clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

William Barr’s 4-country effort to discredit the Trump-Russia inquiry, explained

The conspiracy theories linking Italy, Australia, the UK, and Ukraine.

Attorney General William Barr speaks at at a cybersecurity conference at Fordham University School of Law on July 23, 2019, in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

News reports this week have clarified that Attorney General William Barr’s promised investigation into the origins of the FBI investigation of links between Russia and the Trump campaign is very real, and has involved high-level talks and meetings with the governments of four countries — Ukraine, Italy, Australia, and the United Kingdom.

That’s a motley assortment of nations whose links and relevance may not be obvious to someone who gets their news from mainstream sources.

The four countries link together as part of a counternarrative popular on the right that holds that the real scandal of the Trump-Russia affair is not anything Trump (or the Russians) did but a “deep state” plot by intelligence agencies to swing the election against Hillary Clinton.

This theory makes no sense on its face — the investigation into Trump was kept secret from the public at the time it could have swayed the election, while the FBI leaked repeatedly in ways that were damaging to Hillary Clinton — but it’s grown increasingly influential in conservative politics over the years and is now apparently driving American foreign policy. As is often the case with this kind of conspiracy theory, the counternarrative is not exactly coherent, but the geography of Barr’s investigations does help explain its scope and rough contours.

Italy and the search for Joseph Mifsud

Affording to the official narrative of events, the FBI’s Trump-Russia inquiry began when an intoxicated George Papadopoulos told Australia’s ambassador to the UK that he’d been approached by a mysterious professor who claimed to be acting on behalf of the Russian government and would be able to provide the Trump campaign with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

That professor turns out to be Joseph Mifsud.

The Mueller report describes Mifsud as “a London-based professor who had connections to Russia and traveled to Moscow in April 2016” and recounts that “immediately upon his return to London from that trip, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that the Russian government had ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.”

The report further states that Papadopoulos’s various false statements about these meetings made it difficult for the FBI to adequately interrogate Mifsud, thus letting him get away with lying to them about various matters, and leading them to fail to apprehend a Russian intelligence asset when they had the chance:

Papadopoulos’s false statements in January 2017 impeded the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Most immediately, those statements hindered investigators’ ability to effectively question Mifsud when he was interviewed in the lobby of a Washington, D.C. hotel on February 10, 2017. See Gov’t Sent. Mem. at 6, United States v. George Papadopoulos, No. 1:17-cr-182 (D.D.C. Aug. 18, 2017), Doc. 44. During that interview, Mifsud admitted to knowing Papadopoulos and to having introduced him to Polonskaya and Timofeev. But Mifsud denied that he had advance knowledge that Russia was in possession of emails damaging to candidate Clinton, stating that he and Papadopoulos had discussed cybersecurity and hacking as a larger issue and that Papadopoulos must have misunderstood their conversation. Mifsud also falsely stated that he had not seen Papadopoulos since the meeting at which Mifsud introduced him to Polonskaya, even though emails, text messages, and other information show that Mifsud met with Papadopoulos on at least two other occasions—April 12 and April 26, 2016. In addition, Mifsud omitted that he had drafted (or edited) the follow-up message that Polonskaya sent to Papadopoulos following the initial meeting and that, as reflected in the language of that email chain (“Baby, thank you!”), Mifsud may have been involved in a personal relationship with Polonskaya at the time. The false information and omissions in Papadopoulos’s January 2017 interview undermined investigators’ ability to challenge Mifsud when he made these inaccurate statements.

Papadopoulos’s story about all this is different.

In his telling, rather than being a liar whose dishonesty impeded a legitimate counterintelligence investigation, he’s a patsy. Mifsud was never a Russian agent at all, but rather an Italian asset sent to entrap Papadopoulos as a favor to Obama-era CIA Director John Brennan. Papadopoulos made this most explicit when the government of Italy shook up its intelligence services. He described it at the time as a “flip,” and suggested the Russia-friendly right-wing populist government of Italy would shortly reveal the truth.

In the Italian press, this shake-up was debated in terms of fairly conventional partisan politics. The Italian intelligence services were rocked by a series of scandals in the mid-aughts, which led to a major reorganization led by then-Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s center-left government. The conventional Italian interpretation of the shakeup this spring was either that the new right-wing government was backsliding on important reforms or else correcting the errors of the Prodi era.

But on the transatlantic conservative web, this was a key development that was supposedly about to lift the veil on the scandal known as “spygate” on English-language sites and “Italygate” on Italian-language ones.

Since all this was months ago back in May and the grand reveal never happened, lesser minds might conclude that the scandal is fake. But Barr, operating on the theory that maybe the Italian government just forgot to follow through or something, traveled to Italy this fall to sniff around. Mifsud himself, after all, has been missing from public view for months but did perhaps surface briefly in Rome.

Alexander Downer down under

Alexander Downer became executive director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce way back in 1983, a member of parliament for the Australian Liberal Party (which is the country’s main conservative party) in 1984, served briefly as leader of the Liberal Party in opposition in the mid-1990s, became foreign minister in John Howard’s long-tenured right-wing coalition government from 1996-2007, left politics after Howard’s electoral defeat, but returned to government as high commissioner to the United Kingdom under Tony Abbott’s government in 2014. He is, in other words, a distinguished albeit somewhat-past-his-prime member of the right side of the Australian political establishment.

He met Papadapoulos in London, heard about the meetings with Mifsud, and with the approval of the Australian government, passed the tip on to the FBI.

Or if you believe Papadopoulos, he is part of the vast transcontinental left-wing conspiracy to bring him down. Papadopoulos vowed back in July that Downer would be “next” to be exposed after Mifsud.

Mifsud, of course, had not yet been exposed (perhaps because there’s nothing to expose) but that did not stop Papadopoulos from confidently reiterating on Monday that Barr’s talks with the Australian government would shortly reveal that Downer is a “Clinton errand boy who is about to get exposed on the world stage.”

Meanwhile, back in Australia the subject of debate is about whether current Prime Minister Scott Morrison, another Liberal, struck an inappropriate Ukraine-style deal with Trump in order to advance the conspiracy. Opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese has argued that “the prime minister needs to explain to the Australian people exactly what happened here,” while Bill Shorten, a former Labor leader and cabinet minister, is asking questions about Morrison’s recent trip to Washington suggesting “perhaps the special reception was in exchange for special services done.”

Not only does it make very little sense to suggest that a veteran conservative politician from Australia would be acting as Clinton’s catspaw in this venture, it’s not even clear what role Downer would have played in the posited conspiracy. After all, if Mifsud was working to entrap Papadopoulos on behalf of John Brennan the whole time, then Mifsud himself could have just reported the successful sting back to the FBI without the need for an Australian cut-out.

Although of course perhaps that simply goes to show how clever the plan is.

Stefan Halper in the UK

Stefan Halper is an old-school American right-winger who worked for Alexander Haig, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney during the Nixon and Ford administrations before working on George H.W. Bush’s 1980 primary campaign and then eventually for the Reagan-Bush campaign effort. He served in a senior role in the Reagan State Department and there are some suggestions that via his role as a founder of the Palmer National Bank he played a role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Halper drifted out of government and in 2001 became director of American Studies at the University of Cambridge in England. While there, he continued to be involved with American think tanks and as a foreign policy pundit.

In 2007, he coauthored The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing with Jonathan Clarke. The book is essentially a critique of Bush-era “neoconservative” grandiosity written from the perspective of realpolitik and conservative nationalism. Broadly speaking, the same kind of criticisms that Trump leveled against Bush-era foreign policy and that have been the subject of some tensions between him and his own national security team. White House trade director recommended Halper for an ambassadorship early in the Trump administration.

Seemingly as part of the FBI’s investigation into Papadopoulos’s claims to be working with the Russian government, Halper reached out to Papadopoulos in England and also to Carter Page who had made some similar claims. Trump and his allies in the media turned this around into the idea that the FBI had just gone and embedded a spy in Trump’s campaign — the original meaning of “spygate” before the conspiracy metastasized.

Former House Oversight Chair Trey Gowdy, former Speaker Paul Ryan, and Senate Intelligence Chair Richard Burr have all confirmed that there was nothing improper about the FBI’s handling of the situation, seeing the outreach through Halper as a light-touch means of looking into curious claims by Trump staffers without spying on the campaign. But former House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes has been insistent that these events constituted malfeasance, and Papadopoulos linked them up with his larger Mifsud/Downer conspiracy theory.

This is what he cites as evidence: A conservative foreign policy expert living in Britain once attended some kind of event that Australia’s conservative foreign minister also was at.

One possible explanation is that members of the right-of-center Anglophone foreign policy community have personal and professionals links to one another due to their shared interests. The other is that the two men were covertly part of a vast left-wing conspiracy to bring down the Trump administration — a conspiracy that for some reason forgot to reveal any of its evidence to the public before Election Day.

Compared to this convoluted web of nonsense, the Ukrainian leg of the expedition is almost remarkably clear-cut.

The three Ukrainian angles

While the “spygate” conspiracy theory ropes in several different countries in a confusing way, Ukraine is just one country that is at the center of numerous Trump efforts.

First, as is now well-understood he wants the Ukrainian government to say that Joe Biden pressured an earlier Ukrainian president to fire the country’s chief prosecutor in order to protect his son Hunter’s financial interests. This is not true. Biden’s effort to get the prosecutor fired were broadly supported by European governments, no Republicans disagreed with the push at the time, and there’s no reason to believe Hunter’s financial interests were advanced by this move in any way.

Second, Trump appears to believe that an American company called Crowdstrike is actually Ukrainian (one of its founders was born in Russia but moved to Tennessee when he was 14) and in scattered tweets and statements hangs two different conspiracy theories on this “fact”:

  • One is the idea that Crowdstrike, acting on behalf of the Ukrainian government, misattributed the hack of the DNC email servers to the Russian government.
  • The other is the idea that Hillary Clinton deleted damning emails off her personal server but that these emails may be recoverable in Ukraine somewhere.

In addition to reflecting confusion about Crowdstrike’s relationship to Ukraine, this discourse appears to involve mixing up the DNC email server (which the Russian government hacked) and the Clinton email server (which they did not). Trump of course responded to the original DNC server hack with his infamous “Russia, if you’re listening” comment in which he publicly asked Russian hackers to recover and release the missing Clinton emails.

The fact that Trump publicly invited Russian computer criminals to assist his campaign might partially explain why it was widely believed that Trump was working in cahoots with Russian computer criminals (though of course Trump now believes it was a plot to frame him involving Italian intelligence and the former prime minister of Australia).

It’s also worth emphasizing that Clinton says the reason she deleted those emails is they were personal in nature rather than relating to her work in the State Department. If Clinton did send and receive work-related emails that she then deleted, then the people to whom she sent the emails (or those who sent the emails to her) would have their own copies of the emails on State Department servers. The FBI investigated Clinton’s emails extensively and did not find any examples of such wrongdoing.

According to Trump’s former Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert, the president has been repeatedly advised that this conspiracy theory about Crowdstrike is wrong but Trump keeps pressing ahead with it.

Trump has found his Roy Cohn

To be clear, during the 2016 campaign:

  • The FBI kept its open counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s links with Russia secret and hidden from the public.
  • The FBI repeatedly violated Justice Department guidelines to castigate Clinton’s email related behavior, leaked about the investigation, and publicly reopened the investigation at an inopportune time without even checking if any actual new evidence has unearthed (there was no new evidence).

Under the circumstances, it is extremely difficult to see how anything that happened could possibly have been part of an FBI plot to take Trump down.

What happened is that after Trump won the election, this investigation became a problem for him. It led to the conviction of his campaign manager on a number of serious financial crimes, and Trump fired the FBI director in a failed effort to block an inquiry into the activities of his national security adviser who likewise turned out to be guilty of a number of serious crimes.

At that time it became convenient for Trump to start professing to believe that he had been the victim of an FBI frame-up. And since Papadopoulos also got caught breaking the law, it became convenient for him to start positioning himself as the victim of a broad international conspiracy.

From Watergate through to Jeff Sessions’s term as attorney general, there was a consensus in the United States that Justice Department work should be depoliticized rather than conducted as an extension of politics out of the West Wing of the White House. Trump never liked this arrangement, famously asking, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” and castigating Sessions for refusing to act like Trump’s personal lawyer in his capacity as attorney general.

Barr’s discussions about this with foreign heads of state and cabinet ministers is somewhere between silly and a waste of time. But his eagerness to personally involve himself in a politically sensitive investigation in this way represents a bigger breach of norms and principles that — especially in combination with things like Trump’s vocal demands to have his critics in congress arrested — is rather more alarming.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.