In a prolonged media interview with former Clinton White House operative George Stephanopoulos, now working as an ABC News anchorman, President Trump took the bait by answering a politically loaded question about how he would handle sensitive information about one of his political opponents from a foreign country such as Russia or China. The question arose during a discussion of the recent voluntary testimony by Trump’s son, Donald Jr., before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was looking into the controversial meeting at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016, with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a Russian lawyer with Kremlin connections.
Trump Jr. had been told by one of his Russian-affiliated business contacts that the lawyer was willing to share damaging information on Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. But the meeting had been promoted under false pretenses. It was cut short after 20 minutes when it became clear that the Russian lawyer had no politically useful information to offer. Her real agenda had been to lobby for the lifting of US sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s cronies as punishment for Kremlin human rights violations.
When details of the meeting became publicly known a year later, at the height of the Russian collusion investigation, Democrats claimed Trump Jr.’s emails revealed a reckless eagerness to see the promised damaging information against Clinton. Even though nothing of substance ever came from the meeting, Democrats said it revealed the Trump campaign’s willingness to illegally collude with the Russians, and lent credibility to other unverified charges of Trump campaign collusion with the Russians in the Steele dossier.
It was later revealed the Veselnitskaya had been working closely with Fusion GPS owner Glenn Simpson, who had contracted with the Clinton campaign and the Democrat National Committee to create the Steele dossier. Democrats chose to ignore the suspicious connection between Steele’s handler and the Russian lawyer who was the focus of the Trump Tower meeting, and the possibility that the meeting had been set up by the Russians to embarrass, rather than collude with, the Trump campaign.
A TRICKY QUESTION AND AN AMBIGUOUS ANSWER
Stephanopoulos’ intention to politically compromise Trump became clear when he asked the president what he might do if he were approached today with opposition research information from a foreign country about one of his potential Democrat opponents.
Trump gave an ambiguous answer, stating that he would consider the source of the information and its credibility before deciding whether to accept it, call the FBI or just throw the person offering it out of his office. In his reply, Trump used as his example the offer of politically compromising information from Norway, a NATO ally, which Trump said he would want to see first before deciding what to do with it. But Trump’s media enemies decided to edit his answer to the politically loaded question from Stephanopoulos to falsely imply that Trump would treat information from Russia the same way.
Democrats have never let Trump and his supporters forget the ill-advised Trump Tower meeting with the Russian lawyer, or the clumsy way that the president tried to protect his son when the meeting was revealed a year later. But the Trump Tower meeting never fit well within the collusion narrative of the Steele dossier, which claimed that Manafort was working with the Russians, using Carter Page serving as the intermediary, to influence the 2016 election. For if Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman, was already colluding secretly with the Russians, why would the Russians need to set up the separate Trump Tower meeting, and why would Manafort agree to attend it in front of witnesses?
Yet these awkward implications of the meeting got lost in the blizzard of accusations which flooded the media during the weeks following the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. They became part of a broader narrative of collusion which the anti-Trump media was busy selling to the public, along with the expectation that the total weight of such accusations would inevitably soon lead to Trump’s removal from office.
That expectation was never met. Once the full context of the Trump Tower meeting was revealed, its significance in the eyes of the public was greatly diminished.
Even though the findings of the Mueller report have convinced all but the most diehard Trump-Russia conspiracy theorists that the collusion accusation was a hoax, as the president has always said, Democrats continue to push the allegation that Trump’s judgement can’t be trusted. Stephanopoulos’ foreign information question was clearly designed to lend further credibility to that allegation, especially after Trump’s response to the question was edited in most news reports to distort its meaning and take it out of its context.
WHAT CONSTITUTES FOREIGN INTERFERENCE?
There is a fairly broad consensus, even among elected officials in Washington, about the dangers of foreign influence and interference in domestic politics. In his famous 1796 farewell address, President George Washington said, “The jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
More than 220 years later, the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that the Russian government interfered in the election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” including by breaking US laws, but his investigation could not find any evidence that anyone associated with Trump criminally conspired in those efforts.
The Mueller report also examined the question of whether the meeting in Trump Tower between a presumed Russian agent and senior figures of the Trump campaign violated any law. Trump’s critics allege that holding a meeting for the purpose of obtaining damaging information about Clinton amounted to acceptance of an illegal in-kind campaign contribution from a foreign source. In his report, Mueller reasoned that a foreign entity that provided free opposition research to a campaign about an opponent could exert a “greater effect on an election, and a greater tendency to ingratiate the donor to the candidate.”
But while accepting such information would be morally wrong, Mueller was uncertain that it could be consider a direct violation of federal campaign finance laws. Mueller wrote that no court ruling had ever treated the “voluntary provision of uncompensated opposition research” as a campaign contribution, and that he was “uncertain” how a judge would view that contention. Mueller also suggested that making it illegal to provide such information to a political campaign may be a violation of the constitutional right of free speech, especially if the information provided turns out to be accurate.
To be fair, the wording of Trump’s answer to Stephanopoulos’s question was rambling and imprecise, which is not unusual for Trump when he speaks off the cuff. While Stephanopoulos was pressing Trump to say that any offer of political information from a country like China or Russia should rejected and prompt a report to the FBI, Trump said he thought he would like to see the information and evaluate it before calling in the authorities.
“I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen, I [think] there’s nothing wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent.’ Oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
When Stephanopoulos then asked him, “You want that kind of interference in our elections?” Trump replied, “It’s not an interference, they have information. I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI.”
DEMOCRAT PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS POUNCED
Even though Trump dismissed the notion that offering to provide opposition research information against a political opponent amounts to foreign election interference, many Democrat presidential hopefuls were quick to condemn his comments, with several claiming that his statement reinforced the case for Trump’s impeachment. Former Vice President Joe Biden tweeted: “President Trump is once again welcoming foreign interference in our elections. This isn’t about politics. It is a threat to our national security. An American President should not seek their aid and abet those who seek to undermine democracy.”
Democrat Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running second to Biden in most polls of candidates for the 2020 Democrat presidential nomination, said, “We have a president who thinks he is above the law. The House should immediately begin impeachment inquiries.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, running third in most recent polls, also reiterated calls for impeachment, while Senator Kamala Harris, running fourth, accused Trump of being “open to the idea of working with foreign governments to undermine the integrity of our election system. It’s outrageous.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is still resisting growing calls from her party’s left-wing activists to initiate formal impeachment hearings against Trump, also reacted to the answer he gave to the question from Stephanopoulos, saying, “the president gave us once again evidence that he does not know right from wrong,” and repeating her previous charge by stating, “I believe that he has been involved in a criminal coverup,” without defining the exact nature of the crime she was talking about.
Trump responded to Pelosi’s remark the next day during a lengthy call-in interview on a Fox News morning program. “For her to make a statement like that is outrageous,” Trump said, and repeated his contention that it is not necessary to call the FBI every time he gets some politically useful information from a foreign source. Citing his recent meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump said facetiously, “We have many, many conversations. Am I supposed to report him to the FBI?”
LOOKING TO SEND A CLEAR SIGNAL
Trump’s answer was also criticized by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who said he tried to explain to the president why he was wrong.
“We need to send clear signals here: If somebody is trying to provide you information from a foreign government, you don’t take it,” Graham said he told Trump.
Graham said he thought that Trump would never actually accept foreign help, and that the answer he gave to Stephanopoulos was intended to convey that he didn’t believe his son had done anything wrong by agreeing to the Trump Tower meeting.
“He was trying to make a greater point inartfully,” Graham said.
Other Republican leaders emphasized Democrat hypocrisy in ignoring the foreign interference in the creation of the Steele dossier, rather than trying to defend Trump’s remarks.
“What’s most amazing about the ‘pearl clutching’ over Trump’s ‘foreign oppo’ comment,” Republican Congressman Mark Meadows tweeted, “[is] we’ve got a complete paper trail of Hillary Clinton and the DNC paying for info from Russian agents in 2016, but that doesn’t matter, apparently. It’s only a problem when Trump is involved.”
HEADING OFF THE BARR AND IG REPORTS
Stephanopoulos and other members of the anti-Trump media are now trying to revive the foreign influence issues surrounding the Trump Tower meeting, even though its significance was dismissed by Mueller’s report.
They fear that the investigations by Attorney General William Barr and DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz are about to reveal the sordid details of foreign sources and influence behind the creation and dissemination of the Steele dossier, as well as the involvement of foreign intelligence services in the informal investigation of the Trump campaign conducted by then-CIA Director John Brennan, months before the formal FBI counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign was initiated by senior FBI agent Peter Strzok in late July 2016.
Thanks to years of diligent spade work by Republican-led congressional committees, reports by investigative reporters such as John Solomon, Sarah A. Carter and Eric Felten, and conservative commentaries by the likes of Andrew McCarthy, Victor Davis Hanson, Kimberly Strassel, Mollie Hemingway and others, enough crucial and potentially incriminating facts have emerged to reveal a pattern foreign collusion and coverup by Trump’s highly-placed political enemies in the Obama-era FBI, Justice Department and intelligence community.
STEELE’S UNSAVORY CLIENTS AND SOURCES
The most interesting newly revealed information include the revelation that Christopher Steele was also working for Russian oligarch Oleg Deipaska, a crony of Vladimir Putin, at the same time that he was compiling his notorious dossier against Trump.
Steele also revealed that his prime Russian sources for the allegations in the dossier were two of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidantes, former deputy prime minister Vladislov Surkov and the former head of Russia’s SVR intelligence service, Vyacheslav Trubnikov. Their close association with Putin lends further credence to suspicions that the allegations they gave to Steele for inclusion in the dossier had been deliberately fabricated by the Kremlin to mislead not only American voters, but also the US intelligence community.
During the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign, Steele was simultaneously peddling his dossier to the FBI and anyone in the media who would be willing to publish its allegations against Trump before the election.
After a meeting with Steele in October 2016, State Department official Kathleen Kavalec wrote in a memo that he had told her that he hoped the dossier allegations against Trump would become public before Election Day, and that he was sharing them with reporters for major press outlets, in violation of the terms of his agreement to serve as a source for the FBI.
Two of those reporters, Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News and David Corn of Mother Jones, published stories based upon dossier allegations before the Election Day. The FBI actually used Isikoff’s published story as allegedly independent evidence of the credibility of the dossier allegations in its application to the FISA court for a secret search warrant on Trump adviser Carter Page.
The initial press reports did not disclose that Steele was being paid $180,000 by Fusion GPS to produce the dossier, and that Fusion GPS was being secretly paid more than a million dollars by a lawyer for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and the Democrat National Committee to publicize its allegations.
The existence of the dossier and its contents were first reported on January 10, 2017, shortly after its allegations were included in president-elect Trump’s first classified intelligence briefing. The initial news reports were filled with glowing descriptions of Steele’s credentials and reliability. Watergate-era reporter Carl Bernstein first described him as a “former British MI6 intelligence agent who was hired by a political opposition research firm…who was doing work for both Republican and Democratic candidates opposed to Trump.”
CNN’s Jake Tapper assured his viewers that Steele had been “vetted” by the FBI and considered to be a “credible” source of information. A 2017 Wall Street Journal profile quoted Steele’s business partner in Orbis Business Intelligence, a London-based private security-and-investigations firm, as insisting that the company had “no political ax to grind.”
The New York Times said Steele was “known in British intelligence circles for his knowledge of the intricate web of Kremlin-tied companies and associates that control Russia,” and that he enjoyed “an excellent reputation with American and British intelligence colleagues and had done work for the FBI.”
FROM HERO TO MARTYR
The mainstream American media did not publish the sordid truth it had long known about Steele, that he was a political hired gun in the pay of the Clinton campaign, until October 2017. But even after his motives had been exposed, Washington Post editor Christian Caryl wrote, “Christopher Steele is a hero and Americans owe him their thanks.”
When Steele’s allegations could not be verified and his credibility came under increasing harsh scrutiny in congressional hearings and conservative news outlets, The New York Times quickly joined in the effort to transform him into a martyr. An article by Jane Mayer in the Times described Steele as “ex-spy [who] tried to warn the world about Trump’s ties to Russia,” who was complaining to his friends that he had been unfairly targeted by Trump, Putin, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes and Fox News. “They’re trying to take down the whole intelligence community!” Steele tells his friends. “And they’re using me as the battering ram to do it.”
But despite the media efforts to salvage his reputation, Steele revealed himself when he sought to escape a civil judgement in a British court, where he was being sued for libel over the allegations in the dossier, by refusing to vouch for their accuracy. When asked to explain, he claimed that his job was only to pass along “raw intelligence” he obtained from his Russian sources which “warranted further investigation,” and that it was up to his clients to determine whether or not it was true.
Steele hadn’t visited Russia since his cover as an MI6 agent was blown more than 20 years ago. He left MI6 almost a decade ago. Former FBI director Jim Comey said the FBI accepted Steele’s information because of the knowledge and good reputation he had built up when he was still active as a spy, but that was a long ago.
In 2016, when Steele was compiling the dossier against Donald Trump, he was just collecting and passing along unverifiable second-hand information from his Russian sources whose reliability was always questionable. The still unanswered question is why the FBI and other government intelligence agencies, which should have known better, were so willing to accept his dossier at face value and vouch for its accuracy in their applications to the FISA court.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
When IG Horowitz and Attorney General Barr reveal the findings of their investigations, they are expected to connect the dots and turn that pattern into a detailed and comprehensive picture of systematic abuse of government power on Mrs. Clinton’s behalf. Their reports will shed more light on how former FBI Director James Comey, his assistant, Andrew McCabe, former CIA Director John Brennan, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and other senior members of the Obama administration, as well as a number of foreign players, including former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele, Australian diplomat Andrew Downer, and the head of Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), all used their government positions and authority to work in support of Mrs. Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
With those embarrassing revelations just over the horizon, anti-Trump media personalities like Stephanopoulos have been working to set up a counter-narrative. Its goal is to convince the American public that Trump would be just as subject to improper foreign influence as the soon-to-be discredited heroes of the Obama-era, pro-Clinton government establishment who abandoned their own code of professional conduct in their efforts to discredit and defeat Trump.
By removing the context and nuances in its reporting of Trump’s response to Stephanopoulos’s question, the mainstream media was able to spin in a way that put him and his supporters on the defensive, and suggested that Trump is still insensitive to the moral and national security implications of foreign interference in American elections.
A close examination of what Trump actually told Stephanopoulos reveals a far more complex and logical approach, and his understanding that a sitting president must view potentially important national security evidence from a foreign source and carefully analyze it before it can be judged. Furthermore, the sharing of such sensitive information is common practice between allies, and needs to be encouraged in the interests of national security, rather than being automatically condemned as ‘foreign interference” in America’s elections, as Stephanopoulos suggested.
THE SOURCE MATTERS
As National Review commentator Andrew McCarthy points out, “Not all information that could ‘interfere’ in an election is the same. The source matters.” Information provided by an ally such as Norway, to cite Trump’s example, or Estonia, which did tell the Obama administration that it had “unverified intelligence that Russia might be channeling money into the Trump campaign” during the 2016 campaign, is likely to be well intentioned, while information offered by a more hostile state, such as Russia, is more likely to be intended to make some kind of mischief, and common sense must be used in deciding how to handle it.
“If a political candidate, including the president, is offered information by a foreign power, what ought to be done depends on the circumstances: Which government? Hostile or allied? What’s the likely motivation for the outreach? Is the information true and authentic?” McCarthy writes.
On the other hand, “foreign governments share intelligence with us freely in the expectation that the sharing will remain confidential. It may be acted on, but not with any trace of where the information came from. The arrangement is reciprocal, enabling us to share intelligence confidentially and without becoming too entangled in another country’s internal disputes. If we start creating duties to report foreign outreach to the authorities, we will inevitably receive less intelligence of many kinds,” McCarthy warns.
America’s European allies and their intelligence services were not innocent bystanders in the 2016 presidential election. They had their own ulterior motives for cooperating with then-CIA director Brennan in the earliest investigations of the Trump campaign which he organized. As a presidential candidate, by that time Trump was already on the record favoring improved US relations with Vladimir Putin, harshly criticizing most NATO countries for failing to keep their commitments to pay their fair share of alliance defense costs, and raising questions about the wisdom of existing US military intervention commitments and the high cost to US taxpayers of subsidizing the defense of Europe.
At the time, Trump was known in Europe as an upstart populist who supported radical ideas, such as Brexit. Nobody knew for sure what he would say or do next. On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton and her husband were trusted members of the elite club of diplomats, mainstream politicians and bureaucrats which has been running the EU and many other Western countries for decades. European leaders knew that they could trust Mrs. Clinton to preserve the comfortable status quo. If elected president, she would not rock the boat with too many demands on them for concessions to American interests. That is why European intelligence services were willing to play an important supporting role in the implementation of the plot to discredit Trump’s candidacy, and, after the election, to undermine his credibility as president.
A JOURNALISTIC DOUBLE STANDARD
McCarthy also explains how the media used a journalistic double standard to challenge Trump’s legitimacy. “When a Republican president gets information about the Democratic rival, the [media claims that it is the president’s] duty to treat the matter as a crime and report it to the FBI. Since the outreach is not a crime. . . the transparent purpose of this construct is to convert any Republican failure to report the non-crime into a political scandal — bordering on treason.
“By contrast, when a Democratic president is in power, the intelligence community is placed in the service of the Democratic candidate. If a foreign power reaches out with information, no matter how dubious, about the Republican candidate, the administration does not notify the FBI to investigate the foreign power for interfering in our election; the Democratic administration thanks the foreign power and then directs the FBI to investigate the Republican candidate.”
Another important consideration which is rarely discussed is the impact of any effort to punish a foreign power, friendly or hostile, for trying to interfere in a US election. McCarthy reminds us that the US is not in a good position to complain about this, because it has often interfered in the political affairs of other nations, both friendly and unfriendly.
The Obama administration came close to open interference in Israeli elections by supporting the opponents of Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu. It actively encouraged the overthrow of longtime US ally Hosni Mubarak, and the installation in his place of an Egyptian government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood (the parent organization of Hamas).
As Obama’s Secretary of State, Mrs. Clinton supported a US military intervention in Libya under the guise of a UN humanitarian effort to protect Libyan civilians. In fact, its goal was regime change, which was achieved when Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi was assassinated. When it was over, Mrs. Clinton showed no remorse. In describing the intervention, she quipped: “We came, we saw, he died.” One year later, when the ensuing chaos in Libya led to the deadly terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Clinton denied all personal responsibility for the US ambassador and three State Department employees who were killed.
The manufactured Democrat outrage over the Trump Tower meeting, which turned out to be a dud, and the doubly false outrage over his response to the loaded question from Stephanopoulos, are merely efforts to divert attention from the real criminal conspiracy between pro-Clinton former Obama administration officials and foreign agents to destroy Donald Trump which is about to emerge.