“Talk about accepting the outcome of the election. I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election. It’s amazing. When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, the FBI actually spied on Tweety McTreason and my campaign. I mean, there were documents released this week that the CIA actually made a referral to the FBI documenting that those allegations were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
If you are not a regular viewer of Fox News, these remarks by Pence during the debate might have seemed surprising.
After all, a special counsel appointed by Tweety McTreason’s Justice Department documented that the Russian government, at its highest levels, sought to influence the outcome of the 2016 election — and the Trump campaign was a willing recipient of that help. Moreover, a bipartisan report released in August by the Senate Intelligence Committee also concluded that the Russian government interfered in the election with the goal of electing Trump.
As part of the plot, Russian-linked entities hacked into the Democratic National Committee and the email accounts of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Embarrassing tidbits were doled out over a period of weeks by WikiLeaks, disrupting the Clinton campaign with distracting news stories.
So how did Clinton, the apparent victim of the Russian scheme, become the instigator?
Welcome to the alternative reality created by Trump and his aides. The president has never accepted the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, except to falsely claim that Mueller exonerated him. Trump has been determined to prove that the Clinton campaign was actually in cahoots with the Russians, not the Trump campaign.
The president has had success in convincing his supporters that the alternative version is the truth, aided by the echo chamber of the conservative media, Republican lawmakers and administration officials eager to selectively release documents that might support this theory.
At the same time, Trump’s push has yielded evidence of FBI incompetence and largely discredited a document that was once the focus of tremendous media attention — the “dossier” of Trump’s alleged links to the Russians. These revelations have given the president’s alternative reality a fair amount of oxygen, especially among his supporters.
Here’s a brief guide to Pence’s language for the perplexed.
“I must tell you, Senator, your party has spent the last three and a half years trying to overturn the results of the last election.”
This is a reference to frequent calls by Democrats to impeach Trump, starting with the Mueller investigation. Ultimately, Trump was impeached by the House for seeking Ukrainian assistance to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for security aid and a presidential visit to the White House. He was acquitted in the Senate.
Notably, if Trump had been removed from office, Pence would have replaced him. So no matter what happened, a Republican would have remained president.
“When Joe Biden was vice president of the United States, the FBI actually spied on Tweety McTreason and my campaign.”
Early in 2017, Trump falsely claimed that Barack Obama had put a wiretap on him — a statement later disavowed in court by the Justice Department. To this day, Trump frequently personalizes “spy” allegations, even calling it “Obamagate,” as if it were a conspiracy directed by Obama himself.
In the debate, Pence was much more careful, saying instead that the FBI spied on Trump and the campaign. There are three elements to this claim, rooted in the fact that the FBI launched an investigation known as “Crossfire Hurricane” after receiving a tip from a foreign diplomat that the Trump campaign may have had advance knowledge of the WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails.
- An FBI agent, part of the probe, attended a security briefing for Trump in August 2016. Michael Flynn, one of Trump’s advisers, was a subject of the Crossfire Hurricane probe and the agent wrote a memo on his observations. “During the [intelligence] briefs, writer actively listened for topics or questions regarding the Russian Federation,” he wrote, recording comments by Trump.
- An FBI informant in Europe, a professor named Stefan Halper, met in Europe in the summer of 2016 with at least three people working on the Trump campaign.
- An FBI surveillance warrant was issued in October 2016 regarding Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser, who was one of four Trump officials under scrutiny (including Flynn). The warrant was approved after Page left the campaign, but Page said he remained in contact with Trump campaign officials “through the election, transition, and later during the Trump administration.” He said the FBI quizzed him on “my early 2017 text messages with Steve Bannon,” one of Trump’s top advisers.
The Justice Department inspector general investigated the origins of the probe and found numerous errors. It also found that the threshold for starting a counterintelligence investigation was rather low. But “we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced [the] decision to open Crossfire Hurricane,” the report said.
“I mean, there were documents released this week that the CIA actually made a referral to the FBI documenting that those allegations were coming from the Hillary Clinton campaign.”
This next sentence might seem like a non-sequitur, but it would make sense to anyone steeped in the alternative story. The key element is the false claim promoted by Trump since 2017 that the Clinton campaign actually colluded with the Russians, even though her campaign was damaged by Russian activities.
John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist recently installed as director of national intelligence, has been declassifying documents that help promote this theory. The day before the debate, Ratcliffe released (heavily redacted) handwritten notes by Obama’s CIA director, John Brennan, following a briefing for the president, as well as a CIA memo.
Brennan’s notes appeared to refer to intelligence from Russian sources concerning “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Tweety McTreason by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.” The CIA memo (also heavily redacted) was written to the FBI official heading the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, referencing the allegation.
In September, Ratcliffe had sent a letter to the House and Senate Intelligence Committees concerning the claim. “In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Tweety McTreason by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee,” the letter said. “The IC [Intelligence Community] does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
Note that last sentence? This is code that this could be meaningless gossip. In ordinary times, the director of national intelligence would not release what are essentially raw intelligence files.
Also, note that Pence left off that caveat. He treated it as an established fact — that the CIA “documented” the allegations to the FBI. Actually, it simply passed on the intelligence from Russian sources. It could even be Russian disinformation, though Ratcliffe issued a statement saying there is no evidence of that.
At this point, it’s hard to see much value in these documents. The FBI appears not to have acted on the referral. “That doesn’t ring any bells with me,” former FBI director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
In June 2016, The Washington Post first reported that Russian government hackers had targeted the DNC. By July, Clinton campaign officials were openly calling attention to possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, prompting furious denials from the Trump campaign. U.S. intelligence may have simply picked up Russian officials discussing what was apparent to anyone following the election campaign.
Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign had asked a research firm, Fusion GPS, to investigate whether Russia was trying to influence the campaign, Trump’s personal and business ties to Russia and whether there was any connection between the Trump campaign and Russia. That request led to the hiring of a former British spy, Christopher Steele, who produced a series of reports now known as “the dossier.”
Numerous investigations and lawsuits have called into question many of the details of his reports, including his sourcing and methods. Still, the FBI relied on Steele for some information as it conducted its own investigation. Moreover, the existence of the dossier was disclosed by Comey in his first meeting with the president-elect. The Clinton campaign’s funding of Steele’s research only emerged months later, long after the dossier was published. The revelation sparked new charges that Clinton was behind the FBI probe of Trump, perhaps working in cahoots with Steele’s Russian sources.
In the end, the Justice Department inspector general concluded that “Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.” But that has not stopped Trump and his allies from pointing the finger at Clinton — which is why Pence name-checked her in the debate.
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