President Trump’s last days in office offer a final opportunity to declassify critical information on the Russia investigation that engulfed his lone term.
Already voluminous public records – including investigative reports from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Congress and the Justice Department’s inspector general – have established that Trump and his associates were targeted with a baseless Russian collusion allegation. The fraudulent claim originated with the Hillary Clinton campaign, was fueled by a torrent of false or deceptive intelligence leaks, and was improperly investigated by the FBI, potentially to the point of being criminal. Despite these disclosures, key questions remain about the origins and the spread of the conspiracy theory. And with a Biden administration set to take office and Democrats taking control of both chambers of Congress, there are no guarantees that the ongoing probe of Special Counsel John Durham will fill in the remaining gaps.
Both the CIA and FBI have been slow to produce much material that Trump reportedly wants declassified. They argue that disclosure would reveal sources and methods vital to national security. Such claims arouse skepticism because they have been used in the past to cover up malfeasance – as the public learned when deceptive FISA warrant applications used to spy on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page were finally released.
Before he leaves office on Jan. 20, Trump could use his declassification authority to help clear up some of the following critical issues of the Russiagate saga:
What Did the Feds Really Know About Joseph Mifsud?
What we were told: The FBI says it opened its Trump-Russia investigation on July 31, 2016 after learning of a potential offer of Russian assistance to junior Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos. It later emerged that the offer came from a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud, whom US officials have suggested was acting as a Russian cutout.
What we learned: When the FBI document that opened the Crossfire Hurricane probe was finally disclosed by the DOJ Inspector General in December 2019, it turned out that the FBI’s tip was vague hearsay drawn from a London barroom chat. Australian diplomat Alexander Downer reported that Papadopoulos “suggested” that the Trump team had received “some of kind of suggestion from Russia” of possible help to the campaign “with the anonymous release of information.” The FBI document acknowledged that the nature of this “suggestion” was “unclear,” and that this possible Russian help could entail “material acquired publicly” – as opposed to hacked emails.
After Mifsud was identified as the man Papadopoulos allegedly spoke with, Mueller’s team depicted him as having extensive and suspect contacts with Russia. This portrayal erased the fact that Mifsud’s closest public ties had been to Western governments, politicians, and institutions, including the CIA, FBI and British intelligence services. Despite Mifsud’s central role in the investigation, the FBI conducted only one brief interview with him in the lobby of a Washington, DC, hotel in February 2017. The Mueller team later claimed that Mifsud gave false statements to FBI agents yet, conspicuously, did not indict him for lying. The FBI’s notes on the interview, released to the public only this past August, show that Mifsud denied having any advance knowledge of Russian hacking and that FBI agents did not press him. There is little evidence that the FBI aggressively investigated him.
Possible revelations to come: Any proof that Mifsud worked as a Russian agent. And given his central role, why didn’t the FBI grill him about his sources, methods and contacts during their brief interview? What instructions, if any, were given to the agents who spoke with him? And by whom? And what other efforts, if any, were made to surveil him?
Mifsud has gone into hiding since early 2018, reportedly in Italy. There have been reports that Mifsud has provided an audio deposition to the Durham inquiry, and that Attorney General William Barr even personally obtained his cell phones during a September 2019 trip to Rome. But all of the rumors and speculation only underscore the lack of concrete information about such a pivotal figure in the Trump-Russia saga.
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