Special counsel John Durham's recent filing alleging that a Democratic-allied technology executive "exploited" White House internet traffic after the 2016 election appears to add to a growing list of instances in which former President Donald Trump and his team were targets of snooping during the presidential transition period following his surprise victory.
The fresh findings, which raise questions about just how involved former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her failed 2016 campaign were in pushing a narrative of Trump-Russia collusion, add more fuel to the so-called Spygate scandal in which it has been revealed that the FBI targeted Trump during his campaign into his presidency. That includes British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s discredited dossier being used to obtain warrants from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as well as the unmasking controversy involving retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, FBI leadership’s use of a Trump Tower transition team intelligence briefing to further its Trump-Russia investigation, and more.
The latest instance stems from the case focused on Michael Sussmann, a Democratic cybersecurity lawyer who was indicted last year for allegedly concealing his clients, including Clinton's campaign, from the FBI in September 2016 when he pushed claims of a secret backchannel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. However, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz said in a 2019 report that the FBI "concluded by early February 2017 that there were no such links" between Trump and Alfa Bank.
In the Sussmann case, in which the defendant has pleaded not guilty, Durham revealed earlier this month that he has evidence that Sussmann’s other client, known to be former Neustar executive Rodney Joffe, “exploited” domain name system internet traffic at Trump Tower, Trump’s Central Park West apartment building, and the Executive Office of the President.
Durham, tasked with investigating the origins and conduct of the Russia inquiry, had said in October that Joffe “exploited his own company’s access to the sensitive internet data of a high-ranking executive branch office of the U.S. government, both before and after the Presidential election." Based on the February filing, that office appears to be the Executive Office of the President, suggesting that the snooping on Trump continued through at least the transition period.
The special counsel has said Sussmann claimed to another agency, believed to be the CIA, in February 2017 that data he had access to “demonstrated that Trump and/or his associates were using supposedly rare Russian-made wireless phones in the vicinity of the White House and other locations.” Durham emphasized that he found "no support for these allegations," and "such DNS lookups were far from rare in the United States."
Durham said this month that "Internet Company-1" accessed “dedicated servers for the EOP as part of a sensitive arrangement whereby it provided DNS resolution services to the EOP” and that Joffe and his associates exploited this arrangement by mining the traffic and other data to gather dirt on Trump. Durham pointed to the 2021 indictment of Sussmann, alleging that Joffe tasked researchers to mine internet data to establish a “narrative” tying then-candidate Trump to Russia. Durham said Joffe indicated he was doing this to please “VIPs” on the Clinton campaign.
Durham said "the more complete data" Joffe and his associates "gathered" but "did not provide" to the CIA "reflected that between approximately 2014 and 2017, there were a total of more than 3 million lookups" of the Russian phone's IP addresses that originated with U.S.-based IP addresses and that "fewer than 1,000 of these lookups originated with IP addresses affiliated with Trump Tower." The special counsel said the "more complete data" also "reflected that DNS lookups involving the EOP and Russian Phone Provider-1 began at least as early 2014 (i.e., during the Obama administration and years before Trump took office)."
Lawyers for David Dagon, a Georgia Tech data scientist who allegedly worked with Joffe, said, "Cybersecurity researchers were investigating malware in the White House, not spying on the Trump campaign, and to our knowledge, all of the data they used was nonprivate DNS data from before Trump took office.” A spokesperson for Joffe said his client "legally provided access to DNS data obtained from a private client that separately was providing DNS services to the Executive Office of the President."
Sussmann’s team said this month that Durham “is well aware that the data provided to Agency-2 pertained only to the period of time before Mr. Trump took office, when Barack Obama was President.” Attorneys for one of the computer researchers connected to Joffe’s efforts contended that the records they used ended Jan. 15, 2017, five days before Trump was sworn in as president.
"The latest pleading from Special Counsel Robert Durham provides indisputable evidence that my campaign and presidency were spied on by operatives paid by the Hillary Clinton Campaign in an effort to develop a completely fabricated connection to Russia," Trump said in a statement following Durham's bombshell filing.
FISA and Carter Page
Igor Danchenko, a U.S.-based and Russia-born researcher, was charged by Durham with five counts of making false statements to the FBI about the information he provided to Steele for his dossier. He too has pleaded not guilty.
Horowitz’s 2019 report on FISA abuse concluded that the FBI’s investigation was filled with serious missteps and concealed exculpatory information from the FISC. Horowitz said at least 17 "significant errors and omissions" were discovered in the FISA applications targeting former Trump campaign associate Carter Page, first approved in October 2016 and followed up by three renewals, including as late as June 2017.
Horowitz concluded that Steele's dossier played a "central and essential" role in the FBI's effort and that Danchenko undermined Steele’s unfounded claims of a “well-developed conspiracy” between Trump and Russia.
Declassified footnotes from Horowitz’s report made public in 2020 indicate that the bureau became aware that Steele’s dossier may have been compromised by Russian disinformation. Durham discovered that Danchenko was investigated by the FBI as a possible “threat" to national security, which the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane team apparently became aware of by December 2016.
Unmasking and Mike Flynn
Fired FBI special agent Peter Strzok abruptly stopped the FBI from closing its investigation into Flynn in early January 2017 at the insistence of the FBI’s “7th floor” leadership, according to declassified documents, even after the bureau had uncovered “no derogatory information” on Flynn following the intercept of calls between Trump's then-incoming national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador. Emails showed that Strzok, along with FBI lawyer Lisa Page and several others, sought out ways to continue investigating Flynn, including potentially deploying the Logan Act.
The summary of a 2020 interview with FBI agent William Barnett, the lead case agent on the Flynn case, shows that he believed the Flynn case should have been shut down in late 2016 and early 2017.
A Washington Post column by David Ignatius on Jan. 12, 2017, contained classified details that sparked a media frenzy. Citing a “senior U.S. government official,” he wrote that Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak spoke on the phone in late December 2016 on the day former President Barack Obama announced sanctions on Russia and suggested that Flynn violated the Logan Act.
A list of officials who received information in response to unmasking requests showed that 16 individuals made 49 unmasking requests related to Flynn between Election Day 2016 and the end of January 2017, with President Joe Biden, who was Obama's vice president at the time, listed as the authorized recipient for a request made or received Jan. 12, 2017.
There is clear evidence that Biden heard about the FBI’s interest in Flynn at least a week earlier. He attended a Jan. 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting with Obama, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, former FBI Director James Comey, then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then-national security adviser Susan Rice, and others.
According to an internal memo about the meeting that Rice emailed herself on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Obama asked Yates and Comey to stay behind when the meeting concluded. Biden and Rice also stayed behind. Obama was said to have stressed that he wanted these investigations handled "by the book." Yates told Robert Mueller’s special counsel team that it was during that meeting that she learned about the Flynn-Kislyak intercepts and the FBI's investigation into Flynn from Obama himself.
Biden repeatedly sought to distance himself from the FBI's Flynn investigation during the 2020 election cycle. “I was never a part or had any knowledge of any criminal investigation into Flynn while I was in office,” he said. Biden also intoned, "I was aware that there was, that they asked for an investigation, but that's all I know about it."
Flynn fought to dismiss the government's case against him after he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to investigators about his conversations with Kislyak. The Justice Department dropped the charges, and Trump pardoned Flynn in late 2020.
Trump Tower and the dossier
Comey, Brennan, Clapper, and NSA Director Mike Rogers met with Trump on Jan. 6, 2017, at Trump Tower to discuss the Intelligence Community Assessment on Russian meddling in recent U.S. elections. Comey stayed after, ostensibly to brief Trump on Steele's salacious anti-Trump dossier.
Horowitz’s 2019 report on Comey’s mishandling of his memos showed that the FBI chief's one-on-one meeting with Trump was treated as a chance to gather information in the investigation into Trump's ties to Russia, and the first of seven “Comey Memos” was written that day. Horowitz condemned Comey over the leak of his memos to the press, saying he did so to advance his own interests and to spark the appointment of a special counsel. However, the Justice Department declined to prosecute Comey.
The Trump Tower meeting was meticulously planned by the FBI. Horowitz wrote that they were focused on “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.” Some in the FBI worried that Comey’s meeting could be seen as a “Hoover-esque type of plot.”
Comey had a secure FBI laptop waiting in his FBI vehicle after the Trump Tower meeting and “began typing [Memo 1] as the vehicle moved.” He classified the memo as secret because the information “ought to be treated … [like] FISA-derived information or information in [a counterintelligence] investigation.”
Trump denied the allegations. A few days later, CNN ran a story about the Trump-Comey meeting, and that evening, BuzzFeed posted Steele’s dossier online.
Republican Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley released a 2020 report contending that the FBI and Mueller’s team retroactively snooped on the Trump transition when they secretly sought and received access to the private records of President-elect Trump’s transition team from the General Services Administration.
Some of the requests were made in letters by then-FBI Assistant General Counsel Kevin Clinesmith and “not with a subpoena or search warrant." Clinesmith admitted in a 2020 guilty plea that he falsified a document during the bureau’s efforts to renew FISA authority to wiretap Page. Clinesmith edited a CIA email in 2017 to state that Page, who was never accused of wrongdoing, was “not a source” for the CIA. He was sentenced to probation.
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Trump complained about the post-2016 election transition period during the first presidential debate against Biden in 2020. "There was no transition because ... they came after me spying on my campaign," Trump said.
Mueller said in his 2019 report that he “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”