The FBI decision to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser hinged on an unsubstantiated rumor from a Clinton campaign-paid dossier that the Washington Post’s Moscow sources had quickly shot down as “bullshit” and “impossible,” according to emails disclosed last week to a D.C. court hearing the criminal case of a Clinton lawyer accused of lying to the FBI.
Though the FBI presumably had access to better sources than the newspaper, agents did little to verify the rumor that Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page had secretly met with sanctioned Kremlin officials in Moscow. Instead, the bureau pounced on the dossier report the day it received it, immediately plugging the rumor into an application under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to wiretap Page as a suspected Russian agent.
The allegation, peddled to both the press and FBI in the summer of 2016 by Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign to dig up dirt on Trump during the presidential race, proved to be the linchpin in winning approval for the 2016 warrant, which was renewed three times in 2017 – even though the FBI learned there were serious holes in the story and had failed to independently corroborate it.
The revelations of early media skepticism about the Trump-Russia narrative before journalists embraced it are included in a 62-page batch of emails between Fusion and prominent Beltway reporters released by Special Counsel John Durham, who is scouring the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign for evidence of abuse and criminal wrongdoing.
The documents suggest that some journalists, as keen as they were to report dirt on Trump, were nevertheless more cautious than FBI investigators about embracing hearsay information served up by Clinton agents. (The FBI declined comment.) The new material also offers a look at the lengths to which those working on Clinton’s behalf went in order to seed the government with unverified rumors about Trump and Russia that amounted to a disinformation campaign. Among those targeted were powerful Democratic members of Congress, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who proved to be a willing collaborator.
Trump as ‘Manchurian Candidate’
The story of high-level Kremlin meetings didn’t ring true with some in the press, who checked with sources in Moscow and pushed back on Fusion GPS. But journalists’ interest in the story remained high during the campaign.
In an interview, Page said he was flooded with calls during the summer of 2016 from Washington journalists, including veteran reporters from the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. He said Fusion had misled them into believing they were working on the story of their lifetimes – that a real-life “Manchurian candidate,” or Russian sleeper agent, was running for president.
“Each news outlet kept calling me,” he said. “One by one.”
Page said he strenuously denied the accusations.
“It was B.S.,” he said. “I tried to warn them.”
As eager as journalists may have been to make Trump appear to be a Kremlin operative, some were skeptical about what Fusion was telling them about Page. Among those were now former Wall Street Journal foreign affairs correspondent Jay Solomon, who used “Manchurian candidate” in a July 2016 email exchange with Fusion, expressing his doubt.
“Everyone wants shit on this,” insisted Fusion co-founder Peter Fritsch, a former Journal reporter himself, in an attempt to coax his old colleague Solomon into covering the story.
Fritsch then outlined the rumors Fusion had just received from Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer his firm had hired to help tie Trump to Russia as part of its contract with the Clinton campaign. Those rumors, contained in a series of memos known as the Steele dossier, were shared with the FBI, including “Intelligence Report 94” dated July 19, 2016. It claimed that during a July 2016 trip to Moscow, Page attended a “secret meeting” with Putin crony Igor Sechin to discuss lifting Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia. The dossier also alleged that Page met with Kremlin official Igor Divyekin to share compromising information about Clinton with the Trump campaign.
An ‘Easy Scoop,’ Said GPS
“The easy scoop waiting for confirmation: that dude carter page met with igor sechin when he went to moscow earlier this month,” Fritsch stated in a July 26, 2016, email pitching the story to Solomon. “sechin discussed energy deals and possible lifting of sanctions on himself et al. he also met with a senior kremlin official called divyekin, who told page they have good kompromat on hillary and offered to help. he also warned page they have good kompromat on the donald.” (“Kompromat” is compromising information typically used in blackmail.)
Added Fritsch, referring in part to the mass leak of Democratic emails by WikiLeaks before the 2016 Democratic National Convention in late July: “needless to say, a senior trump advisor meeting with a former kgb official close to putin, who is on a treasury sanctions list, days before the republican convention and a big russian-backed wikileak would be huge news.”
Indeed it would be – if it were true. “Thanks for this,” Solomon said. “Will run down.”
But later that day, Solomon reported back that “Page is neither confirming nor denying,” so Fritsch suggested he “call adam schiff or difi,” referring to the then-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. It is not clear what information Fritsch expected the two Democrats to provide. (Schiff would later read the same raw dossier rumors about Page into the congressional record during a public hearing about Trump’s alleged Russian ties.)
Three days later, Fusion’s attempts to plant their rumor in influential media outlets hit more resistance. Another Journal alumnus, Tom Hamburger, said he was “getting kick back” while trying to confirm the rumor for the Washington Post, where he worked on the paper’s national desk.
“That Page met with Sechin or Ivanov. ‘Its [sic] bullshit. Impossible,’ said one of our Moscow sources,” Hamburger reported back to Fusion co-founder Glenn Simpson, who also previously worked for the Journal. (The rumor included Sergei Ivanov, a top Putin aide.) The Post’s Moscow bureau chief at the time was David Filipov. Hamburger added that another reporter he knew “doesn’t like this story” and was passing on it.
“No worries, I don’t expect lots of people to believe it,” Simpson replied. “It is, indeed, hard to believe.”
As Fusion was pushing the rumors to reporters that July, its subcontractor Steele was pushing them to FBI agents, who received copies of his dossier earlier in the month. Steele also briefed a top Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, on the Carter Page rumors on July 30 during a breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C., and asked Ohr to relay them to FBI brass. The next day, the FBI officially opened its Crossfire Hurricane investigation targeting Trump advisers – though the bureau says this decision was based on a tip it had received from an Australian diplomat.
For his part, Hamburger still pursued the story, asking for documents on Page later that month; and Fusion recycled the false rumor in an internal report, separate from the Steele dossier, which it emailed to Hamburger and another Post reporter in September.
The report, which Fritsch claimed that “one of our [research] associates wrote,” went beyond even the dossier. It asserted that Page’s July 8 speech at the New Economic School in Moscow (where President Obama had also once spoken) was “concocted to give Page a public explanation for his trip to Moscow, which sources say included secret meetings with top Kremlin officials, where the American presidential campaign and U.S. sanctions against Russia were both discussed.”
Fritsch did not say who the Fusion “sources” were. But around the same time, he and Simpson brought Steele to Washington to brief journalists from the Post, the New York Times, CNN, and Yahoo News on Page in a private room at the Tabard Inn, a hotel-bar long a favorite of Washington scribes.
Fusion had finally found a media outlet to take the bait it had been chumming out to reporters for months. After meeting with Steele for about an hour, Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff ran with the rumors in a September 23 online article, which the FBI then used to corroborate the dossier in its initial October 2016 FISA application, even though the supposed corroboration was redundant: Steele and his dossier were Isikoff’s source for the story. (Isikoff, who did not respond to requests for comment, would later write in a 2018 book he co-authored, “Russian Roulette,” that the rumors about Page were just “pillow talk.”)
The Clinton campaign jumped on what it called Isikoff’s “bombshell report” and heavily promoted it on social media. Clinton campaign official Glen Caplin issued a statement republishing the Yahoo piece in full and proclaiming: “It’s chilling to learn that U.S. intelligence officials are conducting a probe into suspected meetings between Trump’s foreign policy adviser Carter Page and members of Putin’s inner circle while in Moscow … [T]his report suggests Page met with a sanctioned top Russian official to discuss the possibility of ending U.S. sanctions against Russia under a Trump presidency – an action that could directly enrich both Trump and Page while undermining American interests.”
Added Caplin: “This is serious business and voters deserve the facts before election day.”
But the media never reported the real facts behind the story – that it was all based on Clinton campaign opposition research – which allowed the rumors to survive without any real scrutiny for years.
The Washington Post eventually stopped paying attention to the red flags surrounding the dossier. The newspaper seized on other rumors Fusion fed reporters from the Clinton-paid document.
Hamburger, for one, later bit on a tip that the source for the most explosive allegations in the dossier was a Trump supporter with Kremlin ties. He reported in 2017 that Sergei Millian was behind the claim that Russian President Vladimir Putin had compromising sex tapes of Trump and that he and Trump were engaged in a “well-developed conspiracy” to steal the 2016 election.
However, the Post had to retract his stories after Special Counsel John Durham last year disclosed that Millian was fabricated as a source. The prosecutor indicted Steele’s “primary subsource,” Igor Danchenko, for lying to the FBI when he told agents that Millian was a source for the dossier. Millian had nothing to do with the dossier, as RCI reported. Danchenko, who awaits trial, apparently made it all up.
Hamburger did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
‘Pushed It Over’ the Line
Carter Page, who is suing the former corporate parent of Yahoo News for defamation, suggested anti-Trump bias blinded the media to glaring problems with the dossier. But even more alarming, he said, is how FBI leaders, whose text messages reveal that they shared the media’s hatred for Trump, were even more reckless in gunning for him. Page said it’s outrageous that, at least initially, the press seemed to have “higher ethical standards” than FBI headquarters.
On Sept. 19, 2016, the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team formally received Steele’s dossier Report 94 alleging Page’s secret Kremlin meetings, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who detailed the FBI’s handling of the rumors in a 2019 report. That same day, the team began discussions with department lawyers “to consider Steele’s reporting as part of a FISA application targeting Carter Page.”
In an email to attorneys, FBI Supervisory Intelligence Analyst Brian Auten forwarded an excerpt from Steele’s report and asked, “Does this put us at least that much closer to a full FISA on [Carter Page]?” The FBI agent handling the case said the rumors from Steele “supplied missing information in terms of what Page may have been doing during his July 2016 visit to Moscow.”
The attorneys thought it was a “close call” when they first discussed a FISA targeting Page in early August, Horowitz relayed in his report, but the Steele reporting in September “pushed it over” the line in terms of establishing probable cause.
In the run-up to the FBI securing approval for the FISA request in late October 2016, the bureau tasked an undercover informant, Stefan Halper, to question Page about the alleged meetings with Kremlin officials. Halper struck out. In a conversation Halper recorded surreptitiously, Page not only denied huddling with Sechin and Divyekin but said he had never even heard of Divyekin. The FBI decided not to include these inconvenient facts in its FISA warrant application, an omission the Justice Department’s inspector general found striking.
“The application did not contain these denials even though the application relied upon the allegations in Report 94 that Page had secret meetings with both Sechin and Divyekin,” the Horowitz report noted.
It wasn’t the only exculpatory evidence the FBI left out of its FISA applications. It also omitted information it possessed showing that Page, who had once worked in Moscow as a Merrill Lynch investment banker, had earlier assisted the FBI in catching a Russian spy, as RealClearInvestigations first reported. The former Navy lieutenant also previously helped the CIA monitor Russia, something an FBI attorney deliberately hid from the FISA court. (The lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, was recently convicted of charges related to his doctoring of a government email documenting Page’s role as a CIA source.)
In early 2017, as the FBI was preparing to reapply for wiretaps on Page, Steele’s primary subsource Danchenko told Auten and other FBI officials that he had made it clear to Steele that he had only heard a rumor that such clandestine meetings might take place but not that they actually occurred as Steele wrote in his dossier. The FBI nonetheless omitted from subsequent FISA renewal applications the revelation of Danchenko backing away from the critical piece of information supporting probable cause and admitting it was merely hearsay.
In the end, “The FBI was unable to determine whether a meeting between Sechin and Page took place,” Horowitz wrote in his report.
Page said it’s “chilling” that the nation’s most powerful police force could act so cavalierly, disregarding basic investigative procedures like verifying tips and rumors before obtaining wiretaps on a U.S. citizen.
Worse, he said, is how the FBI misled the secret FISA court. In a 2020 review of the applications, the powerful court determined that at least two of the surveillance warrants were invalid and therefore illegal. Page is now suing both the FBI and Justice Department for $75 million for violating his constitutional rights.