Using Mifsud, Halper and others, the intelligence community seemed to be probing the Trump campaign. Someone had done their homework on Papadopoulos since the meetings took place very quickly after he was officially introduced as part of Trump’s foreign policy team. Was it possible someone knew that he would try to burnish his credentials by pushing the meetings with Putin? We know he had a big mouth and loose tongue because he confided to Alexander Downer, and on March 26, 2016 to the Greek foreign minister, Nikos Kotzias.
Based on the testimony of John Brennan, the CIA, NSA and FBI had formed a “fusion cell” sometime in mid-July. Brennan had provided the FBI with “contacts and interactions between Russian officials and US persons involved in the Trump campaign” that were beyond the CIA’s mandate to pursue.
It was then that James Comey decided to open an investigation into possible collusion between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. The investigation was officially begun on July 31, 2016 and codenamed Crossfire Hurricane.
We can tell from the timeline that the origin of the inquiry was not the Steele dossier which came into play later, but instead a barroom conversation between Papadopolous and Downer on May 10th. The official notification of that meeting between the Australian government and Elizabeth Dibble did not take place until after Dibble made the official referral to the FBI and that referral occurred less than a week after Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton of any wrongdoing in the MidYear Exam investigation.
There is no doubt that Papadopolous did try to arrange a meeting between Trump campaign officials and officials of the Russian government during the course of the campaign up to the point the campaign basically told him to drop it. There were occasional Skype and Facebook messages between him and Putin’s purported niece where she was encouraging the meetings which would never take place.
Papadopolous eventually pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in the resulting Mueller probe by telling them he never met or contacted any Russian officials. He never actually did contact Russian government officials, just a woman claiming to be Putin’s niece. This was the gist of his interactions with actual Russians.
To be sure, the investigation was not started based on the Steele dossier. That part of the story comes in after the investigation is actually launched, but was already in the works with reports from Steele to the DNC and Clinton campaign sometime in June. Perhaps, Brennan and others were aware of these reports somehow, also.
But another truism is that Carter Page, another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, was also targeted and had meetings with Stephen Halper throughout the campaign. Also, Sam Clovis was “technically” not a target of the investigation, but got caught up in it.
It should be remembered that Steele, Halper, Mifsud, Dearlove, Downer, and Brennan moved freely within an unofficial circle of intelligence people in London. It could be very well possible that “unofficial” lines of communication had been opened between them based on “unofficial” intelligence and assessments. We will likely never know why people like Page and Papadopolous were the targets of human intelligence before there was an official investigation opened. They were relatively low-level policy advisers likely looking to make a name for themselves in an effort to boost their resumes for private sector employment.
During the general election campaign, a frequent cry at Trump rallies was “lock her up” when Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned. Recall that 30,000 emails went missing even though Comey absolved her legally. Trump himself made a comment that was largely criticized at the time (and since) that if Russia had the emails, they should release them. Trump can be excused for the remark because by the time he said it, the FBI investigation into her emails was supposedly closed and the DNC hacks had been attributed to Russian intelligence services.
Trump speaks from the hip without a filter. Still, there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that Trump himself in any way tasked anyone with reaching out to Russia for “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. That would certainly be in line with Trump’s business model where he issues the broad directive and leaves it to underlings to do the actual work. Was this what Papadopolous heard- an unspoken request to get that dirt?
In any case, it is not unusual for campaigns of either party to dig up dirt on the opposition despite its source. Steele himself relied very heavily on alleged Russian sources for dirt on Trump. This leaves the impression that the acceptability of using Russian sources for dirt on a political opponent is a one way street.
A comment by Brennan, in particular, is noteworthy. He said a “fusion cell” had been formed before the launch of the investigation. He shared information with this cell headed by Strozk and Priestap. This would also likely involve FBI director James Comey. Brennan had actually formed two task forces back in April, not late or mid-July. One was a domestic task force to look into ties between Trump and Russia and involved the FBI, DOJ and Department of the Treasury, and the second was a foreign task force composed of the ODNI, CIA, and NSA. The reason Brennan opted for human intelligence is obvious- Mike Rogers at the NSA cut off contractor access to the NSA database.
Suffice to say, the origin of Crossfire Hurricane was based on a barroom loose tongue by a low-level Trump campaign operative. However, the investigation was officially opened under suspicious circumstances given the communication between Elizabeth Dibble at the US mission in London, and the Australian government. If the Papadopolous-Downer meeting was the impetus for Crossfire Hurricane, someone knew about the conversation before Downer possibly told the Australian government, but definitely before the Australian government officially notified the US embassy. The best guess is that someone within the Cambridge group had tipped off Dibble. In essence, the investigation was based on third-hand hearsay. Whether that was Brennan or Dearlove, or anyone else we never found out.
Next: The targeting of Carter Page