today connection before the campaign.
2. Why Didn’t The FBI Target Other Members Of Team Trump? I asked why Trump himself and Trump Jr. weren’t targeted if the entire Trump team was being targeted in nefarious fashion — why only the most Russian-connected members of the team? Bongino responded that Trump Jr. had been targeted with the Trump Tower meeting – that Natalia Veselnitskaya was being run by Hillary-hired Fusion GPS. But there’s no evidence that the Hillary campaign used that meeting or knew about that meeting; when that evidence appears, I’ll be happy to be more outraged about the “set-up” than about Trump Jr. taking the meeting in the first place. And again, there’s no evidence that the FBI used this meeting to target Trump Jr. Bongino also claimed that Trump had been targeted by the Steele dossier, which seems like a broad definition of “targeted,” given that the dossier was compiled by Fusion GPS, the dossier didn’t break until well after the election, and the FBI ran down the dossier during the election without violating confidentiality. As for the “spy” targeting Team Trump, Stephen Halper was asked by the FBI to meet with Carter Page and Papadopoulos after Papadopoulos bragged to the Australian High Commissioner to Great Britain Alexander Downer about Hillary’s emails, and after Page organized a visit to Moscow. The fact that he was asked to do so before the formal opening of an investigation into Trump/Russia collusion doesn't mean much — in law enforcement scenarios, informants are sometimes utilized prior to official investigation openings.
3. Why Doesn’t Trump Declassify? Bongino claims that Trump doesn’t declassify because to do so would somehow interfere with or prejudice ongoing leak investigations. These two issues are unrelated. Illegal leaks are still illegal even if the president makes the underlying material unclassified post hoc. Trump could easily declassify the Carter Page FISA warrant, for example, without disrupting any ongoing investigation. He has not. He should. We keep hearing that the DOJ isn’t being forthcoming with the House Intelligence Committee — and that’s an utterly fair critique. It’s also fair to ask why Trump hasn’t released as many documents as possible at this point, when we’re all being kept in the dark.
There were two other issues Dan brought up that are worthy of comment. First, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) said last week that he didn’t believe the Spygate narrative — he stated more specifically this:
I think the FBI, if they were at the table this morning, they would tell you that Russia was the target and Russia’s intentions toward our country were the target. The fact that two people who were loosely connected to the Trump campaign may have been involved doesn’t diminish the fact that Russia was the target and not the campaign.
Bongino points out that former FBI director James Comey stated in March 2017 that “all I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts ... I can tell you is what we're investigating which includes whether there was any coordination between people associated with the Trump campaign and the Russians."
But this isn’t obviously an investigation into the Trump campaign — it could easily be an investigation into the Russian interference and secondarily, its ties with the Trump campaign. This sounds like a distinction without a difference, but it is not. It is akin to equating a phone tap on a Russian who calls Trump Tower with tapping Trump Tower. The object of the investigation matters.
Bongino also claimed that I got it wrong when I said that Trump openly stated that he had fired James Comey over Russia. To be more specific, I said on the show that Trump had probably fired Comey over his outrage that Comey wouldn’t clear him in the Russia case (I’ve been saying that since the actual day Comey was fired). Here’s what Trump said about it himself with Lester Holt:
And in fact when I decide to just do it, I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story…
Trump claimed his firing had nothing to do with the Russia case. That’s not correct.
Now, there are serious questions to be asked about the Mueller investigation. What’s the scope of the investigation? Why hasn't it been restricted to the issues at hand? Why were members of the Obama holdover team leaking like sieves — criminally — after the election? Why hasn’t the DOJ turned over documentation to the HPSCI? Why did the DOJ struggle so hard to avoid turning over the information we’ve already seen, which didn’t appear to seriously compromise security? Why did James Comey keep contemporaneous notes about Trump but not Obama, and why did he leak information to his friends outside government?
I’m open to the argument that the FBI and DOJ under President Obama maliciously utilized their power to target President Trump’s campaign during the campaign. But I’m going to need more evidence than mere conjecture at this point to make that leap.