President Obama wanted things done by the book. He made that perfectly clear. Or rather, his closest confidante, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, made that clear in a memo she wrote to herself in the exact moments that Obama's presidency was ending.
It was her last action as National Security Adviser, and it was to let herself know that Obama wanted things done by the book.
Fifteen days earlier, on January 5, 2017, Obama summoned Rice to a meeting in the Oval Office along with Vice President Joe Biden, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. There, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan, and FBI Director James Comey briefed them on an ongoing investigation into Russian email hacking during the 2016 presidential election.
Once that briefing was complete, Obama had Biden, Rice, Yates, and Comey stay behind. In a little more than two weeks, Obama and Biden would leave office, but Comey and Yates would serve the incoming Donald Trump Administration--Comey as FBI Director and Yates as Acting Attorney General.
Obama wanted to tell them how to handle the Russia investigation under President Trump, specifically what details of it they should share with Trump's people and what details they would keep secret.
Obama wanted everything done by the book. Or rather, Rice wanted to make a record of him ordering everything done by the book. She didn't memorialize that meeting immediately after it was over, as one would do if the purpose was to preserve one's memory of it. She waited 15 days, almost as though she was tying up loose ends before Trump's people would have access to information and could start asking questions.
On January 20, 2017, at exactly 12:15:32 PM, while the rest of the country was watching Donald Trump's inauguration, Rice was finishing up and sending that memo to herself. After making a record of who was in attendance in the January 5 meeting, her first substantive paragraph does nothing but provide cover for Obama:
President Obama began the discussion by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities "by the book." The President stressed that he is not asking about, initiating, or instructing anything from a law enforcement perspective. He reiterated that our law enforcement team needs to proceed as it normally would by the book.
Why was Rice so adamant that Obama ordered everything to be done by the book? Because absolutely nothing about the investigation had been done by the book until then and nothing would be done by the book from then on out.
In the Spring of 2016, the Democratic National Committee's email server faced several cyber-attacks that resulted in the theft of thousands of emails from DNC members as well as from John Podesta, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign manager.
At about the same time, the Clinton campaign hired Glenn Simpson's opposition research firm Fusion GPS to dig into Trump, who was about to clinch the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter with dozens of contacts in the Washington press corps, immediately got to work painting Trump as a Russian stooge, or worse, a Russian asset.
Paul Manafort, Trump's newly hired campaign chairman, had done work for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, and Simpson apparently used this tie to start convincing members of the media that Trump's business interests in Russia made him a prime target for influence from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Two months later, Simpson hired former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele to use his contacts in Russia to compile a dossier on Trump's activities there. At almost the exact same time, the FBI first reportedly started its looking at the Trump campaign's ties to Russia. As The Independent reported in January, 2017:
The Guardian reports that the FBI applied for the warrant from the foreign intelligence surveillance (Fisa) court over the summer to keep an eye on Mr Trump team members suspected of irregular contacts with Russian officials.
Fisa reportedly turned it down in June 2016 and asked investigators to narrow their focus.
Strangely enough, the FBI claimed that it didn't launch its investigation into Russia's email hacking until a month later--after it learned that George Papadopoulos, a low-level Trump campaign staffer, drunkenly bragged about Russian contacts to an Australian foreign minister.
The official line from the FBI was that Peter Strzok, the Bureau's chief counterespionage agent, first opened an investigation into alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia in early July. Clearly, Fusion GPS had played a far more prominent role than the FBI was letting on, because on July 5, Steele first contacted agents in Rome with information he was compiling for his dossier.
On July 30, top Justice Department official Bruce Ohr met with Steele in Washington, D.C. to discuss his findings. Ohr had clearly been apprised of Steele's work from his wife Nellie, who worked at Fusion GPS.
The day after their meeting, the FBI officially launched what it called "Operation Crossfire Hurricane."
The agent in charge of it, Strzok, despised Donald Trump and a week later texted his lover, married FBI attorney Lisa Page, his intention to do whatever he could to stop him from becoming President.
The next week, Strzok likened "Crossfire Hurricane" to an insurance policy he was taking out in the unlikely event that Trump pulled ahead in the presidential race.
The point of the investigation was clear: Stop Trump at any cost. And the way Strzok planned to do it was through a series of leaks to the media. Four days after he texted Page about his insurance policy, on August 19, 2016, CNN ran a bombshell story: The FBI had opened an investigation into Trump's campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who promptly resigned.
That was just the first leak in a series out of the FBI's investigation into the Trump campaign over the next few months. On September 23, Yahoo! News correspondent Michael Isikoff used information from Steele's dossier to report on the ongoing investigation into Carter Page.
U.S. intelligence officials are seeking to determine whether an American businessman identified by Donald Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers has opened up private communications with senior Russian officials — including talks about the possible lifting of economic sanctions if the Republican nominee becomes president, according to multiple sources who have been briefed on the issue.
The activities of Trump adviser Carter Page, who has extensive business interests in Russia, have been discussed with senior members of Congress during recent briefings about suspected efforts by Moscow to influence the presidential election, the sources said.
The FBI and Justice Department continued to apply for FISA warrants to surveil Page, but were rejected each time, until finally, just a few weeks before the election, the FBI used information from Steele's dossier to obtain a warrant. The Bureau presented this as corroborated evidence and not what it clearly was--unconfirmed opposition research from a political operative.
The fraudulent warrant request was signed by James Comey and Sally Yates, two of the five people in the meeting in which President Obama supposedly told everyone to do things "by the book."
Nine days later, after the FBI paid Steele for his work as an informant and dismissed him, The New York Times reported that after months of investigating, the FBI had not found any connection between the Trump campaign and Russia.
WASHINGTON — For much of the summer, the F.B.I. pursued a widening investigation into a Russian role in the American presidential campaign. Agents scrutinized advisers close to Donald J. Trump, looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures, searched for those involved in hacking the computers of Democrats, and even chased a lead — which they ultimately came to doubt — about a possible secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank.
Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.
Hillary Clinton’s supporters, angry over what they regard as a lack of scrutiny of Mr. Trump by law enforcement officials, pushed for these investigations. In recent days they have also demanded that James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I., discuss them publicly, as he did last week when he announced that a new batch of emails possibly connected to Mrs. Clinton had been discovered.
On November 8, 2016, the unthinkable happened. Donald Trump was elected President.
Two days later, President Obama spoke with him in the Oval Office and made an unusual request: Don't hire former Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. It was so odd and out of the blue that Trump's team thought it was a lighthearted joke.
It wasn't. Obama hated Flynn and seemingly knew that the focus of the FBI's Russia investigation had turned to him.
Trump ignored Obama's advice and hired Flynn as his National Security Advisor on November 18. He immediately got to work talking with foreign ambassadors on behalf of the incoming Administration. As soon as he did, members of the Obama Administration--Comey, Clapper, Brennan, Rice, Biden, Obama's Chief of Staff John McDonough, and UN Ambassador Samantha Power--began requesting the "unmasking" of Flynn's name after he was incidentally captured by intelligence agency surveillance monitoring foreign targets.
Power made unmasking requests seven times between Nov. 30, 2016 and Jan. 11, 2017. The list revealed that Clapper made three requests from Dec. 2, 2016 through Jan. 7, 2017; and that Brennan made two requests, one on Dec. 14 and one on Dec. 15, 2016. Comey also made a request on Dec. 15, 2016. On Jan. 5, 2017, McDonough made one request, and on Jan. 12, 2017, Biden made one request.
As part of his work on the presidential transition, Flynn met with and called Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak several times in December of 2016. On December 29, the two discussed sanctions the U.S. had placed on Russia for Russia's election-related hacking. Naturally, Obama Administration officials were listening, and within days the call leaked to the media.
Suddenly, the idea that "Russian collusion" had been the reason Trump won the White House was the dominant narrative. But what was driving it? According to Shattered, a book about Clinton's defeat from journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, it was Team Clinton.
"Within 24 hours of her concession speech,” they wrote, campaign manager Robby Mook and campaign chair John Podesta "assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument."
Now, it was the centerpiece of the media's coverage of the Trump transition.
Amid this deafening din, Obama held the infamous meeting in the Oval Office in which he supposedly instructed Biden, Rice, Comey, and Yates to do things by the book.
But the rule book had already been rewritten. Two days earlier, Attorney General Lynch signed off on new rules that would allow the National Security Agency to more broadly disseminate surveillance data among the federal government's intelligence agencies.
"The new rules significantly relax longstanding limits on what the N.S.A. may do with the information gathered by its most powerful surveillance operations, which are largely unregulated by American wiretapping laws," The New York Times reported. "These include collecting satellite transmissions, phone calls and emails that cross network switches abroad, and messages between people abroad that cross domestic network switches."
And that included communication from Michael Flynn.
The day after Obama instructed Comey to proceed by the book, Comey went to Trump Tower to brief the President on Russia's activities. He used Steele's dossier as an example of some of the false information that was circulating and urged him to trust the intelligence community. This was mere pretext, though, for giving the media an excuse to finally report on the dossier.
It had been an open secret in media circles since at least September, but no outlet dared report on its contents since it was full of unverified rumor and speculation. These outlets knew what the FBI knew almost instantly: The dossier was bunk. But just as the FBI had used it to obtain wiretaps, the media used it to advance its collusion narrative.
On January 10, Buzzfeed News published it and the media went wild. Just ten days before Trump was inaugurated, millions of people became convinced that he was a Russian asset. And Michael Flynn's communication with the Russian Ambassador was central to it all.
He was conducting shadow foreign policy on behalf of a compromised boss! He was undermining Obama! He was violating the Logan Act!
In fact, he did none of it, and on January 4, the FBI cleared him of any wrongdoing. POLITICO reported:
The FBI took steps in early 2017 to close its investigation into former Trump adviser Michael Flynn before abruptly reversing course, according to new documents filed in Flynn’s pending legal effort to rescind his guilty plea for lying to federal agents.
The filings indicate that by Jan. 4, 2017, the FBI had drafted a document summarizing findings on a probe — code-named “Crossfire Razor” — of whether Flynn had been acting as a Russian agent during the 2016 campaign. The partly redacted document, which was included in the court filings, indicated the FBI had no “derogatory” information on Flynn and was prepared to close the case.
“A review of logical ... databases did not yield information on which to predicate further investigative efforts,” the document reads.
But messages later that afternoon between senior agents and FBI officials show a last-minute reversal, driven by discussions at the bureau’s highest levels.
“Hey, don’t close RAZOR,” FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok wrote to an agent whose name is redacted but is identified in the conversation as the official case agent. He adds, “7th floor involved,” a reference to the highest echelons of FBI leadership.
Why the sudden change of course? It was obviously discussed the next day, when Comey met with Obama in the "by the book" meeting in the Oval Office. Neither Comey nor Yates proceeded by the book, though, when they circumvented normal procedure and personally directed Strzok and another agent to interview Flynn on January 24.
A day earlier, the FBI had leaked to the Washington Post that Flynn was not the target of the ongoing investigation, so when the agents arrived at the White House, Flynn did not believe he was in any trouble. He let his guard down. And the agents led him into a supposed lie about his communications with Kislyak.
Only according to a House Intelligence Committee report, they didn't actually think he lied:
The unredacted portion of the report, written by Republicans on the panel, details testimony from former FBI Director James Comey and his then-deputy, Andrew McCabe. The report says McCabe, in particular, testified that the two agents who interviewed Flynn “didn’t think he was lying."
Despite the agents' initial impressions, McCabe reportedly testified that officials found that Flynn’s statements to investigators were “inconsistent” with their “understanding of the conversation that he had actually had with the ambassador.”
Handwritten notes from one of the agents actually questioned whether the point of the interview, which was set by Yates and Comey, was in fact "to get him [Flynn] to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired."
That is what is known in the law as a perjury trap--a form of entrapment in which a defendant is called to testify or interviewed by law enforcement with the express purpose of getting him to lie. Flynn was caught in it, and on November 5, 2017, he was criminally charged for it.
Less than a month later, he agreed to plead guilty because, as NBC News reported, if he would be "willing to co-operate with investigators in order to help his son, two of sources said, it could also change his own fate, potentially limiting any legal consequences."
Prosecutors initially recommended no prison time but then suddenly reversed course in January 2020 and recommended six months. In light of revelations about the FBI's entrapment, however, his sentencing was postponed indefinitely until the Justice Department finally moved to drop the charges this month.
The damage, though, was done. For years, the public believed the Trump-Russia collusion narrative (even after Special Counsel Robert Mueller found definitively that there was none) in large measure because Michael Flynn was charged in connection with it. He wasn't. He was charged with lying to FBI agents who didn't even think he was lying. He was caught in a perjury trap and faced financial and personal ruin because of it.
But no matter: The investigation that wrongly ensnared him was most definitely done "by the book."