FBI general counsel: We were “quite worried” that Comey might appear to be blackmailing Trump with dossier


A bombshell comment, but perhaps more flash than impact. In an interview with Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, former FBI general counsel James Baker says that a sharp disagreement arose within the bureau over how to brief president-elect Donald Trump on the Christopher Steele dossier. Some, including then-director James Comey, wanted to assure Trump that he was not a target of the investigation over worries that the briefing might look like a J. Edgar Hoover-esque attempt at “blackmailing” the incoming president. Baker said he disagreed, because in his mind Trump was still a subject of the investigation (via Twitchy):

Senior FBI officials were concerned then director James Comey would appear to be blackmailing then President-elect Trump – using tactics notoriously associated with J.Edgar Hoover – when he attended a fateful Jan. 6, 2017, meeting at which he informed the real estate magnate about allegations he had consorted with prostitutes in Moscow, according to Jim Baker, the bureau’s chief counsel at the time.

“We were quite worried about the Hoover analogies, and we were determined not to have such a disaster happen on our watch,” said Jim Baker, then the FBI’s top lawyer in an interview with the Yahoo News podcast Skullduggery. But he and Comey determined the bureau had an obligation to tell Trump of the uncorroborated allegations because “the press has it; it’s about to come out. You should be alerted to that fact.”

The argument led Comey to a middle-ground approach with Trump that backfired spectacularly, according to Baker:

As Baker saw it, Trump was clearly a “subject” of the investigation because, as head of his own campaign, he was among those whose activities were being examined by the FBI.

But Comey thought explaining that distinction to the president-elect would have been “too confusing.” It would have been “hard to understand, be misinterpreted and he just didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” Baker said about Comey’s view about what to say.

In the end, Comey told Trump he was not under investigation—a comment that came back to haunt Comey when he later refused to say the same thing publicly, a key factor that led to Trump’s decision to fire him.

That certainly puts a new gloss on Trump’s decision to fire Comey. After having Comey backtrack, it might very well have looked to Trump that Comey had ulterior motives for the dossier briefing — and perhaps suspected the bureau of leaking it in the first place. That certainly would appear Hooveresque to the person most impacted by it, even though it may not have happened that way in reality.

Baker insists that it didn’t. This isn’t an admission, although it could read that way. It’s a defense of the FBI from Baker, a declaration that they were sensitive to perception all along when it came to the dossier and the investigation. Unfortunately, it’s as effective a defense as Baker’s assertion in the same interview that they weren’t taking Steele’s dossier literally, even though they relied on a literal interpretation to get a succession of FISA warrants on Carter Page:

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Former FBI General Counsel James Baker is defending the FBI’s handling of the Trump dossier, saying “we took it seriously” but “we didn’t necessarily take it literally” and did not treat it as “literally true in every respect.”

The dossier, packed with salacious and unverified claims about President Trump’s ties to Russia, was written by British ex-spy Christopher Steele and formed a key part of the FISA applications used to justify surveillance warrants against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. …

Isikoff asked Baker what his overall assessment of the credibility of the allegations made in Steele’s dossier was as of October 2016 when it was used extensively before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Baker referred to the redacted Page FISA application with “a long footnote that goes into describing our assessment of Steele” that he said “successfully endeavors at least what we knew at the top of the organization about Steele and his reliability at that time, and to put the court on notice … about matters regarding Steele’s credibility so the court could make an assessment.”

The footnote to which Baker referred does not cast doubt on even the most outlandish of Steele’s allegations but rather makes it clear the FBI trusts Steele: “Based on Source #1’s [Steele’s] previous reporting history with the FBI, whereby Source #1 [Steele] provided reliable information to the FBI, the FBI believes Source #1’s [Steele’s] reporting herein to be credible.”

The footnote mentions Steele was “approached by an identified U.S. person [Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson] who indicated to Source #1 [Steele] that a U.S.-based law firm [Perkins Coie] had hired the identified U.S. person [Glenn Simpson] to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s [Trump’s] ties to Russia” and that “the FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person [Glenn Simpson] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s [Trump’s] campaign.” But the footnote claims that Simpson never told Steele about motivation behind the project and studiously avoids telling the court that the funding for this effort was coming from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

It might be news to the FISA court that the FBI didn’t take Steele’s dossier literally. And that’s the crux of multiple investigations into the origins of Operation Crossfire Hurricane. Did the FBI have sufficient predicate to seek that counterespionage warrant on someone in a presidential campaign, or did they mislead the FISA court? Did they have sufficient evidence to conduct an investigation in which the major-party presidential nominee was a “subject,” if not a “target”? If not, why did the FBI pursue the investigation?

Baker has gone on a public-relations tour since the release of the Mueller report to assure everyone that the FBI handled the investigation properly, as has Comey. The fact that Page not only never got indicted but never even figured into an indictment against anyone connected to Russia’s operations at least suggests that the bureau was barking up the wrong tree — and that’s not supposed to happen with FISA warrants. It seems as though both Baker and Comey are shaping a political and legal battleground post-Mueller, and neither one of them are doing an exceptionally good job of it.

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