Real Clear Investigations, July 21, 2022
“The CIA is in cover-up mode about its communications with the [Clinton] lawyer implicated in a shady spy operation against President Trump. What is the CIA hiding about its role in this plot against Trump?”
Several individuals connected to a 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign plot to cast Donald Trump as a covert Kremlin collaborator are working in high-level jobs within the Biden administration – including at least two senior Biden appointees cited by Special Counsel John Durham in his “active (and) ongoing” criminal investigation of the scheme, according to recently filed court documents.
Jake Sullivan, who now serves as Biden’s national security adviser, and Caroline Krass, a top lawyer at the Pentagon, were involved in efforts in 2016 and 2017 to advance the Clinton campaign’s false claims about Trump through the media and the federal government, documents show. Other evidence shows that two other Biden officials – senior State Department official Dafna Rand and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Gary Gensler – also are entangled in the so-called Russiagate scandal.
It’s not known whether these Biden appointees have been interviewed by Durham’s investigators. But as the probe widens, some government ethics watchdogs anticipate that Biden’s presidency could be pulled into the scandal, which saw the FBI abuse its surveillance powers to spy on a Trump campaign adviser based on Clinton opposition research.
Just as the Democrats have used their control of Congress to cast President Trump and the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol as threats to American democracy, Republicans are vowing if they regain power after November’s congressional elections to investigate the years-long effort to question Trump’s 2016 victory and undermine his presidency.
The top Republican on The House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Turner, recently pledged to hold hearings and issue subpoenas “to get to the bottom of [Russiagate] so this never happens again, so we never have Americans having to distrust their own government because of the politicization of the FBI [and] of our intelligence community.”
RealClearInvestigations has learned that Congress has referred to the Special Counsel’s Office at least a dozen cases of potential perjury involving former Clinton campaign officials and Obama administration officials who have testified behind closed doors about their involvement in Russiagate. Hill lawyers and investigators have met with Durham’s staff about the criminal referrals stemming from the sworn depositions.
Republican sources say that the roles played in Russiagate by Krass, Sullivan, Rand, and Gensler may be among the first to draw attention in hearings. Although the full range of their efforts has not been made public, here’s what is known so far.
Krass, 54 – whom Biden appointed as general counsel of the Defense Department early last year – is the former top CIA lawyer cited by Durham as “General Counsel of Agency-2” in his indictment of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann.
Durham alleged Sussmann first tried to plant a fabricated report with the FBI’s general counsel about a secret cyber-link between Trump and Russia-based Alfa Bank in order to set in motion an investigation of Trump before the 2016 election. Then, after the election, Sussmann filed a similar report with Krass’ legal shop at the CIA, the prosecutor said.
Although a Washington, D.C. jury in May acquitted Sussmann of lying about who was paying him to approach the FBI, the trial revealed that FBI field agents specializing in cyber crimes debunked his report within days of receiving it, and even suspected some of the evidence was cooked up. “We think it’s a set-up,” one agent warned in an internal FBI email. FBI brass working under then-Director James Comey, however, prolonged the investigation for several months.
Nevertheless, after Trump won the election, Sussmann brought the same Trump-Alfa Bank ruse to Krass – a Clinton donor and Obama appointee, then working under CIA Director John Brennan. Durham has found evidence that Krass welcomed the tip.
“We’re interested,” he said Krass told him in their December 2016 phone call. “We’re doing this review and I’ll speak to someone here, and someone will get back to you to arrange a meeting.”
Krass allegedly told Sussmann she would consider the information for inclusion in the intelligence review of alleged Russian interference in the election that Obama had ordered at the time. A declassified version of the review, known as the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA), was released to the public the next month and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of meddling in the election to help Trump win. A classified version included an annex with several unfounded and since-debunked allegations against Trump developed by the Clinton campaign as part of the so-called Steele dossier. It’s not known if the two-page annex, which claimed the allegations were “consistent with the judgments in this assessment,” included the Alfa Bank canard, since several sections remained blacked out when it was made public in 2020.
The ICA became a foundational document for subsequent Trump-Russia probes and has been used by Democrats and the media to suggest the 2016 election was stolen from Clinton.
“The greatest concern with the role of Krass is her ‘interest’ [in Sussmann’s tip] despite the lack of foundational support [for it],” George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley told RCI. “As with the FBI, the Clinton campaign found eager [Obama] officials to move on any such allegation [against Trump].”
On Feb. 9, 2017, Sussmann secured a sit-down meeting at CIA headquarters with “a representative from the Office of General Counsel,” according to documents reviewed by RCI, where he turned over more dubious material allegedly linking Trump to Russia. The CIA lawyer he met with worked under Krass, who did not leave the agency until several months later, despite the change in administrations.
The attorney, identified at trial only as “Steve M.,” said he would pass the tips on to CIA technical experts, as well as an FBI liaison officer, but they too dismissed the data as “self-generated,” meaning they appeared to be designed to arrive at a predetermined conclusion of a nefarious cyber-link. Complete datasets were withheld from the CIA.
Apparently, the CIA did not even ask for the source of Sussmann’s walk-in tip, including where he got the data files he gave the agency. The FBI exhibited a similar lack of curiosity when Sussmann reported the false Trump-Alfa Bank connection.
However, like FBI brass, Krass and her boss at the time, CIA chief Brennan, were aware of Clinton campaign efforts to portray Trump as a Kremlin agent, and it was no secret that Sussmann’s Perkins Coie law firm represented her campaign.
“As Brennan’s top lawyer, she would know everything about that,” said Kash Patel, the former House Intelligence Committee investigator who interviewed Sussmann in a closed-door deposition in December 2017, and was the first to discover the Alfa Bank smear operation he ran at the FBI and CIA on behalf of Clinton campaign operatives.
Evidence shows that Krass had other reasons to be skeptical of Sussmann’s claims. As legal adviser to Brennan, she was involved in the referral her boss made to the FBI in 2016 to open a counterespionage case to find out how Russian intelligence intercepted information about Hillary Clinton’s plan to tie up Trump in a Kremlin scandal. The intercept revealed the Russians were on to a plot by Clinton and her then-foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan to “stir up” a scandal on Trump about Russia during the Democratic convention in late July 2016.
Brennan appears to have been less concerned about the Clinton campaign’s disinformation campaign than the fact Moscow knew about it. This so alarmed Brennan that he briefed Obama about it, according to a summary of his handwritten notes, declassified in 2020.
The referral, known as a counterintelligence operational lead (CIOL), was sent to Comey, who in turn forwarded it to then-FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok to investigate.
Strzok – who was fired by the FBI after his anti-Trump views became public – opened an investigation, not of Clinton but the Trump campaign. Krass’ chief of staff at the time, Brian Greer, confirmed that the purpose of the CIOL was not to investigate the Clinton campaign’s dirty tricks, but to run a counter-spying probe to see if the Russians had penetrated the Clinton camp. The concern, he said, was that Clinton “may have been spied on by a hostile intelligence service.”
Seemingly reflecting the attitude of his former boss at the spy agency, Greer opined that “there’s nothing illegal about” what Clinton did to Trump. “Even if it’s unsavory,” he shrugged, “that’s just politics.”
Federal campaign records reveal that Krass donated at least $3,575 to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 and 2008 campaigns for president. Before Obama appointed her to the CIA in 2014, she served as his special counsel for national security affairs in the White House.
Brennan’s handwritten notes were turned up by Durham and opened a new track in his investigation, which early on had appeared to clear the CIA of wrongdoing. But now Durham is actively investigating this CIA front, according to one of his pre-trial filings. His grand jury has interviewed at least eight current and former CIA employees, and he is seeking out other agency employees who may have attended the meeting with Sussmann.
“The government has been undertaking additional steps to determine if additional personnel were, in fact, present at this [Feb. 9] meeting with [CIA] employees,” Durham noted. “In addition, the Special Counsel’s Office maintains an active, ongoing criminal investigation of these and other matters that is not limited to the offense charged in the [Sussmann] indictment.”
It could not be determined if Krass is among former CIA employees interviewed by Durham’s team. Durham’s office remains tight-lipped, and neither the CIA nor Pentagon responded to requests for comment. Attempts to reach Krass were also unsuccessful.
During his 2017 House Intelligence Committee interview, Sussmann and his lawyer promised to provide the committee copies of all the documents he gave to the CIA, but Patel said they failed to turn them over. The former staff counsel said he is confident Durham has obtained them.
Meanwhile, Judicial Watch is suing the CIA for all its records of contacts with Sussmann under the Freedom of Information Act. The Washington-based watchdog group recently filed the lawsuit after the CIA failed last year to reply to a request for the records, including notes, related to agency phone conversations and meetings with the Clinton campaign attorney.
“The CIA is in cover-up mode about its communications with the [Clinton] lawyer implicated in a shady spy operation against President Trump,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said. “What is the CIA hiding about its role in this plot against Trump?”
Fitton maintains that what happened at the CIA could be an even bigger scandal than what happened at the FBI.
As one of the Intelligence Community’s top attorneys, Krass also was involved in Obama’s sudden decision after Trump won to make it easier for the CIA and FBI to root through raw personal communications intercepted globally by the National Security Agency, according to sources familiar with high-level legal consultations regarding the revision to spying rules at the time.
The departing president’s executive order relaxing rules for mining the NSA’s highly classified databases went into effect less than three weeks before Trump took office. At the same time, the White House rushed to preserve all intelligence related to Trump and Russia and disseminate it across U.S. agencies.
The order, known as “12 Triple 3,” allowed the FBI for the first time to sift through large troves of incidental communications – including phone calls and emails – involving U.S. citizens, without NSA filtering or even wiretap warrants. In effect, agents could put advisers and appointees of Trump, along with their family members and friends, under warrantless surveillance.
The easing of longstanding restrictions on intelligence-sharing set off a massive fishing expedition.
The FBI didn’t have much time to exploit the raw intercepts before Trump put his own people in place. So in a last-minute scramble, it asked both the CIA and NSA to search their holdings and collect as much information as possible on Russian oligarchs and other figures for any links to Trump and his advisers – namely, Gen. Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page.
The information was hastily processed and compiled into analytical reports and shared with other agencies, as well as Congress, putting Trump and his presidency under suspicion before he could even take the oath of office. Some of the material also was leaked to the New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post and other major media – even though it was largely unsubstantiated.
In short, the new rules that Krass, along with other intelligence agency lawyers, helped draft making it easier to share raw streams of communications also made it easier to frame Trump as a Russian stooge before Obama left office.
Although Brennan’s appointment ended the day Trump was inaugurated, Krass stayed behind in her CIA job through the end of April 2017. When she finally resigned, she left behind a team of around 150 attorneys in her legal shop at Langley. They all remained in their positions in spite of the change in administrations.
Krass is not the only Russiagate-tied official who has resurfaced in the Biden administration.
He is the “foreign policy adviser” referenced in the Sussmann indictment as one of the campaign officials who was briefed on the scheme to cook up the debunked rumor that Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin were secretly communicating through Alfa Bank’s computer servers. Sullivan promoted the “secret hotline” hoax in a campaign statement via Twitter just days before the November 2016 election, claiming, “This could be the most direct link yet between Donald Trump and Moscow.” He even called on “federal authorities” to investigate.
Former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook testified at Sussmann’s trial that he discussed the Alfa Bank project with Sullivan before going to Clinton herself for approval to publicize it.
Sullivan is also the “foreign policy adviser” cited in U.S. and Russian intelligence as the mastermind behind the Clinton campaign plot to “stir up” a Trump-Russia scandal ahead of the Democratic National Convention in July 2016. During the party’s gathering in Philadelphia, Sullivan drove a golf cart from one TV network news tent in the parking lot to another, pitching producers and anchors the fable that Trump was conspiring with Putin to steal the election.
Now operating out of the West Wing as Biden’s national security adviser, Sullivan is under scrutiny for potentially false testimony he gave to Congress regarding his knowledge of, and role in, the campaign’s opposition research efforts against Trump. Lying to Congress is a felony, although it’s rarely prosecuted.
“He has the gall to come into Congress – I took so many of those depositions – and say he had no idea how the [Clinton-funded Steele] dossier was created, or who the $10 million [that] Jake Sullivan and the DNC were paying was being utilized [by] to collect fraudulent information [on Trump and his advisers],” said Patel, a former federal prosecutor, who had worked for GOP intelligence chair Devin Nunes when he took the depositions. “So, I think John Durham’s on his case.”
An attorney for Sullivan did not respond to questions, while a spokeswoman for the National Security Council declined comment.
Prosecutors say the Clinton campaign operation to tar Trump continued even after the election, with Sullivan again taking a prominent role.
In February 2017, Sullivan met with another central figure in the plot to plant the Trump-Alfa smear with investigators – Daniel Jones, a former FBI analyst and Democratic staffer on the Hill, whose goal was to reignite the investigation and put Trump’s fledgling presidency under a cloud of suspicion.
On Feb. 10, 2017 – one day after Sussmann met with a member of Krass’ staff at the CIA – Sullivan secretly huddled with Jones and his partners at FusionGPS, an opposition research firm that worked for the Clinton campaign, to hatch the post-election plan to resurrect rumors Trump was a tool of the Kremlin. As RCI first reported, the meeting – which lasted about an hour and took place in a Washington office building – also included former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The group discussed raising money to finance a multimillion-dollar opposition research project headed by Jones to Target the new president. They ended up raising several million dollars for the effort, organized under a nonprofit called The Democracy Integrity Project. In effect, Jones’ operation would replace the Clinton campaign’s operation, continuing the effort to undermine Trump.
It’s not known whether Sussmann also attended the Feb. 10 meeting, but he had paid a visit to CIA headquarters that same week to peddle new disinformation about the supposed secret server.
At the time, the FBI closed its Alfa Bank probe, finding nothing sinister. “The FBI’s investigation revealed that the email server at issue was not owned or operated by the Trump Organization but, rather, had been administrated by a mass-marketing email company that sent advertisements for Trump hotels and hundreds of other clients,” Durham wrote in his indictment.
Nonetheless, Jones and Sullivan kept promoting the canard as true. Jones reached out to old bureau colleagues to pass on supposedly fresh leads, and the FBI looked into the new leads, while Sullivan went on national media to give the impression there was still something to the rumors.
In a March 2017 interview with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, for example, Sullivan discussed a story leaked to CNN by unnamed sources that the FBI was continuing to investigate the rumors of “a secret hotline between Trump and Russia.”
“How surprised were you to hear last week that this investigation is still ongoing?” Blitzer asked.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Sullivan said, “because what we learned during the campaign was that very serious computer science experts – people who work closely with the United States government – had uncovered this secret hotline between the Alfa Bank, the Russian bank, and the Trump organization.”
Sullivan insisted that the computer scientists “weren’t just making up crackpot theories.”
In fact, Durham is actively investigating their leader for potential fraud and conspiracy: computer contractor Rodney Joffe, who was offered a top post in a future Clinton administration, according to recent court filings. Joffe, who recently was terminated for cause as a longtime FBI informant, has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to cooperate with grand jury subpoenas. His lawyer did not respond to phone calls and email messages.
A longtime Clinton aide currently serving in the Biden administration as the director of the Office of Foreign Assistance, Rand also played a key role in spreading the Alfa Bank hoax.
In early 2017, Jones recruited Rand, a former Senate Intelligence Committee colleague, to sit on the board of The Democracy Integrity Project to help dig up new dirt on Trump, according to incorporation papers, while continuing to push the debunked Trump-Alfa Bank allegations.
In October 2018, TDIP blasted out an email to top Washington journalists with the subject line, “TDIP News Brief,” which attempted to keep the Alfa Bank hoax alive. The three-page bulletin, a copy of which was obtained by RCI, rehashed the alleged “connections between a computer server associated with the Trump Organization and servers associated with Russia’s Alfa Bank.” It speculated Democrats would subpoena information from “the server in question” if they regained control of Congress in the midterm elections the following month.
Rand’s resume on LinkedIn omits her role at TDIP (pronounced T-DIP), which is revealed only in the nonprofit’s IRS tax filings. A Democratic Party donor, Rand previously worked as a top aide to Clinton at the State Department. Before that, she served in the White House as a national security adviser to Obama.
Responding to grand jury subpoenas, her old colleague Jones reportedly has cooperated with Durham’s investigation.
Rand did not return requests for comment.
Biden nominated the longtime Clinton operative to head the Securities and Exchange Commission in February 2021, and Gensler was confirmed by the Senate and then sworn in as chairman of the Wall Street regulatory agency two months later.
Notably, the SEC press release announcing his appointment and detailing his personal biography omitted his prior role as chief financial officer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election team, where he managed the campaign budget, including expenditures that weren’t properly reported.
In March of this year, the Federal Election Commission fined both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee for violating campaign finance laws by falsely claiming that more than $1 million used for the Steele dossier and other opposition research against candidate Trump was for “legal advice and services.”
Durham has sought these and other financial records as part of his investigation and has interviewed several former Clinton campaign officials including Mook, who handled opposition-researching spending and other budget matters and consulted with Gensler’s office during the campaign.
Patel said investigators would be wise to continue following the money trail. He maintained that he and other lawyers on The House Intelligence Committee found that the Clinton campaign failed to report the proper purpose of millions of dollars in additional funding.
“They need to keep digging, because there’s at least $10 million and maybe $20 million more that went directly into opposition research,” Patel said, adding that the Clinton effort to frame Trump as a Russian agent was “massive.”
Last year, Gensler named Melissa Hodgman his associate director of enforcement.. She happens to be married to disgraced former FBI official Peter Strzok, who’s also implicated in Durham’s probe. Strzok led the investigation of Trump and his campaign, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane,” before he was fired in 2018 over anti-Trump texts he exchanged with his mistress, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
As adviser to the head of the SEC’s enforcement division, Hodgman currently is helping oversee an investigation into Trump’s social media start-up, Truth Social. According to regulatory filings, the SEC last month served Trump Media & Technology Group with a federal subpoena for records. The company owns Truth Social, Trump’s answer to left-leaning Twitter, which kicked him off its platform last year over remarks he made concerning the Jan. 6 riot.
The SEC reportedly wants to know more about merger talks between Trump’s parent company and Digital World Acquisition Corp., a publicly traded company regulated by the SEC. RCI contacted the SEC about the investigation and Gensler’s previous work for the Clinton campaign, but did not hear back.
Patel warned that too many of the people who “abused their power” in the Russiagate conspiracy to frame Trump have returned to power.
“A lot of these Russiagate conspirators are back recycled in the Biden administration,” said Patel, who recently published a book related to the Russiagate scandal, “The Plot Against the King.” “They must be held accountable or they’ll only abuse their power again.”
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