With special counsel Bob Mueller filing charges against Trump associates Paul Manafort and Rick Gates this week, a divided country is quickly moving on from last week’s controversy of the “Steele Dossier.”
The scandalou series of memos – which contained allegations of treason and impropriety by then-candidate Trump and his campaign – took on renewed life after it was confirmed that the document was little more than a political hit job paid for by both Democratic and Republican operatives.
But while the headlines may shift, Mueller’s attention to a dossier-related scandal must not. Indeed, the dossier is almost certainly connected to the most audacious crime of the 2016 campaign.
America’s senior law enforcement and intelligence officials were directly involved in the targeting of a democratically elected president for political assassination.
Recall that the dossier first gained widespread attention and credibility after then CIA Director John Brennan, DNI Director James Clapper, and FBI Director James Comey briefed a summary of the document to a small group of D.C. leaders, including President Obama and then President-elect Trump.
Knowledge of the classified briefing leaked in the press shortly thereafter.
In the days that followed, the New York Times raised a critical question. By spreading the dossier throughout D.C.’s political class, the nation’s spymasters virtually assured that the document’s allegations would be leaked and given undue credibility.
So why did they do it?
The official response from Brennan, Clapper, and Comey was that they simply wanted to give policymakers the “fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”
After all, they added, America’s politicians “may hear about it.”
To any reasonable person, this makes absolutely no sense. Why brief a document about Trump’s alleged treason, knowing it would leak to the press, when you had already investigated the accusations and found them to be without merit?
Indeed, when President Obama was briefed on the dossier and the spymasters’ justification for doing so, his incredulous response captured the confusion perfectly.
“What does this have anything to do with anything?”
America is thus left with an important question first raised by the New York Times some 10 months ago but, conveniently enough, left unanswered.
Why would our senior intelligence and law enforcement officials bother highlighting a debunked dossier when they knew it would leak to the press, thereby giving it a degree of credibility and life it wouldn’t otherwise deserve?
There are three possible answers.
First, one or all of these spymasters may have been influenced by their profound dislike of Trump as a person. From the “locker room” comments to fights with Hollywood personalities, even Trump supporters often find his conduct unpresidential.
A strategy of “brief and leak” would certainly be an effective revenge.
A second possibility is that these officials and their political chiefs may have been spooked by known or suspected connections between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives. After all, they had heard months of Trump’s allegedly “soft views” on Russia and its former spy president, Vladimir Putin.
In short, Obama officials may have been fearful that a “corrupted” President Trump would shut down any collusion investigation before the facts were known.
Putting aside whether there’s any truth to these fears, it would still be wildly illegal for America’s spymasters to leak information to the media designed to damage a president. Officials working for the CIA and FBI are strictly regulated regarding their political activity, not to mention barred from disclosing classified or protected government information.
And that suggests a third and much more likely motivation of the intentional leakers: politics.
The Obama administration had every reason to believe that Trump and a Republican Congress would reverse Obama’s legacy – from the nuclear deal with Iran to health care reform. Republicans were also poised to add several conservative Supreme Court justices to the court, altering the direction of the country for decades to come.
It’s reasonable to believe, then, that leaking a dossier alleging treason might severely wound Trump and his agenda for the duration of his presidency.
Which begs the question: which spymaster had the greatest motivation to try to bring down the president? And was he alone in his efforts?
Here’s what we know.
On June 8, 2017, former FBI Director Comey acknowledged that he had a secret relationship with at least one newspaper with whom he shared classified or proprietary government information that advanced articles critical of the president.
Subsequent analysis showed that the former director might have been engaged in this covert media operation for far longer and in many more press placements than he has acknowledged to date.
We also know that Comey could manipulate D.C.’s culture of leaks to accomplish his personal agenda. When asked whether he anticipated the leak of a letter to Congress on a separate matter, he replied, “Of course. I know how Congress works.”
In sum, Comey admitted to having the motivation, access, and ability to conduct what would effectively be a covert influence operation designed to damage the president.
But did he act alone? Reporting by the New York Times suggests not.
According to the Grey Lady, there was a wholesale effort by the Obama administration to spread or disseminate classified information throughout the government and into the public domain that dealt with possible contacts between associates of Trump and the Russians.
In short, there were others – many others – who were joining Comey in a similar “brief to leak” operation designed to throw sand in the gears of a Trump presidency.
Regardless of who was involved or their precise motivation, one thing is certain: the spymasters’ decision to spread the dossier’s accusations contributed to nearly a year of political chaos that has roiled the nation.
Indeed, opponents of the president have repeatedly used the dossier as the foundation for their call for his impeachment. Democrats like chief investigator Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., highlight the document and its foreign author again and again to proclaim or suggest that Trump was either a secret Russian agent or had been blackmailed into doing Moscow’s bidding.
The message was clear: Trump must go.
Yet even if one agrees that Trump is not fit to serve, voters of all stripes should be outraged by the spymasters’ attempts to damage him. Indeed, one can disagree with Trump’s agenda or find him personally distasteful but that does not give license to ignore unlawful behavior by America’s law enforcement and intelligence communities.
Said differently, we cannot support an illicit political assassination simply because it brings about misfortune to those we oppose.
Accordingly, it’s time for Mueller to investigate our national security community with the same ferocity that he’s shown in his likely prosecution of Trump associates.
It’s time to investigate the scandal of America’s spymasters.