New FOIA release on Spygate: A brief fresh look at Comey and Ohr

The focus of hindsight.

The reflections here probably won’t be especially profound, but they will at least be brief.  That, at least, is the intention.

The Department of Justice has just released a new tranche of FOIA-requested documents relating to the conjoined dramas of Spygate and Russiagate.  The date of the document release is 30 November 2021; diligent Twitter user FOIA Fan (@15poundstogo) highlighted the release on Wednesday 8 December.

As FOIA Fan notes, there isn’t a lot of new information in the releases, which amount to some 60-odd pages total (mostly emails and texts, with a handful of Comey memos for the record).

But there are a few comments worth making, after a single perusal.  The chief one isn’t even about clues and dot-connection for Spygate analysis; it’s about James Comey’s accounts of his interactions with Donald Trump.

The accounts appear in the memos from early 2017, which famously figured in the leak through a Comey “friend,” thought to be Benjamin Wittes, to the New York Times.  Among the things that struck me on reading Comey’s summaries is that Comey perceived the president as thinking and speaking haphazardly (see especially the memos that start on page 6 of the DOJ release document).  Comey isn’t explicitly negative in his treatment, but seems to register a mild complaint about the conversation being “chaotic.”

DOJ FOIA release 8 Dec 2021. Comey memo, p. 6

The conversation, which was pleasant at all times, was chaotic, with topics touched, left, then returned to later, making it very difficult to recount in a linear fashion. Normally I can recall the pieces of a conversation and the order of discussion with high confidence. Here, given the nature of it, there is a distinct possibility that, while I have the substance right, the order was slightly different It really was conversation-as-jigsaw-puzzle In a way, with pieces picked up, then discarded, then returned to.

Reading through that memo, which has the date ”1/28/2017” handwritten on it, my first reaction was, “You were being sized up, bro.”

Comey wrote several times of the assurances and representations he made to Trump, and they come off quite perfectly as the bromides of a successful career bureaucrat.

Trump’s questions, meanwhile, were on topics that would inform the president about Comey’s character, depending on how he answered.  Trump pressed him on the Hillary emails saga, for example, and on Andrew McCabe’s probable conflict of interest during the campaign, with McCabe’s wife receiving a major donation for her campaign for office in Virginia from a Terry McAuliffe PAC.

Trump could have talked administration policy priorities – in very broad strokes, at least (as in, “Here are mine; one, two, and three”), which is what a long-time politician with successful executive experience would do – or merely exchanged pleasantries, counting the dinner a social overture but little more.

But Trump focused on some questionable and much-disputed aspects of the 2016 election in which Comey had been involved.  This wasn’t because Trump was stupid or obsessed.  It’s because he wanted to see how Comey would react.  Recall that Trump is a tactical communicator:  there’s always a purpose for what he says, and it typically involves eliciting a reaction from others.

It’s notable that all of the assurances Comey gave Trump at that dinner turned out to be false.  See, for example, here:

DOJ FOIA release 8 Dec 2021. Comey memo, pp. 6-7

“I added that I was ‘reliable’ in one way,” wrote Comey, “but not in the way political people sometimes use the term. I explained that he could count on me to always tell him the truth. I said I don’t do sneaky things, I don’t leak. I don’t do weasel moves.”

But, of course, Comey did leak (at the very least to his “friend,” to the New York Times), and did do weasel moves.

Comey again:  “He asked whether the FBI leaks and I answered that of course in an organization of 36,000 we were going to have some of that, but I said I think the FBI leaks far less than people often say.”  The FBI turns out to “leak” far more than the American people had once imagined – if cooperating in planting thematic political stories in the media can be called leaking.

At this dinner and a later session with Reince Priebus (and then Trump), recounted in a separate memo, the McCabe topic came up. 

DOJ FOIA release 8 Dec 2021. Comey memo, p. 7

Writes Comey, of the dinner:  “I explained that Andy was a true professional and had no problem at all. I then explained what FBI people were like, that whatever there [sic] personal views, they strip them when they step into their bureau roles and actually hold ‘political people’ in slight contempt, without regard to party.”

In the session with Trump after the Priebus meet:  “I again explained that Andy was a pro.”

DOJ FOIA release 8 Dec 2021. Comey memo, p. 12

In 2019, McCabe was referred to DOJ for indictment by the DOJ Inspector General, who found that McCabe had leaked confidential FBI information in 2016 (i.e., that there was an investigation of the Clinton Foundation), and had then misleadingly rebuked FBI subordinates for supposedly perpetrating the leak.

McCabe supposedly did this to prove that during the 2016 campaign, he wasn’t improperly influenced against Trump by the sizable donation of Clinton crony McAuliffe’s PAC to Dr. Jill McCabe’s recent political endeavor.  The leak seems pretty ham-handed to me, if that was the motive.  I’m inclined to think it was more in the nature of a warning to the Clintons, and probably their donors, that they were being investigated.

At any rate, Comey’s pious assurances to Trump have accumulated a notably poor track record.

A missed opportunity

From Comey’s memo on the meeting with Reince Priebus, which Comey dated 2/8/2017, a particular point jumped out at me.  This appears on p. 10 of the DOJ release document.

DOJ FOIA release 8 Dec 2021. Comey memo, p. 10

It’s obvious Comey is speaking of the inclusion of the Steele dossier summary in the “intelligence brief” to President-Elect Trump in January 2017.  Comey uses pretty much verbatim the words that have invariably been used by Obama officials to explain that move:  “that the analysts from all three agencies agreed it was relevant and that portions of the material were corroborated by other intelligence.”

Of course, as Lee Smith and others have laid out, there was no other intelligence to corroborate the material in the dossier.

We know that now.  Comey was in a position to know it then – but more than that, Comey had an obligation to know it.  If he didn’t know it and briefed the president and the president’s chief of staff with such confidence, he was performing as badly as if he did know it, and was simply lying.

That, however, is not the missed opportunity.  Reading the 2/8/2017 memo, it was obvious to me that the Trump Oval Office should have required the FBI, CIA, or whichever organization claimed to have the “corroborating intelligence” to produce it.

Trump had the authority to levy that requirement, with no caveats or exceptions.  There wasn’t one single valid excuse for not showing the president what the “intelligence” – supposedly involving the Russians – was, if it existed.  Not asking for it was a major error by the days-old Trump administration.  Given the assumption that it did not exist, Trump and his top advisors could have seen that immediately.

Michael Flynn, RNC 2016. PBS News Hour video

The man who would have known that is Michael Flynn.  Yet a giant wedge had been driven between Trump and Flynn in January, when garbled signals about the leak of Flynn’s perfectly correct phone conversation with Sergey Kislyak resulted in Vice President-Elect Pence misstating, on a Sunday news show, what had happened in that phone call.

Flynn would basically be forced out as national security advisor a few days after the Comey memo of 2/8/2017.  Comey, who is always writing mainly for the purpose of establishing his own narrative, makes a point of commemorating for the record the negative comments he heard about Flynn in his early White House interactions, including that meeting with Priebus.  The leak to David Ignatius on the Flynn-Kislyak phone call anchors the conclusion that there was a concerted effort to run Flynn out of his job; Obama had also warned Trump against hiring Flynn, a peculiarly personal targeting for presidential transition advice.

The mischief done with the attack on Michael Flynn was hydra-headed and had lasting, and very ugly, effects.

The Trump Tower brief on the “Russia intelligence”

There is no need to rehash this event – the Trump Tower brief on 6 January 2017 – even in light of Comey’s memo about it (which starts on p. 4).

But hindsight helps us do a useful parsing of this paragraph from the memo:

DOJ FOIA release 8 Dec 2021. Comey memo, p. 4

I said I wasn’t saying this was true [the dossier material; in particular, the “pee tape” allegation], only that I wanted him to know both that it had been reported and that the reports were in many hands. I said media like CNN had them and were looking for a news hook.  I said it was important that we not give them the excuse to write that the FBI has the material on [redacted] and that we were keeping it very close-hold. He said he couldn’t believe they hadn’t gone with it. I said it was inflammatory stuff that they would get killed for reporting straight up from the source reports.

In retrospect, these points don’t hang together at all.  Trump was right, for one thing.  It is unbelievable that the media “hadn’t gone with” the dossier, given the unceasing barrage of ill-sourced allegations they had gone with in the previous 18 months.

Comey’s last sentence is actually ridiculous:  “I said it was inflammatory stuff that they would get killed for reporting straight up from the source reports.”

Yet nothing changed between the day Comey said that and the day the dossier was published, less than a week later.  The leak about the Flynn-Kislyak phone call was in no way a validating factor for the dossier, even as tendentiously spun by (or for) Ignatius.  When BuzzFeed published the dossier, it did so “straight up from source reports,” with nothing else behind it.  BuzzFeed didn’t get killed, nor did CNN or anyone else who immediately ran with it.

Comey’s reference to a “news hook” – which turned out to be the Ignatius leak and not something that made the dossier material seem less inflammatory or more valid – looks not so much like expert insight as like inside knowledge of an information operation.

Trump’s simple, direct evaluation of the situation was more accurate and made more sense than what Comey told him.  Moreover, Comey’s memo implies he was curiously in the know about the media posture, on a story that then “blew up” and was supposed to be seen as uncontainable.

The Ohr file

The 43-page FOIA release document also contains a list of Form FD-302s on Bruce Ohr’s interviews with the FBI.  A few 302s from that list are newly released.

A 302 that grabbed my eye is dated 22 November 2016 (filed on 19 December 2016) and starts on p. 35.

The interest of it is that it was an interview after the 2016 election, months after the FBI began Crossfire Hurricane, and even more months after FBI officials knew of the Steele dossier, and probably of the Alexander Downer meeting with George Papadopoulos (at the time of which, in May 2016, Bill Priestap was in London on a short-notice trip).

Bruce Ohr. (Image via Global Initiative against Transnational Crime)

Ohr is recorded in that 11/22/2016 302 as conveying basic information the FBI had to already know, about Steele (a long-time FBI source) and Simpson among others.  Moreover, the FBI had had FISA surveillance authority on Carter Page for a month at that point:  plenty of time to develop background on a target set, and using as a pretext the dossier whose information origins Ohr was giving them a deposition on.

Of course, law enforcement typically welcomes additional deposed information on cases it’s working.  But the Steele dossier as a well-known quantity was established long before Ohr’s 22 November interview, making the contents of the 302 look out of phase.

Making the Ohr interviews fit into a theory of how all of Spygate developed is one question.  But the primary impact of reading the November 2016 302 is to reinforce the recognition that it was all just a big charade.

Feature image:  James Comey.   YouTube screen grab via CBS News

3 thoughts on “New FOIA release on Spygate: A brief fresh look at Comey and Ohr”

  1. The behavior of Bruce Ohr (and Bill Priestap) needs to be made public in full. It looks like Durham is only going after the non-governmental conspirators (or maybe he’s only allowed to go after targets outside the government).

  2. “and that portions of the material were corroborated by other intelligence.””

    Absolutely. For one thing there is a country called Russia and Vladimir Putin is its leader.

    That’s about it.

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