Eric Felten: Analyze this

Eric Felten is a meticulous and literate reporter as well as one of my favorite analysts of the mysteries of Russiagate. We have previously posted Eric’s July 1 RealClearInvestigations column “Insinuendo: Why the Mueller Report doth repeat so much.” Eric waded further into the Mueller miasma in the RCI column “The shaky foundations of Mueller’s footnotes.” Most recently, Eric explored “The Mifsud mystery.” Today Eric continues his investigation of Russiagate in the RCI column “Why Was the FBI Incurious About a Hot Collusion Tip Involving This Man?” RCI authorizes the republication of its articles with attribution and we are happy to take advantage of the opportunity here. Eric writes:

Even after the 2016 presidential election, Trump-Russia dossier author Christopher Steele and company kept coming up with allegations that Donald Trump and his campaign had conspired with the Kremlin.

On Dec. 12, 2016, the FBI was informed of a new, specific claim from Glenn Simpson, Steele’s patron at opposition research outfit Fusion GPS — a tip with the whiff of a smoking gun: “A former Trump campaign official, possibly Rick Wilson, was talking about some of the Trump ties to Russia and the Trump Campaign tried to sue him for violating his non-disclosure agreement.”

What a remarkable break for the bureau. If true, a Trump insider, with closely guarded secrets to tell, could have provided agents with firsthand evidence of collusion with Russia. So, did the FBI hurry to chase down the one person most able to verify the claim – Rick Wilson himself, a veteran political strategist and Republican operative?

It did not. “Nope. Not a word,” Wilson told RealClearInvestigations when asked whether he ever heard from the bureau. Asked why Wilson was never contacted, bureau spokeswoman Carol Cratty replied, “The FBI has no comment.”

Simpson’s oddball claim, which emerged in FBI files made public by recent Judicial Watch litigation, would have been easy to debunk. Wilson was already a well-known “Never-Trump” Republican. He not only didn’t work for the campaign; Wilson had told CNN in the early presidential primary days of 2015 that he was gathering opposition research of his own on Trump. He bragged that his file on Trump was going to be “the most magnificent document in history.”

The FBI’s lack of curiosity may say more about its eagerness to work with Steele and company than anything else. Bureau officials had been so eager that they made Steele a “confidential human source,” promising to pay him for information, even though it knew he was already being paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. In October 2016, the FBI and Department of Justice vouched for Steele’s credibility in using his claims to help secure a spy warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Moreover, the flow of dirt from Steele continued even after his undercover status was revoked in November 2016 for talking to the media — with a warning not to “obtain any intelligence whatsoever on behalf of the FBI.” The workaround: Senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr – whose wife, Nellie, worked for Fusion GPS – became a go-between, interviewing Steele and Simpson on a regular basis and passing on their allegations to the bureau.

In the ensuing years, current and former FBI officials have insisted that the bureau had actively, aggressively vetted Steele and Simpson’s claims. On Dec. 7, 2018, former FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees that “an effort was under way to try to replicate, either rule in or rule out, as much of that collection of reports that’s commonly now called the Steele dossier as possible.”

The problem was that there simply was no way to prove most of Steele and Simpson’s claims true or false. Take the infamous “golden shower” assertion. That’s when Trump, staying at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton in 2013, supposedly hired “a number of prostitutes” to urinate “in front of him” on a bed that President Obama had slept on. Steele said it was likely Russia state security services had taped the incident, leaving Trump open to blackmail. This lewd anecdote is attributed to a couple of unnamed sources, one of whom (Source F) is at least described: “a female staffer at the hotel when TRUMP had stayed there.”

Imagine the degree of difficulty for even the most determined and dedicated G-man given the task of corroborating such a claim. Where would the agent start in trying to track down a woman who worked at the hotel three years before, knowing nothing else about her? How would he find the right prostitutes in a town with a large number of them?

Who knows? Maybe it could be done.

FBI Deputy Assistant Director Jonathan Moffa assured lawmakers behind closed doors in 2018 – roughly two years after Simpson and Steele began circulating their claims – that the bureau was “looking at those facts, and doing that research and analytic work to try to verify, refute, or corroborate.”

But one claim, the allegation about Rick Wilson, would have been simple to “verify, refute, or corroborate” the day it was made in the middle of December 2016.

Instead, over the course of the following month, FBI officials would brief President Obama and President-elect Trump on Steele and Simpson’s allegations, and seek re-authorization from a FISA court to keep tapping Carter Page’s phone. The surveillance requests were approved after FBI and Justice Department officials, presumably under oath, asserted that Steele, in his role as a contractor working for Simpson, was a “reliable” source.

To test the hypothesis that Steele and Simpson had reliable information, all the FBI agents needed to do was call Rick Wilson. They didn’t pick up the phone.

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