The FBI official who ran the investigation into whether the Donald Trump campaign colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election privately admitted in newly released notes that a major New York Times article was riddled with lies, falsehoods, and “misleading and inaccurate” information. The February 2017 story was penned by three reporters who would win Pulitzers for their reporting on Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia.
The FBI’s public posture and leaks at the time supported the now-discredited conspiracy theory that led to the formation of a special counsel probe to investigate the Trump campaign and undermine his administration.
“We have not seen evidence of any individuals affiliated with the Trump team in contact with [Russian Intelligence Officials]. . . . We are unaware of ANY Trump advisors engaging in conversations with Russian intelligence officials,” former FBI counterespionage official Peter Strzok wrote of the Feb. 14, 2017 New York Times story “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” That story, which was based on the unsubstantiated claims of four anonymous intelligence officials, was echoed by a similarly sourced CNN story published a day later and headlined “Trump aides were in constant touch with senior Russian officials during campaign.”
Strzok’s notes are the latest factual debunking of these stories, which were previously shown to be false with the release of Robert Mueller’s special counsel report finding no evidence whatsoever in support of the Hillary Clinton campaign assertion that Trump affiliates colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election. A report from the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General on just one aspect of the investigation into Russia collusion — FBI spying on Trump campaign affiliates — also debunked these news reports.
Former FBI Director James Comey admitted under oath in June 2017 that the reporting was “false,” something his deputy director Andrew McCabe privately acknowledged to the White House earlier that year but refused to admit publicly. Efforts by the White House to get the FBI to say publicly what they were admitting privately were leaked to the media in order to suggest the White House was obstructing their investigation. “Obstruction” of the Russia investigation would form a major part of the special counsel probe, and media and Democrat efforts to oust the president.
As for the merits of the explosive New York Times story alleging repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials before the election, Strzok said it was “misleading and inaccurate… no evidence.” Of the unsubstantiated claim that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was on the phone calls with Russian intelligence officials, Strzok said, “We are unaware of any calls with any Russian govt official in which Manafort was a party.” And of the New York Times claim that Roger Stone was part of the FBI’s inquiry into Russian ties, Strzok said, “We have not investigated Roger Stone.”
The Times report, which came hours after National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was ousted due to criminal leaks against him, was one of the most important articles published by major media as part of their campaign to paint Trump as a Russian operative. Widely accepted by the media and political establishment, it did as much to cement the false and damaging Russia conspiracy theory as CNN’s story legitimizing the now-discredited Christopher Steele dossier or the Washington Post’s now-discredited suggestion that Flynn was a secret Russian operative who was guilty of violating an obscure 1799 law called the Logan Act.
The New York Times declined to retract or correct the article three years ago, even after Comey testified it was false, on the grounds that the anonymous sources who fed the false information remained pleased with the initial story.
The damage this false story caused the Trump administration can not be underestimated. It’s a story worth recounting here.