The front page of the New York Post on Wednesday showed Hillary Clinton, backed by an array of other frequent targets of opprobrium by the right, peering around the corner of a brick wall. Donning a fedora for inexplicable reasons, Clinton was pictured with a knife in her right hand. Around the corner, a little photo of former president Donald Trump.
“WHACK JOB,” the headline shouted. Then a sub-headline: “How Hillary, the FBI and the press plotted to destroy Trump.”
In the abstract, beyond the breathlessness of the whole thing, the idea that Clinton might in 2016 have wanted to “destroy” Trump in an act of “political murder” (as was articulated at the top of the page) is not that remarkable. Oh, she wanted to win the presidency? Not really front-page news, I think.
But the article for which this photo collage was conceived took a slightly different position: The entire investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, it argued, was “invented by Clinton operatives.”
This is a popular argument, as it has been in right-wing circles for months. But the report released this week by special counsel John Durham actually makes the already baseless claim even less plausible.
That New York Post story was written by attorney Jonathan Turley, who, for inexplicable reasons, has become an unfailing booster of the idea that Trump was unfairly wronged by his opponents, particularly in regards to the Russia probe. Like so many others on the right, Turley seized on the Durham report as confirming their skepticism about the Russia probe, even though — obviously despite Durham’s wishes — the report’s broad failure to do so.
“The report details how the Russian collusion conspiracy was invented by Clinton operatives and put into the now-infamous Steele dossier, funded by the Clinton campaign,” Turley writes, incorrectly. At another point, he writes that “President Barack Obama and his national security team were briefed on how ‘a trusted foreign source’ revealed ‘a Clinton campaign plan to vilify Trump by tying him to Vladimir Putin so as to divert attention from her own concerns relating to her use of a private email server.’ It then happened a few days later.”
That is also incorrect.
In case you are not a frequent viewer of Fox News, it’s worth explaining the two claims here. The first is that the dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele was the genesis of the Russia probe. The second is that the idea to link Trump to Russia was itself a political tactic by Clinton’s campaign.
Neither of those things is true, and a quick timeline will make clear why.
What happened in 2016
June 14. The Washington Post reports that Russian hackers are believed to have accessed the network of the Democratic National Committee. It would later be determined not only that Russian agents were culpable for the hack but that it began in mid-April.
June 17. A lengthy Post report documents Trump’s unusually positive comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin and his financial ties to Russia.
June 20. Steele compiles the first of his reports on purported connections between Russia and the Trump campaign. This effort is paid for by a law firm that is also working for Clinton’s campaign.
July 4. Slate publishes a story suggesting that Trump was — wittingly or not — a vehicle for Putin.
July 5. The first report from Steele is given to his FBI contact in London. It includes an allegation that Trump had been cultivated by the Russians and that the Russians have compromising information on both candidates.
July 7. Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, gives a speech in Moscow criticizing America’s foreign policy.
July 18. Post columnist Josh Rogin first elevates questions about Trump aides softening the party’s plank on Ukraine.
July 20. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump suggests that he wouldn’t adhere to the requirement that the United States help defend a NATO country that had been attacked, a position that was seen as a boon to Russia.
July 22. WikiLeaks begins publishing documents stolen from the DNC.
July 24. Asked on CNN about the WikiLeaks material, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook links it to an intentional effort by Russia to aid Trump.
“Experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails,” Mook said. “And other experts are now saying that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of actually helping Donald Trump.”
In a separate interview later that day, campaign spokesperson Karen Finney distanced the campaign from Mook’s remarks.
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was also asked to reply to Mook’s comments.
“It’s just absurd. I mean, Donald Trump is running for president of the United States,” he said. “Donald Trump is talking about the failed leadership of the Obama administration. I don’t know anything about what you just said. You may know it. If you do, then you ought to expose it. But to say, you know — I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s crazy.”
It would later be discovered that Manafort shared internal campaign documents with a person linked to Russian intelligence.
Let’s interrupt the timeline here to note that, by July 24, there were lots of questions about Trump’s connections to Russia, both in the abstract and more concretely. That Mook seized upon it in the wake of the WikiLeaks releases — of material already understood to have been stolen by Russia — is less remarkable in that light.
July 25. Trump tweets that the “new joke in town” is that the release of the stolen DNC emails occurred “because Putin likes me.”
Post columnist George Will speculates in an interview on Fox News that evening that Trump is involved with Russian business interests.
July 26. Russian intelligence obtained by the U.S. government indicates that Clinton’s campaign decided to “vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.”
That allegation remains unconfirmed to this day despite Durham questioning Clinton staffers about it. Clinton herself told Durham that the claim — sourced to Russia, which Durham describes as a “trusted foreign source” — “looked like Russian disinformation to me; they’re very good at it, you know.”
Again, notice the timing. Mook had by July 26 already publicly drawn this link. Whether it was a formal campaign policy, this was not some secret plot within the Clinton camp.
What’s more, it’s strange to argue both that the Clinton campaign explicitly sought to dig up dirt linking Trump to Russia, leading to Steele’s work in June, and that it wasn’t until late July that they decided to make this a core strategy. The latter undermines the former.
July 27. During a news conference, Trump encourages Russia to hack Clinton’s private email server. He claims to be joking, though the investigation into Russian interference later determines that Russian hackers tried to do exactly that.
July 28. The Australian government contacts American officials to inform them about comments made by a Trump adviser the previous May. That adviser, George Papadopoulos, told an Australian diplomat that Russia was in possession of material that would be damaging to Clinton. In the wake of the WikiLeaks releases, the Australians shared those comments with the United States.
July 31. The FBI opens its investigation based on the information from the Australian government.
Sept. 19. Michael Sussman, an attorney working for the law firm hired by Clinton’s campaign, contacts the FBI about a purported back-channel communication between Trump’s company and Russia’s Alfa Bank.
On this same day, the team investigating Russian interference receives the first of the reports compiled by Steele.
That the dossier didn’t make it to the team that was investigating interference until this late point means it was impossible that the predicate for the investigation was those reports. What’s more, there was clear reason to launch the probe: specifically, the information from the Australians and the various points at which Trump’s team was intertwined with Russian interests.
Oct. 7. The federal government releases a public warning about Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election. The announcement is quickly buried — first by the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape and then, shortly afterward, the first WikiLeaks releases of material stolen from Clinton’s campaign team.
Oct. 31. Slate publishes a story on the Alfa Bank allegation.
Nov. 1. The Post, among other outlets, raises serious questions about the Alfa Bank allegation. It doesn’t gain traction.
The only reason to mention the Alfa Bank allegation, in fact, is because it was central to Durham’s efforts to pin the Russia probe on Clinton. Durham obtained an indictment of Sussman for making false statements related to the Alfa Bank allegation, but a jury cleared the attorney.
At the New York Times, Charlie Savage on Tuesday described Durham’s focus on Clinton as being a deliberate pivot.
“[B]y the spring of 2020, according to officials familiar with the inquiry, Mr. Durham’s effort to find intelligence abuses in the origins of the Russia investigation had come up empty,” Savage wrote. “Instead of wrapping up, [Attorney General William P.] Barr and Mr. Durham shifted to a different rationale, hunting for a basis to blame the Clinton campaign for suspicions surrounding myriad links Trump campaign associates had to Russia.”
As the final report suggests, this effort was unsuccessful. The Steele dossier was not the predicate for the Russia probe, the probe was not obviously influenced by internal Clinton campaign machinations and the Alfa Bank claim both came too late and failed to get significant traction.
What Durham’s report does do is further undermine that second point, one that had been elevated as a stand-alone claim about Clinton for months. Clinton herself and others on the campaign indicated (under penalty of perjury) that they didn’t remember any such agreement on strategy. Even on the same day that Mook presented it publicly, another campaign staffer backtracked from it.
There’s an alternative way to consider the Russia probe: that Russia hoped Trump would win, that Trump was happy to have their help and that federal counterintelligence officials saw that as problematic.
This appears to be what actually happened.