The document that greenlighted the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign has been unveiled, giving the public a look at a key focus of U.S. Attorney John Durham's inquiry into the Trump-Russia investigators.
An “opening electronic communication," which was authored by fired FBI agent Peter Strzok, was released through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by conservative government watchdog group Judicial Watch.
Typed up in late July 2016 with the approval of William Priestap, then-assistant director of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, the document outlines the reasoning for the bureau’s decision to launch the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. The investigation looked into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia after an Australian diplomat, Alexander Downer, informed the United States that Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos told him he learned Russia had damaging information on Hillary Clinton, President Trump's Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz determined in his December audit of the Russia investigation that Crossfire Hurricane was properly predicated, untainted by politics.
Durham, tasked with reviewing the origins of the inquiry, made a rare public statement disagreeing with that conclusion, noting that he is privy to information outside of the watchdog's DOJ purview.
“Our investigation is not limited to developing information from within component parts of the Justice Department. Our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S.,” he said. “Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the inspector general that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”
Attorney General William Barr, who appointed Durham to conduct the inquiry, agreed with his hand-picked prosecutor, saying Horowitz's report “makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken."
The document, which Strzok wrote “opens and assigns" the investigation, is covered in redactions. It does not show Downer's name, but his presence is made clear by what is already known about the lead-up to the inquiry, saying he provided information "related to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s website/server.”
Within the memo is an email from a legal attache that described what Downer recalled of his conversations with Papadopoulos, including how the adviser "suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama)."
"It was unclear whether he or the Russians were referring to material acquired publicly [or] through other means. It was also unclear how Mr. Trump’s team reacted to the offer. We note the Trump team’s reaction could, in the end, have little bearing [on] what Russia decides to do, with or without Mr. Trump’s cooperation," the email said.
Upon the conclusion of the email in the memo, Strzok wrote that “based on the information provided by Legat [Redacted] this investigation is being opened to determine whether individual(s) associated with the Trump campaign are witting of and/or coordinating activities with the Government of Russia.”
After the initiation of the inquiry, satellite investigations into Papadopoulos, Trump campaign associate Carter Page, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and future Trump national security adviser retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn began in August.
While in London last year, Durham reportedly viewed the cable Downer sent to Canberra in May 2016. He interviewed another Australian diplomat in London, Erika Thompson, who arranged and attended Downer's meeting with Papadopoulos. Downer also met with Durham's team in London.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham released an October 2019 letter he sent to Australia’s leaders, asking for their “continued cooperation” in the Barr-Durham inquiry and claiming, among other things, that Downer had been “directed to contact Papadopoulos” and “relay” the information obtained from him to the FBI.
The FBI's counterintelligence investigation was wrapped into Robert Mueller's special counsel inquiry in May 2017, after the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Mueller concluded the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election but did not establish any criminal conspiracy between Trump and Russia.