Former FBI general counsel James Baker acknowledged Friday that parts of the Steele dossier have “washed out,” but still defended the bureau’s use of the controversial document as part of the Trump-Russia investigation.
Baker also appeared, while speaking at an event the Brookings Institution hosted, to concede that the FBI’s premise behind opening the probe did not pan out.
“Sometimes, many times, most times when you start out with something, an allegation of some sort, and you follow it, it turns out not to be what you thought it was originally,” Baker said at the event, which Lawfare editor Benjamin Wittes moderated.
Baker was directly involved in the investigation of the Trump campaign. He also reviewed the FBI’s application for a foreign intelligence surveillance warrant against Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser.
The FBI relied heavily on information from Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was investigating President Donald Trump on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign. Republicans have criticized the FBI for relying on Steele’s document without having first verified its allegations.
Wittes asked Baker about specific claims in the dossier that have been all but debunked by the special counsel’s Russia report.
“The Prague meeting seems not to have happened,” noted Wittes, referring to Steele’s claim that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen visited the European city in August 2016 to meet with Russians and pay off hackers. The special counsel said in its 448-page report that Cohen did not visit Prague.
“Does that indicate to you that the bureau may have been overly credulous of him at the time?” Wittes asked.
Baker said that he does not have insight into special counsel Robert Mueller’s line-by-line analysis of the dossier, but he accepted Wittes’ assertion that parts of the dossier are inaccurate.
“I don’t know if he rejected the totality of it or whether there were certain parts that they actually validated. Some parts, as you’ve said, appear to have washed out,” said Baker, who left the FBI in May 2018.
“Let’s assume that some of the more spectacular of his allegations are either false or unsupported,” Wittes said.
“This is what happens in an investigation. An investigation is basically a question that you start out with, ‘Is this true?’” Baker replied.
Baker went on to defend the decision to open the investigation, “given the nature of the threat described.”
“It’s prudent and appropriate to at least investigate and figure out as much as you can, and then you have to make a series of hard choices,” he said.
The FBI formally opened its investigation of the campaign’s possible ties to Russia on July 31, 2016, after receiving information from the Australian government about George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign aide.
Australian diplomat Alexander Downer claimed that Papadopoulos had told him two months earlier that Russia might have information about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that would be released before the election.
Acting on that tip, former FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok opened Crossfire Hurricane, the name for the probe.
Little came out of the Australian intelligence, however. Mueller was unable to establish that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia or that any Trump associates were acting as agents of the Russian government.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in the special counsel’s investigation for making false statements to the FBI about his interactions with Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud. Papadopoulos told the FBI that Mifsud told him during a meeting in London on April 26, 2016 that the Russian government had “thousands” of Clinton’s emails.
Papadopoulos has said he did not share that information with anyone on the Trump campaign. He’s denied seeing, handling or disseminating any stolen emails.
The FBI pulled on the Papadopoulos thread weeks after opening the investigation. The bureau deployed longtime informant Stefan Halper to establish contact with Papadopoulos. The pair met in London in mid-September 2016. Halper was accompanied by a government investigator who worked under the alias Azra Turk.
Papadopoulos says that Halper and Turk asked him whether he had knowledge of the campaign working with Russians to release stolen emails, but he denied it.
Baker went on to defend the surveillance warrants the FBI obtained against Page. He said he was “comfortable” with how the FBI handled the dossier and warrant applications.
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