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David Warsh: How some rebellious FBI agents pushed Comey into tipping 2016 election to Trump



Donald J Trump is unlikely to win a second term.  It may seem beside the point to dwell on the circumstances in which he was elected in the first place.  It isn’t.  Understanding the events of the last days of the 2016 campaign is essential to understanding some of the difficulties that lie ahead.

To be clear, two quite different controversies have been unfolding over the last four years. Both involve the FBI. One concerns the investigation of connections among Trump, his businesses; his campaign and Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, Paul Manafort, the Steele dossier, Russian hackers, WikiLeaks, shadowy  Russians promising dirt,  the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, future short-lived National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump attorney Michael Cohen, and all that.

The other revolves around accusations of political partisanship, one way or another, within the FBI: Director James Comey, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, agent Peter Strzok, FBI attorney Lisa Page, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz,  former U.S. Attorney and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and so on. The two stories overlap occasionally, but not much.

When it comes to the second, more important story, the place to start is October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election (Public Affairs, 2020), by Devlin Barrett, of The Washington Post.

As a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Barrett wrote four crucial stories in  ten days on the eve of the election.  One of them has been at the center of the battles surrounding the FBI ever since. Now, after nearly four years as reporter for the WPost, Barrett has written a book that makes intelligible the whole tangled affair. October Surprise is an important book.

Barrett’s first article, headlined “Clinton Ally Aided Campaign of FBI Official’s Wife,” appeared 10 days before the election.  It disclosed that Deputy Director McCabe’s wife, Dr. Jill McCabe, a 2015 candidate for Virginia Senate, had received $467,500 from Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s political action committee. (She was defeated.)  McAuliffe was a long-time ally of the Clintons and, until he was elected governor, in November 2013, a Clinton Foundation board member.  Barrett noted that McAuliffe had been under investigation by the FBI’s Washington field office in a probe of $120,000 of donations to his campaign by a Chinese businessman with no specified charge.

The second story, “FBI Reviewing Newly Discovered Emails in Clinton Server Probe,” described the letter that FBI Director James Comey had sent that day to Congress. He was reopening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email he had unilaterally closed three months before, because of the discovery of a laptop computer. Byron Tau had the first byline; Barrett apparently contributed essential background on the “dysfunctional relationship between Justice Department and the FBI.”

Barrett’s third story, “FBI in Internal Feud over Hillary Clinton Probe” appeared eight days before the election. It revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation. The probe had begun a year before; by early 2016 four field offices – Little Rock, Los Angeles, New York and Washington were investigating charges that financial crimes or influence peddling had occurred at the charity. Some agents had grown frustrated, believing that FBI leadership balked at the probe, perhaps ordered by Obama administration Justice Department officials to close it down.

In fact, Deputy Director McCabe had turned aside Justice Department inquiries in August 2016, Barrett reported, “according to people familiar with the conversation.”  At one point, McCabe had challenged a supervisor, “Are you telling me that I need to shut down a properly predicated investigation?” After a pause, the official replied, “No, of course not,” according to Barrett’s unidentified source. The investigation continued, though in a low key way, in the months before the election.

Barrett’s fourth story, “Secret Recordings Fueled FBI Feud in Clinton Probe,” confirmed details of stories that had appeared the day before and added some of his own. The Clinton Foundation investigation had been predicated on, among another things, a book, Clinton Cash, written by a former George W. Bush speechwriter, Peter Schweizer, and bankrolled by Steve Bannon, a couple of years before he became Trump’s campaign manager. A secret recording of a source boasting of deals allegedly done by the Clintons was another element, according to Barrett.

All that in the two weeks before the election.

It was Comey’s decision to reopen the email investigation that dominated the news, but Barrett’s second and third stories had disclosed the existence of a much more complicated battle within the FBI. The significance of the laptop emails themselves quickly evanesced, but the anger about Clinton’s private server was renewed. It seems likely that the reopened investigation, not Russian tampering, provided the push that put Trump over the top.

The Clinton Foundation investigation has flitted in and out of the public eye ever since, most recently as the basis for Trump’s increasingly urgent exhortations to Attorney General Barr to indict one or both Clintons for felony influence-peddling.  John Huber, the U.S. Attorney in Utah, tasked by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to review the Clinton investigation, has been reported to have found nothing worth pursuing, and forwarded his report to Barr. The matter is now in the hands of FBI Director Christopher Wray, former Connecticut US Attorney John Durham and Barr. Barr’s decision is expected not long after the election.

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Every complicated story requires a timeline. Barrett took this truth to heart and built the timeline into the narrative.  His book is divided into three parts.  The first involves stage-setting and background. The middle part starts with Comey’s unilateral decision on July 5 to make public his recommendation that no charges be filed against Clinton for her email practices. It ends with the November election. It takes up 60 percent of the book’s 324 pages; the chapters are dated (including named days of the week) and sequential. The third part relates what happened over the next four years. Barrett has an advantage in the telling, especially myriad details established by the Justice Department Inspector General’s review, including the real-time intimate commentary on matters via the work-phone texts of agent Strzok and FBI lawyer Page. The result verges on point-of-view ubiquity.  You know, or like to think you know, what nearly everybody is thinking.

Thus Barrett begins his account with the 2012 drone-missile strike against suspected terrorists meeting in a tent in the wilds if Waziristan, a mountainous region of Pakistan, a few details of which were incorporated in emails that eventually wind up on Hillary Clinton’s private server.  In a few pages Barrett follows the path of their discovery to an FBI manager’s determination, in July 2015, to pursue a criminal investigation instead of a more easily finessed “spillage review.”

There follows a chapter on Comey, another on McCabe, the man he chose as his deputy, and a third on Loretta Lynch,  whom Comey had known and liked since both were young assistant US attorneys in Brooklyn in the 1990s. In 2016, as Attorney General, she was Comey’s boss. A fourth chapter is devoted to Lynch’s decision to meet with former President Bill Clinton, whom she knew to be under FBI investigation, when, in their respective planes, both were delayed by a storm in Phoenix, Arizona.  These are commodious chapters and allow Barrett to equip the reader with all sorts of relevant knowledge: the divisions arising from the rapid expansion of the FBI’s responsibilities after 9/11 to include counter-terrorism duties as well as traditional law enforcement work; the effect on Comey of his brief sabbatical from government work as chief of security at Bridgewater Associates, a successful hedge fund; and a description of changing attitudes about race and gender at the Justice Department.

The middle part, the timeline, proceeds at a breakneck-pace, one astonishing development after another, on the Clinton and Trump campaign trails (30,000 emails said to be non-job-related had been deleted from the Clinton server; “Russia, if you’re listening…,” said Trump), down to those final four weeks,  week-by-week, finally day-by-day, beginning on September 27. That was the day on which FBI agent John Robertson, a specialist in child abuse, assigned to search Anthony Wiener’s laptop computer in New York (one of Wiener’s texting partners was 15 years old), discovered a trove of 141,000 previously unexamined Clinton emails that had been forwarded to her friend and close State Department associate Huma Abedin, Wiener’s wife.  Robertson forwarded the news to Washington the next day, where the discovery was shared among thirty senior managers in a conference call.  (This is the point at which begin the portions of the manuscript published by The Washington Post, starting on page one, last month.)

There follow three weeks in which nothing was done to search the emails. So much else was going on – a tug-of-war over the Steele dossier, the first Wikileaks of the Democratic National Committee emails. It turns out that inattention to the laptop was the result of a stand-off. New York agents wanted a warrant.  McCabe, though he consulted Strzok, didn’t seek one; nor did he tell his boss, who had been at a hearing on Capitol Hill on the day the discovery was announced, being grilled by Republican members of the Freedom Caucus. By Wednesday Oct. 19, Robertson was getting nervous.  He consulted FBI lawyers, who warned him that if he leaked news of the laptop, he could go to prison. He composed a memorandum to himself.

On Monday, Oct. 24, the first of Barrett’s bombshell stories, appeared, “Clinton Ally Aided Campaign of FBI Official’s Wife.” At this point Barrett’s play-by-play of six chapter, 62 pages, becomes too intricate to describe – and too absorbing to put down. On Tuesday, Nov. 8, the election was held. Trump won, by the narrowest of margins. The rest is the third part of Barrett’s book.

The last section of October Surprise describes the fallout from those few weeks. The very day Comey was fired, May 9, 2017, McCabe told bureau internal investigators that he had “no idea” where the leak in Barrett’s third story came from.  Confirming that the Clinton Foundation was under investigation was a serious breach of the rules.  It turned out he had himself authorized two of his aides to travel to Manhattan to make the disclosures in person to Barrett. McCabe was fired, and subsequently nearly indicted for lying under oath. Robert Mueller began his investigation. The extra-marital affair between Strzok and Page was discovered, their emails belittling Trump widely read. They were humiliated and reassigned. In his final chapter, Barrett comes down hardest on Comey as a well-meaning moralist, who without intending to, opened Pandora’s box. “Whoever wins the 2020 election, the once-sacrosanct ten-year term of FBI directors may be cut short again,” Barrett concludes.

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Quite aside from the light it casts on the election, October Surprise must be one of the best books ever written on the practice of newspaper journalism. Certainly I’ve never read a better one: only The Making of the President (1960), by Theodore White, and All the President’s Men (1974), by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, compare.  Its virtue, however, obscures a weakness.  Barrett’s book is a strictly internal history.  From whom does the FBI seek to “save itself,” as the subtitle asks?  From itself; from departures from its own ideals of Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity; from blemishes to the reputation it had largely regained in the years since Watergate.

Surely it is equally true that the bureau’s top managers were trying to insulate both the agency and its Justice Department overseers from outsiders seeking to persuade its agents to act for illegitimate political purposes. These outsiders don’t appear in Barrett’s account. There is no Freedom Caucus of scapegoating Congressional Republicans, no Fox News, no Bannon, no Breitbart, and no Wall Street Journal editorial page. The story of criminalizing political behavior reaches back to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater Investigation, and the “Contra-gate” scandal of the Reagan years.

Thus in some ways the most interesting figure in Barrett’s book appears only once, at the very beginning.  He is Mike Steinbach, assistant director for the FBI’s Counter-Terrorism Division.  It was he who made the decision to investigate certain disclosures of classified matters on Clinton’s email server as a possible criminal matter, rather than a much less serious “spillage case.” He then circulated news of what he had done in a memo to his colleagues. What was he thinking? It is pointless to ask. The FBI has 34,000 employees. You can’t call those among them who disapprove of Hillary Clinton “mutineers.”  It is an organization that has to be led.

But the take-away lesson of Barrett’s book is that a spreading campaign among a relative handful of rebellious FBI agents stampeded the director into a disclosure that tipped the election to Donald Trump. That is a considerable blot on the Bureau’s escutcheon to live down.  And after the inauguration? That is part of the story, too. As noted  in Lawfare, Inspector General Horowitz’s report including this exchange of texts between two agents on Nov. 9, 2016, both of them working on campaign issues:

Handling Agent: “Trump!”

Co-Case Handling Agent: “Hahaha. Shit just got real.”

Handling Agent: “Yes it did.”

Co-Case Handling Agent: “I saw a lot of scared MFers on…[my way to work] this morning. Start looking for new jobs fellas. Haha.”

Handling Agent: “LOL”

A persuasive external account of the factors leading to Comey’s fateful decision will be many years in coming. The author must aspire to the same high standards as Barrett’s internal account. In the meantime, get ready for Attorney General’s Barr’s decision with respect to the Clinton Foundation investigation, and to President Trump’s reaction to it. If Biden is elected, no Cabinet appointment that he makes will be more important than Attorney General.  Follow the story in The Washington

David Warsh, an economic historian and veteran columnist, is proprietor of Somerville-based, where this first appeared.