We may be about to learn if the mainstream media can walk and cover two important but related stories at the same time.
For over a year the media have breathlessly followed every turn in the probes of Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election, along with any possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.
But now a new story is about to bust open, involving Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes sent a letter Thursday to the Justice Department demanding compliance by Wednesday with the subpoenas his committee issued for information on how the department and its FBI subsidiary have handled the Russia probe.
If the Justice Department stonewalls, the House could launch contempt proceedings or even vote to declassify and release some of the documents.
Nunes didn’t mince words in his letter. Noting the four months of stonewalling he’s gotten, he concluded that “at this point it seems the DOJ (Justice Department) and FBI need to be investigating themselves.”
Nunes documented a series of evasive maneuvers by the Justice Department. As a result of these maneuvers, documents and witnesses subpoenaed by his committee last August have still not been produced. Most relate to the dossier of unverified alleged connections – some financial and some salacious – between Donald Trump and Russia, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
The dossier was paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. But it attracted the attention of the FBI, which dispatched three agents to interview Steele in Rome. The FBI even planned a few weeks before the 2016 election to pay Steele to continue his work.
Nunes wants to know if the FBI went further and caused the Steele dossier to be used as a justification for warrants to engage in the surveillance of Trump campaign figures before the election. The congressman’s letter raises the intriguing question: are there two forms of possible collusion from the 2016 campaign that need to investigated?
One topic of investigation could be possible contacts between Team Trump and Russia. The other topic could be possible collusion between intelligence officials and purveyors of partisan political dirt to launch surveillance against U.S. citizens and taint Trump before voters went to the polls.
Is the media capable of covering both stories? While Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe grinds on, shouldn’t we also know if Nunes is right that “DOJ/FBI’s intransigence ... is part of a broader pattern of behavior?”
In other words, is there a cover-up going on?
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who bitterly opposed Trump in the 2016 presidential primaries and has often been harshly critical of him as president, went so far to tell Fox News on Friday that a special counsel should be appointed to look into the handling of the Steele dossier by the Justice Department and FBI.
“I've spent some time in the last couple of days, after a lot of fighting with the Department of Justice, to get the background on the dossier, and here's what I can tell your viewers,” Graham said. “I'm very disturbed about what the Department of Justice did with this dossier, and we need a special counsel to look into that, because that's not in Mueller's charter.”
Graham continued: “And what I saw, and what I've gathered in the last couple of days, bothers me a lot, and I'd like somebody outside DOJ to look into how this dossier was handled and what they did with it….. After having looked at the history of the dossier, and how it was used by the Department of Justice, I'm really very concerned, and this cannot be the new normal.”
Graham’s key point is that he has new information explaining why the Justice Department has a motive to withhold witnesses and documents from Nunes. In other words, a cover-up may be going on.
The Justice Department has offered up various excuses for not producing the documents. At first, department officials claimed the documents didn’t exist. But Nunes writes: “As it turns out, not only did documents exist that were directly responsive to the committee’s subpoenas, but they involved senior DOJ and FBI officials who were swiftly reassigned when their roles in matters under the committee’s investigation were brought to light.”
The Justice Department and FBI officials involved included Bruce Ohr. He has been demoted from his former position of associate deputy attorney general because he had unauthorized contacts with Fusion GPS, the Democratic National Committee-paid firm responsible for the Steele dossier.
Ohr’s wife worked at Fusion GPS at the time. Other people reassigned include: James Baker, the FBI’s general counsel during 2016; and Peter Strzok, the bureau’s No. 2 counterintelligence official.
Strzok was largely responsible for kick-starting the FBI’s original probe into the Trump campaign. He was later assigned to Mueller’s special counsel staff. However, he was forced out after it was revealed that he exchanged 375 virulently anti-Trump text messages with fellow FBI agent Lisa Page, who was also on Mueller’s team.
Strzok also apparently attended meetings in the office of Deputy Director Andrew McCabe discussing how to stop Trump. And McCabe’s wife received $700,000 from close Hillary Clinton allies when running for the state legislature in Virginia in 2015. Last month it was reported that McCabe will soon be retiring.
Nunes wants to interview all of these players, along with FBI Attorney Sally Moyer and FBI Assistant Director for Congressional Affairs Greg Brower.
The heat being applied to the Justice Department and the FBI over possible misuses of the Steele dossier may have prompted some government officials to launch a diversion. A New York Times story last week reported that the FBI’s probe of Team Trump during the 2016 campaign, didn’t originate with the Steele dossier. Instead, the story says the probe was sparked by loose talk in a London bar from lower-level Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, who has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
The Times reports its sources are “current and former officials” inside the government. But the newspaper never seems to pin them down on why those officials didn’t interview Papadopoulos until late January of 2017 – nine months after he came to their attention – or if they even bothered to make him one of their surveillance targets before that.
All of these loose ends and information stonewalling have started to interest a few media commentators.
Paul Callan, a former prosecutor who is a CNN legal analyst, wrote last week: “While I rarely agree with much of what the President does or says regarding legal issues, this time he's got it right. The FBI's reputation has been severely damaged not by the President's criticism but by a systematic failure of the bureau's leadership … the bureau's leadership ranks require a prompt and thorough house cleaning by the new director, Christopher Wray. The bureau's leadership has forfeited the reputation of a cherished American institution.”
President Trump has certainly behaved like the proverbial bull in a china shop by denouncing the Russia probe as a “witch hunt” and lashing out at former FBI Director James Comey. But obviously, the president’s tactics haven’t worked.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, has defended Mueller and apparently given him a free hand.
President Trump seems to be following the advice of his lawyers not to unilaterally declassify any Justice Department records. As the Wall Street Journal noted this week: “The Justice Department ultimately reports to Mr. Trump. Yet he can’t even get his nominees at the FBI and Justice to tell Congress what they used as evidence to get a FISA warrant against Trump campaign officials in 2016. Who is the unaccountable authority here?”
Former CBS News journalist Sharyl Attkisson has written a trenchant commentary about how U.S. intelligence agencies have abused the privacy of Americans. She lists 10 examples of such abuses and concludes that intelligence and Justice Department officials sometimes “operate not just in direct defiance of their superiors, but of the Congress, the courts and the very laws of the land as well.”
You’d think that media obsessed with Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign would also be interested in that story. It would be especially timely, given that the Stephen Spielberg movie “The Post” is now in theaters retelling how major newspapers bravely overcame the stonewalling of the Nixon administration in trying to keep the Pentagon Papers from being published and revealing how the U.S. blundered into Vietnam.
But when it comes to the stonewalling of the Trump Justice Department or Obama-era intelligence officials, there is only crickets. Chairman Nunes’ letter charging the Justice Department with misbehavior received scant news coverage.
It’s time the media raised some questions of everyone concerned. If they choose not to, they may be remembered in history as being complicit in a cover-up, rather than emulating the brave Watergate-era journalists who stripped away the cover-ups of that time.