The headlines out of Mondayâ€™s House Intelligence Committee hearing on the Russian connection confirmed what has been widely reported: the FBI is investigating Team Trumpâ€™s alleged involvement with Russian government entities during the 2016 election and Mr. Trumpâ€™s charge that Barack Obama wiretapped him during the campaign is baseless. Every high-profile congressional hearing is largely kabuki theater and this one was no different: the party out of power sees abuses everywhere and the party in power plays defense, but careful observers often can glean indications of what is happening behind the scenes. Thatâ€™s the case with Mondayâ€™s session.
The money quote comes from FBI Director James Comey. The FBIâ€™s Counterintelligence Division, Mr. Comey said, is â€œinvestigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russiaâ€™s efforts.â€
Thatâ€™s a broad mandate. As Iâ€™ve noted before, the most consequential of the many probes launched into the Russian connectionâ€”Congress, law enforcement, the mediaâ€”will come from the FBI. Mr. Comey is back in the hot seat. Congress has an important public-information role to play, including on the related issues of leaks and cyber-security, but the main game is the FBI.
On Monday, Mr. Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers repeatedly turned aside questions about the Trump campaign, but important clues about the direction of the investigation surfaced in the opening statement of Representative Adam Schiff, the minority leader on the committee. Mr. Schiff is a partisan Democrat, but heâ€™s also a former federal prosecutor and a member of the Gang of Eightâ€”the top congressional leaders who receive classified briefings from the intelligence community, including on the Russian connection. So Mr. Schiff knows more than he can say. On Monday, he pushed the envelope.
Mr. Schiff signaled that four individuals are at the center of the FBI counterintelligence probe: Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, and Paul Manafort. None of these names come as a surprise to anyone following the story. All have been named in press accounts.
But Mr. Schiff did wake up the room by invoking the controversial Russian dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Calling Mr. Steele â€œa former British intelligence officer who is reportedly held in high regard by U.S. intelligence,â€ Mr. Schiff drew attention to a murky incident noted in the Steele reports. Mr. Schiff said that â€œRussian sourcesâ€ told Mr. Steele that Carter Page â€œhad a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, CEO of Russian gas giant Rosneft. Sechin is reported to be a former KGB agent and close friend of Putinâ€™s. According to Steeleâ€™s Russian sources, Page is offered brokerage fees by Sechin on a deal involving a 19 percent share of the company. According to Reuters, the sale of a 19.5 percent share in Rosneft later takes place, with unknown purchasers and unknown brokerage fees.â€ Brokerage fees from an $11 billion oil deal is a whole lot of motive. The Reuters report is here. The Trump Administration is also linked to Rosneft through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Mr. Schiff noted that the Steele dossier reports that Paul Manafort â€œchose Page to serve as a go-between for the Trump campaign and Russian interests.â€ Mr. Schiff called Mr. Manafort â€œthe Trump campaign manager and someone who was long on the payroll of Pro-Russian Ukrainian interests.â€ As the Republican National Convention was about to open, the party platform was changed to remove a clause that supported the provision of defensive weapons to Ukraine.
Michael Flynn, Mr. Schiff noted, â€œhas been paid by the Kremlinâ€™s propaganda outfit, RT, and other Russian entities in the past.â€ Appointed national security adviser after the election, Mr. Flynn â€œhas a secret conversation with [the Russian ambassador] about sanctions imposed by President Obama on Russia over its hacking designed to help the Trump campaign.â€
As for Roger Stone, Mr. Schiff noted that the longtime Trump associate and â€œself-proclaimed political dirty tricksterâ€ had boasted in a speech about being in communication with Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Wikileaks, it later emerged, acted as a conduit for documents and emails stolen by Russian intelligence from Democratic National Committee accounts and laundered through media outlets into the 2016 presidential campaign.
â€œIn the middle of August,â€ Mr. Schiff said, Mr. Stone â€œalso communicates with the Russian cutout Guccifer 2.0, and authors a Breitbart piece denying Gucciferâ€™s links to Russian intelligence. Then, later in August, Stone does something truly remarkable, when he predicts that John Podestaâ€™s personal emails will soon be published. â€˜Trust me, it will soon be Podestaâ€™s time in the barrel. #Crooked Hillary.â€™
â€œIn the weeks that follow, Stone shows a remarkable prescience: â€˜I have total confidence that @wikileaks and my hero Julian Assange will educate the American people soon. #Lockherup.â€™ â€˜Payload coming,â€™ he predicts, and two days later, it does. Wikileaks releases its first batch of Podesta emails. The release of John Podestaâ€™s emails would then continue on a daily basis up to election day.â€
Adam Schiff is no friend of the Trump presidency. But thatâ€™s not the point. The point is, he just traced a road map of the FBI counterintelligence probe into the Russian connection.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: firstname.lastname@example.org
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