A common theme that has emerged from the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation is bureau officials’ use of media reports and leaks to advance aspects of the bureau’s probe of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
In at least five instances, FBI officials capitalized on the so-called news hooks — also called news pegs, in journalistic jargon — as justification to open up new areas of the investigation.
James Comey, Andrew McCabe and Peter Strzok all took advantage of media reports to push the investigation forward. And in one case, Comey orchestrated a leak of his own to spur the appointment of a special counsel.
Prominent media outlets played a key role in advancing the now-debunked theory that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government. Much of that media manipulation centered around the infamous Steele dossier, which the Clinton campaign and DNC funded.
Christopher Steele, a former British spy, briefed numerous reporters, the FBI, Department of Justice (DOJ), State Department and think tank officials on his dossier. The FBI’s possession of the dossier itself would eventually serve as a news hook that allowed Steele’s unverified allegations to make their way into public view.
Comey’s dossier briefing to Donald Trump
Comey’s briefing on Jan. 6, 2017, to then-President-elect Donald Trump regarding allegations in the Steele dossier touched off a series of events that shifted the collusion investigation into high gear.
The FBI received information from Steele months earlier, and numerous media outlets had a copy of the full dossier, which accused the Trump campaign of conspiring with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election. Steele, a former MI6 officer, also alleged that the Kremlin was blackmailing Trump with a sex videotape.
Comey has justified briefing Trump on the blackmail portion of the dossier claiming that he did so because the media had the dossier and was poised to publish it.
“I said I wasn’t saying this was true, only that I wanted him to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands,” Comey wrote in a memo following his briefing.
“I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook. I said it was important that we not give them the excuse to write the FBI has the material or [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close hold.”
Despite Comey’s concerns, CNN found its excuse to write about the dossier. Four days after the briefing, the network reported that the meeting with Trump occurred and that he was briefed on the existence of a salacious document that alleged that the Russian government had compromising information on the president-elect.
BuzzFeed News used the CNN report as a news hook of its own. The website cited CNN’s report as justification to publish the entire dossier, sparking a controversy that drags on to this day.
While Comey has publicly claimed that his purpose for the Trump briefing was to warn the incoming president of rumors floating around about him, he also appears to have used the meeting to advance the Crossfire Hurricane probe.
FBI officials told the DOJ’s office of the inspector general (OIG) that they and Comey discussed using the briefing to collect information for Crossfire Hurricane.
“Witnesses interviewed by the OIG also said that they discussed Trump’s potential responses to being told about the ‘salacious’ information, including that Trump might make statements about, or provide information of value to, the pending Russian interference investigation,” reads an August 2019 report regarding Comey’s memos.
Comey told the OIG that he treated the memo he wrote following the Jan. 6, 2017, briefing as if it were obtained through surveillance, suggesting that he viewed it as material derived through an investigation rather than a simple defensive briefing.
According to the OIG report, Comey said his post-briefing memo “ought to be treated … [like] FISA derived information or information in a [counterintelligence] investigation,” a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Peter Strzok capitalizes on dossier’s release
The FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigators were far from upset over the publication of the dossier.
Strzok, the FBI deputy chief of counterintelligence at the time, immediately seized on the publication in order to advance the probe.
“Sitting with Bill watching CNN. A TON more out,” Strzok texted FBI lawyer Lisa Page on Jan. 10, 2017, just after publication of the dossier.
Strzok was seemingly referring to Bill Priestap, his boss at the FBI.
“Hey let me know when you can talk. We’re discussing whether, now that this is out, we use it as a pretext to go interview some people,” Strzok added.
According to an inspector general’s report on the Crossfire Hurricane probe, Strzok said that he recalled that the text messages referred to the possibility of interviewing former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Steele accused both of taking part in the Trump-Kremlin conspiracy.
Strzok told the OIG investigators that the Steele dossier could be used as cover to conduct the interviews without compromising the Crossfire Hurricane probe.
“Strzok said the media release of the reports would be a logical reason for the FBI to interview Cohen and Manafort without alerting them to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” the OIG report stated.
Weeks after the dossier was published, two FBI agents would investigate former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos for the first time. Court documents show that the investigators initially told Papadopoulos that they wanted to speak to him about an associate, Sergei Millian, who had been identified in the media as a possible unwitting source for the dossier.
FBI agents also interviewed Steele’s primary dossier source in the days before Trump’s inauguration. That source told investigators that Steele embellished key parts of the dossier.
McCabe says leaks about Michael Flynn prompted White House interview
The FBI also seized on a seemingly illegal leak of classified information to the media in order to advance its investigation of Michael Flynn.
McCabe, who served as deputy director of the FBI, testified on Dec. 19, 2017, that FBI leaders wanted to use a column published in The Washington Post as a pretext to interview Flynn.
On Jan. 12, 2017, Post columnist David Ignatius cited a senior U.S. government official who said that Flynn had spoken by phone weeks earlier with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. Ignatius raised the possibility that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia and that the retired general might have violated an obscure law called the Logan Act.
The leak appeared to be based on information from classified transcripts of Flynn’s calls in late December 2016 with Kislyak.
At the time, the FBI was investigating whether Flynn and three other Trump associates were working as agents of Russia.
On Jan. 24, 2017, days after Flynn took over as national security adviser, McCabe phoned him to arrange an interview at the White House.
“Why did the Bureau interview General Flynn when they did? What was the reasoning for the interview?” then-Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina asked McCabe in a December 2017 House Intelligence Committee deposition.
“To the best of my recollection, we interviewed General Flynn at that time because of the existence … of his conversation, the record of his conversation with Ambassador Kislyak had become widely known through press reporting,” McCabe answered.
“[T]here was no reason to continue, kind of, in a covert investigative posture and so we wanted to sit down with General Flynn and understand, kind of, what his thoughts on that conversation were.”
Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1, 2017, to making false statements during that interview. But the DOJ has since filed to drop the case after Flynn retracted his claim to have lied to the FBI.
Flynn’s lawyers and supporters have theorized that Flynn was somehow set up in a perjury trap through the use of the leak to the Post and McCabe’s request to interview Flynn. Ignatius’s source has not been publicly identified.
Comey orchestrated leaks to prompt special counsel
After his firing on May 9, 2017, Comey created a news hook to justify the appointment of a special counsel to take over Crossfire Hurricane.
Comey testified that he provided his memos to his friend, Daniel Richman, after his firing in order to prompt the appointment of a special counsel.
Comey said he authorized Richman to provide New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt with memos that laid out Comey’s interaction with Trump regarding the alleged request to not investigate Flynn.
“I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself for a variety of reasons,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 7, 2017.
“I asked him to because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel.”
The Times published an article based on Comey’s memo on May 16, 2017. The next day, then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel.
Mueller’s investigation ultimately found no evidence to support the initial theory of Crossfire Hurricane: that members of the Trump campaign conspired with Russia. Mueller also found no evidence that any Trump associates acted as agents of the Russian government.
FBI used news articles to justify steps in Carter Page investigation
The FBI used several media reports to justify steps in their investigation into whether Carter Page was a Russian agent.
Applications for FISA orders that the FBI submitted on Page in 2016 and 2017 show at least three areas where news reports about the Trump aide were used to open up new lines of inquiry or to make the case that he was working for Russia.
The FISAs stated that an FBI confidential human source, or CHS, met with Page on Oct. 17, 2016, and “made general inquiries about the media reporting regarding Page’s contacts with Russian officials.”
The FBI source, Stefan Halper, had met with Page for the first time months earlier.
“Although Page did not provide any specific details to refute, dispel, or clarify the media reporting, he made vague statements that minimized his activities,” read the FISA applications, which have recently been declassified.
The FBI also cited reports that appeared in summer 2016 to justify its logic that Page was working with Russia.
One of Steele’s unverified claims was that Page secretly met two Kremlin insiders in Moscow in July 2016 to discuss relaxing U.S. sanctions against Russia, and to drive a wedge between the United States and Ukraine.
News reports in the Post and other outlets in July and August 2016 said the Trump campaign mysteriously altered the language in the GOP platform regarding providing lethal aid to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.
Citing those reports and Steele’s allegations, the FISA applications said that the “FBI assesses that, following Page’s meetings in Russia, Page helped influence [the Republican party] and [Trump’s] campaign to alter their platforms to be more sympathetic to Russia.”
That theory was ultimately debunked. The OIG report on Crossfire Hurricane said that the FBI omitted information showing that Page “played no role” in the platform change.
The FBI also cited a Yahoo! News article published Sept. 23, 2016, as part of the applications to obtain surveillance orders against Page, the FISA application shows.
There is some debate over whether the bureau cited the article as further evidence that Page was a Russian agent, or if the article was included in the FISA request in order to show that Page had denied working with the Kremlin.
The FISA application shows that the FBI discussed the article in a section which showed that Page denied allegations in the Yahoo! News story. The FBI dismissed Page’s denials, writing in the surveillance application that the “FBI believes that Page’s comments were self-serving and, based on the source reporting described above, untrue.”
Steele was the source for the article, but the FBI failed to disclose that link in the FISA applications. The IG report stated that while some FBI investigators believed that Steele was Yahoo’s source, other FBI agents believed that someone else was the source.
Steele himself denied being the source during an Oct. 3, 2016, meeting with FBI agents. He expressed frustration at what he called leaks regarding his dossier, the IG report stated.
He said that the leaks were causing his source network to dry up. One FBI agent told the IG that he was shocked that Steele would complain about leaks when he was the source for multiple journalists who wrote about the dossier.