Following a meeting with British spy Christopher Steele in September 2016, reporter Michael Isikoff broke the story about the infamous dossier. In what is referred to as circular reporting in the world of journalism, the FBI used Isikoff’s article in their FISA Court application to corroborate the allegations of the dossier.
In an April 2019 interview with Vanity Fair, Isikoff said, “I think it’s fair to say that all of us should have approached this, in retrospect, with more skepticism, particularly when we didn’t know where it was coming from.”
That would have been helpful. But the press locked onto this story as a hungry man would a meal and ran with it. Only when the Mueller Report was released which concluded there was no collusion did any members of the press tone down their rhetoric. Others have doubled down, so I suppose we should give Isikoff some credit.
Anyway, Isikoff interviewed former FBI General Counsel James Baker in an episode of Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” which aired on Tuesday.
The interview began with questions about “internal bureau debates” over what to tell President-elect Trump about the dossier in the upcoming January 6, 2017 briefing by intelligence community leaders. Knowing that the media already had the story, Baker and Comey felt they had an “obligation” to notify Trump.
Baker told Isikoff, because “the press has it, it’s about to come out. You should be alerted to that fact.” However, “we were quite worried about the Hoover analogies, and we were determined not to have such a disaster happen on our watch.”
According to Baker, “senior FBI officials were concerned then director James Comey would appear to be blackmailing Trump – using tactics notoriously associated with J.Edgar Hoover.”
Isikoff questioned Baker about Attorney General William Barr’s appointment of prosecutor John Durham to lead the investigation into the origins of the Trump/Russia story. He replied, “I welcome scrutiny. I plan to fully cooperate with the department to help them figure out what happened. Because I believe what happened was lawful, at least based on every piece of information that I have.”
The FBI would have been derelict in its duty if it did not investigate the allegations about Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election. It was pretty alarming. The thought that somehow somebody in either one of the campaigns might have had some connection to that [the Russians] or some awareness of it that they didn’t inform the FBI about was … quite concerning and disorienting.
Yes, we can imagine.
Baker said that he and Comey disagreed on what exactly to tell Trump. Comey believed they should tell Trump that he was not a “subject” of the investigation. Baker disagreed, telling Isikoff “I didn’t think it was accurate to say that he wasn’t under investigation. Trump was clearly a ‘subject’ of the investigation because, as head of his own campaign, he was among those whose activities were being examined by the FBI.”
Baker told Isikoff that “Comey thought explaining that distinction to the president-elect would have been ‘too confusing.’ It would have been ‘hard to understand, be misinterpreted and he just didn’t think it was the right thing to do.’”
During the briefing, Comey wound up telling Trump that “he was not under investigation.” This was a mistake because Comey declined to make this statement publicly. Isikoff said that Comey’s refusal to do so was “a key factor that led to Trump’s decision to fire him.”
Isikoff asked Baker if bureau officials believed the allegations made in the dossier. Baker said “we took it seriously. We didn’t necessarily take it literally like it was literally true in every respect. But it was something that we were obligated to … assess.”
Asked why the FBI included the dossier in their October 23, 2016 FISA Court application for the warrant to spy on former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, Baker told him, “at the end of the day, the FBI believed [Steele] to be reliable.”
This statement is hard to believe for two reasons.
First, the Hill’s John Solomon reported last week that the FBI’s counterintelligence team had been notified by State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec eight days before they submitted their FISA application, of what she had learned in her meeting with Steele. Steele had admitted his work was political, had told her his client was “keen” to break this story before Election day, and that Kavalec had found inaccuracies in his story.
Second, the FBI fired Steele on November 1, 2016 because he had spoken to the press.
Isikoff asked Baker why the FBI declined to give a “defensive briefing” to the Trump campaign as is customary under circumstances like these. Baker said:
It was just simply we didn’t know enough at the time to assess what was going on, who was connected to what, who was responsible … Can you imagine the criticism that we might have gotten had we given briefings precipitously to people that we later thought were actually suspects in some fashion then? So you’ve tipped them off about the investigation. … We only knew the tip of the iceberg.
And finally, Baker spoke about the press coverage he’s been receiving.
It’s been horrible to be publicly criticized by President Trump in his tweets. It was very unnerving and sort of an out-of-body experience to have the president of the United States tweeting about you and in what I perceived to be a negative light. But at the same time, in a strange way … when the president first started to attack me, and throughout this period, my friends have rallied around me. And so I’ve been extremely fortunate and lucky to, to have that. I’ve made the analogy to feeling like Jimmy Stewart at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’
Well, Mr. Baker , the wheel has turned. The former FBI top lawyer had better get used to the criticism and the scrutiny because he, Comey and many other Obama officials will be forced into the public spotlight over the months to come. They are no longer in the driver’s seat.