Guest Post By Margot Cleveland
Last week when Andrew McCabe launched his Orange Man Bad tour, he stunned the public with claims that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein suggested using the 25th Amendment to remove President Trump from office. Reaction on the hill came quickly, with Sen. Lindsey Graham calling the claim “beyond stunning.”
Graham, the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, promised an investigation, telling CBS’s “Face the Nation”: “There’s an allegation by the acting FBI director at the time that the deputy attorney general was basically trying to do an administrative coup, take the president down [using] the 25th Amendment process. The deputy attorney general denies it. I promise your viewers the following: that we will have a hearing about who’s telling the truth, what actually happened.”
But the supposed consideration of the 25th Amendment shouldn’t be the focus of the outrage. After all, that amendment, which allows the vice president plus a “majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide” to declare the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” is part of our constitutional system. Its stringent requirements for removing a president ensure it cannot be used to execute a soft coup by political opponents.
The true scandal is not the swirling gossip that Rosenstein mentioned the 25th Amendment, but what has been front and center for more than two years: It’s the dossier, stupid!
It’s the dossier, its funding, its creation, and its use. It’s the leaks, the sabotage by political appointees and career DOJ and FBI agents, the media’s complicity, and the triggering of a special counsel, all with the end goal of removing the duly elected president by pressuring Trump to resign or face impeachment.
While we may never learn the full scope of this sting, what is known makes “Spygate”—for want of a better term—the worst political scandal in American history: A dossier funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, and authored by a former British spy (Christopher Steele, who despised Trump), falsely claimed Trump and individuals connected to his presidential campaign conspired with Russia. The dossier was shopped to multiple media outlets and passed off to the Obama administration’s DOJ, FBI, and State Department, as well as several members of Congress and their staffers.
The FBI then used confidential human sources and other allies, such as Stefan Halper and Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, to target members of the Trump campaign to establish a pretext to launch an investigation of the Trump campaign and to obtain a secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act surveillance order on former campaign advisor Carter Page. Multiple governmental officials signed off on the Page FISA application without reading it, and the FISA court granted the surveillance order based on double-hearsay and claims made in the unverified dossier. That surveillance order gave the government access to past communications of Trump campaign members.
Following the election, Steele continued to feed the DOJ and FBI fake intel on Trump. However, because the FBI had terminated its relationship with Steele in early November upon learning that the former spy had leaked the dossier to the media then lied about doing so, Steele passed the information on to DOJ attorney Bruce Ohr. Ohr then relayed the Steele’s info to the FBI.
With the new year came more meddling: On January 5, 2017, FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates briefed President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and National Security Advisor Susan Rice on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The following day, Comey briefed president-elect Trump on the Steele dossier.
That briefing was quickly leaked to the media, providing the hook CNN sought to report on the existence and substance of the dossier. But as recently released emails reveal, the press—which had long possessed copies of the Steele dossier—purposefully fed the public only the most believable details to make the unverified allegations appear credible.
The Daily Caller exposed this reality, reporting that after BuzzFeed published the full Steele dossier, “CNN anchor Jake Tapper lit into BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith for the decision, calling it ‘irresponsible’ and ‘uncollegial,’” according to emails released as part of a federal lawsuit brought against BuzzFeed. “‘I think your move makes the story less serious and credible[.] I think you damaged its impact,’ Tapper wrote to Smith on Jan. 10, 2017, just after BuzzFeed published the dossier in full on its website.”
The FBI seemed content with these developments, though, with disgraced lead FBI Agent Peter Strzok suggesting in a text to Lisa Page that now that the dossier “is out, we use it as a pretext to go interview some people.”
The leaks also were not limited to CNN; rather, while Tapper was berating BuzzFeed’s editor, a staff writer for The New Yorker was emailing Rice seeking comment on a forthcoming story on Trump’s supposed Russia connections and the briefing Obama had received. Rice forwarded the email to Benjamin Rhodes, who promised to call the reporter the next day.
Rhodes, you will recall, served as Obama’s deputy national security advisor. In that role, Rhodes successfully created an “echo chamber” to sell the Iran deal to Americans by feeding know-nothing young reporters with the administration’s narrative that the billion-dollar payout would ensure Iran abandoned its nuclear ambitions. Whether Rhodes also had a role in peddling the Russia-collusion narrative is unknown.
The narrative took hold and the leaks continued, including a leak from a “senior U.S. government official” to the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. So on the heels of news breaking that the FBI had briefed both Obama and Trump on the dossier, the Post published a January 12 article revealing Trump’s incoming national security advisor and former campaign advisor, Michael Flynn, had called the Russian ambassador several times on December 29—the same day “the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking.”
Flynn’s questioning by Strzok and his subsequent firing soon followed. Then when Trump spoke with Comey about Flynn, telling his FBI director that Flynn was “a good guy,” and “I hope you can let it go,” Comey scurried back to his office, drafted a memorandum of the conversation, later casting Trump’s comment as an attempt at obstructing justice.
Comey shared his supposed concerns over this conversation with Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, Chief Counsel James Baker, and Chief of Staff Jim Rybicki, but would later tell the House judiciary and oversight committees that the group “didn’t feel we could go to Attorney General Sessions because he was about to be recused.” Instead, Comey testified that “the group decided to ‘hold on to it, keep the information close hold.’” When pushed on how he knew Sessions was about to recuse from the Russia investigation, Comey couldn’t say, though, adding to the view that Democrats had orchestrated Sessions’ recusal.
For all his concerns, Comey continued to privately assure President Trump that he was not a target of the Russia investigation. Yet Comey refused to acknowledge publicly what he confirmed privately to the president. So the Russia collusion narrative continued.
It was soon further bolstered when long-time Senate intelligence committee staffer James Wolfe shared details concerning the committee’s investigation into Page with his one-time mistress, reporter Ali Watkins. Watkins ran with these leaks, first at BuzzFeed and later when she moved on to The New York Times.
Here we have another newly exposed factoid from filings in the BuzzFeed case: BuzzFeed identified Watkins in court filings as one of the individuals who “conducted newsgathering in connection with the Dossier before BuzzFeed published the Article” on the dossier. This fact raises the question of whether Watkins received information from Wolfe concerning the dossier and, if so, what he leaked.
The most significant leak, however, came following Trump’s firing of Comey. After Trump terminated him, Comey gave several memoranda he had drafted while serving as the FBI director to a law professor friend. That friend then leaked the memos to The New York Times, in hopes of forcing the appointment of a special counsel.
Comey’s ploy worked, and the day after the Times ran the story, Rosenstein (who was in charge because of Session’s forced recusal) appointed Robert Mueller special counsel to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
Mueller’s appointment helped cement the Russia collusion narrative in the public’s consciousness, but after nearly two years of stories, leaks, and fake news (such as the supposed meetings between Paul Manafort and WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian embassy), Mueller has yet to reveal any evidence of illegal coordination. So the soft coup that started with the DNC and Clinton-funded dossier will soon fail.
But the intelligence community’s attempt to undo an election and the media’s willing assistance in those efforts represent the most undemocratic abuse of power ever seen in our constitutional republic. That is the real scandal, not Rosenstein’s purported passing mention of the 25th Amendment.
Margot Cleveland is a senior contributor to The Federalist. Cleveland served nearly 25 years as a permanent law clerk to a federal appellate judge and is a former full-time faculty member and current adjunct instructor at the college of business at the University of Notre Dame. The views expressed here are those of Cleveland in her private capacity.