Clinton campaign given defensive briefing about foreign threat, something Trump never got on Russia

As the Justice Department’s review into the now-debunked Russia collusion probe becomes more public, one issue likely to dominate debate is whether the FBI treated Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump differently during the 2015-16 presidential election.

Exhibit One in that debate may involve a December 2015 event that has been kept from public view for most of the last three years.

A half dozen sources with direct knowledge tell me that Clinton’s presidential campaign was given a defensive briefing from U.S. intelligence that month about a possible foreign threat.

Government officials have known for months about the briefing but were forbidden from talking about it because it was classified.

But in recent weeks congressional investigators and others were allowed to see a document where a reference to the briefing was left in an unclassified section of the memo.

My sources say the FBI was a participant in the briefing but they cannot tell me which foreign power was raised with Clinton’s team because it remains classified. Several said the threat did not involve Russia, Ukraine or China though.

FBI and Justice Department officials declined comment, and former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta did not respond to phone and email requests for comment.

Whatever country was raised with Clinton’s campaign, the existence of the briefing itself is likely to revive concerns, at least among Republicans, that political bias caused the FBI to treat Trump and Clinton differently during the last presidential election.

While the FBI provided a generic briefing to candidate Trump about foreign threats, the bureau never gave Trump a defensive briefing during the election about its concerns that Russia was trying to compromise some of his campaign aides. Instead, the bureau opened a counterintelligence investigation and secured a secret FISA warrant to spy on some of the campaign’s activities, including former adviser Carter Page.

The fact that the Clinton campaign was given the sort of defensive briefing Trump never received is certain to set off new alarm bells.

Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa., and Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have been pressing recently to force more transparency into the question of defensive briefings for public officials being targeted by foreign powers.

“The Department of Homeland Security has made clear that ‘[a] secure and resilient electoral process is a vital national interest.’ An essential part of that process is ensuring that all candidates for office are treated fairly and are fully and equally prepared to address any potential security and counterintelligence concerns,” the senators wrote in a letter to the FBI. “The apparent absence of any policy, procedure, or practice for conducting defensive briefings undermines that process by risking the appearance of bias or, at worst, causing actual prejudice to a candidate for office.”

Expect defensive briefings to remain an issue well into the 2020 election.

Steele, State and the Alfa Bank conspiracy theory exposed.

State Department building
Official government photo of US State Department headquarters in Washington.

When Russia investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller finally testified this summer, one of the few substantive revelations he made about something not specifically addressed in his final report involved a long-pedaled allegation that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin had a secret communications network through a computer server at Russia’s Alfa Bank.

“I believe it’s not true,” Mueller testified when questioned by Republican Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, confirming in public what FBI officials had privately told me and other reporters going back to late 2016.

We now have strong evidence that one of the events that gave life to that conspiracy theory was an Oct. 11, 2016 visit by the British intelligence operative Christopher Steele to the State Department, where the author of the now infamous anti-Trump dossier met with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kathleen Kavalec.

Just a few days after the visit, Kavalec forwarded a document to FBI official Stephen Laycock on Oct. 13, 2016 as a followup to her contact with Steele that offered significant detail about the Alfa Bank theory based on unexplained pings between a server at the bank and one used by the Trump organization on the East Coast.

You can read the document here.

“Network logs show a distinctively human pattern of communications between a hidden server dedicated for use by the Trump Organization and the Russian financial company Alfa Bank, which has close ties to the Kremlin,” the document Kavalec forwarded to the FBI stated.

The memo also stated that after a New York Times reporter contacted Alfa Bank about the pings, the “hidden server belonging to Trump then disappears.” It added “no one but Alfa Bank was asked.” The document said people seeking more information on the allegations could contact a well known online computer expert who goes by the name Tea Leaves.

I obtained a copy of the original document Kavalec was provided. A second version of the memo — which was marked up with comments casting doubt on the veracity of the allegations — remains under tight hold at the Justice Department as prosecutors examine possible misconduct in the now-closed Russia probe.

Congressional investigators who have investigated the Kavalec-Steele meeting believe the Alfa Bank memo was downloaded from an Internet file server known as Mediafire and provided to Kavalec either by Steele or his longtime contact inside the State Department, Jonathan Winer. 

State Department emails show Kavalec asked Winer to help retrieve a document starting on Oct. 12 based on what had been discussed in the meeting with Steele a day earlier.

“Thanks for bringing your friend by yesterday,” Kavalec wrote Winer, referring to Steele. “It was very helpful. I’ll be interested to see the article you mentioned.”

Investigators who have seen the redacted version of Kavalec’s transmission of the memo to the FBI say it clearly indicates Steele was involved in discussing the Alfa Bank allegations.

Steele’s own dossier shows he began investigating Alfa Bank connections to the Kremlin about a month before the meeting with Kavalec, penning a memo dated Sept. 14, 2016 entitled “Russia/US Presidential Election: Kremlin-Alpha Group Co-Operation.” Steele misspelled the bank’s name but suggested in the dossier it could be an avenue for Putin to influence the election. Alfa Bank long has denied any collusion and even sued Steele unsuccessfully for defamation

Whether Steele or Winer first provided the computer pings document, the theory soon became political fodder for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that was hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee to find dirt on Trump and Russia and which employed both Steele and and another Russian researcher named Nellie Ohr, the wife of a senior Justice Department official named Bruce Ohr.
 

In a December 2016 meeting with Bruce Ohr, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson pedaled the Alfa Bank rumor again, information that Ohr subsequently provided to the FBI. Simpson told Ohr that a New York Times article dismissing the Alfa Bank theory was wrong, according to Ohr’s own notes.

“The New York Times story on Oct. 31 downplaying the connection between Alfa servers and the Trump campaign was incorrect,” Simpson was quoted as saying. “There was communication and it wasn’t spam.”

Separately, former FBI general counsel James Baker told Congress last year he received similar allegations about Alfa from a DNC lawyer named Michael Sussman and provided it to agents in the Russia case in late summer or early fall 2016.

As early as next week, the Justice Department inspector general will release his report on the FBI reliance on the Steele dossier to secure a FISA warrant authorizing the Russia probe’s surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page at the end of the 2016 election.

It is widely expected that Steele’s meeting with Kavalec will be cited in that report, possibly as a red flag missed by the FBI or DOJ before approving the FISA.

One thing is for certain. The now debunked conspiracy theory about Alfa Bank and Russia collusion was given life through Steele’s contact at State, fanned by career bureaucrats and the Fusion GPS firm.

It’s the sort of tale that makes some believe there is — or at least was — a “deep state” trying to influence the 2016 election.

The most important stories on the Ukraine scandal.

Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland Sit With Ukrainian President Poroshenko. Source: State Department.

Lots of readers have asked me recently about what are the most important stories that I have reported on Ukraine, Joe Biden, the U.S. embassy in Kiev and George Soros.

Here is a quick cheat sheet of my columns on Ukraine that have garnered the most attention from my days writing at The Hill, starting with the April 1, 2019 column that started it all.

1.) Joe Biden’s 2020 Ukrainian Nightmare – A Closed Probe Is Revived

Two years after leaving office, Joe Biden couldn’t resist the temptation last year to brag to an audience of foreign policy specialists about the time as vice president that he strong-armed Ukraine into firing its top prosecutor.

Continue reading here.

2.) These once-secret memos cast doubt on Joe Biden’s Ukraine story

Former Vice President Joe Biden, now a 2020 Democratic presidential contender, has locked into a specific story about the controversy in Ukraine.

He insists that, in spring 2016, he strong-armed Ukraine to fire its chief prosecutor solely because Biden believed that official was corrupt and inept, not because the Ukrainian was investigating a natural gas company, Burisma Holdings, that hired Biden’s son, Hunter, into a lucrative job.

There’s just one problem.

Continue reading here.

3.) Document reveals Ukraine had already re-opened probe into gas firm tied to Joe Biden’s family before Trump phone call

Continue reading here.

4.) Ukrainian Embassy confirms DNC operative solicited Trump dirt in 2016

The boomerang from the Democratic Party’s failed attempt to connect Donald Trump to Russia’s 2016 election meddling is picking up speed, and its flight path crosses right through Moscow’s pesky neighbor, Ukraine. That is where there is growing evidence a foreign power was asked, and in some cases tried, to help Hillary Clinton.

In its most detailed account yet, the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington says a Democratic National Committee (DNC) insider during the 2016 election solicited dirt on Donald Trump’s campaign chairman and even tried to enlist the country’s president to help.

Read more here.

5.) My interview with former Ukrainian General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko

Watch here.

6.) My interview with Ukrainian Parliamentary member Serhiy Leshchenko about the Manafort black ledger

Watch here and here.

7.) George Soros’ secret 2016 access to State Department exposes Democrats’ big money hypocrisy

Liberal mega-donor George Soros made some big bets during the last U.S. presidential election. One was that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency. Another was that he could reshape Ukraine’s government to his liking, and that his business empire might find fertile ground in that former Soviet state.

So when Donald Trump’s improbable march to the White House picked up steam in the spring of 2016, Team Soros marched to the top of the State Department to protect some of those investments, according to newly released department memos providing a rare glimpse into the Democratic donor’s extraordinary access to the Obama administration.

Read more here.