Politicized investigations, interference in elections, and abusive targeting by law enforcement are all the makings of a juicy political scandal. And President Donald Trump would like us to believe that such a scandal, with each of these components, is real and — even if he can't name any crime that might have been committed — directed at him. That's why he has promoted the lazy moniker "Obamagate," an all-encompassing term for the vague allegations of wrongdoing surrounding the conduct of the previous administration and the investigators probing the ties between his campaign and the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 election.
On Friday, another arm of the Trump administration revealed yet another inquiry into the "Obamagate" haze. FBI Director Christopher Wray, apparently under pressure from the president himself, has opened an internal review of the handling of the case of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
But this Trump-driven obsession has thus far proved quite wide of the mark. The only serious wrongdoing uncovered came in the applications for surveillance of Carter Page, who had a low-level and short-lived position advising the Trump campaign. The FBI had legitimate reason to be suspicious of Page — he had previously been the subject of recruitment efforts by Russian intelligence, and some of his ties to Moscow remain unexplained — but DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that officials made voluminous errors when applying to surveil him. Yet Horowitz also found there was no indication of political bias against Page in the decision-making, and that the investigation of the Trump campaign in 2016 more broadly was properly predicated. What errors there were, he found, often stemmed from lack of proper oversight; further work from Horowitz has indicated that the errors in the Page surveillance may be common in the FBI's conduct, raising yet more troubling questions.
But the fundamental reality is that Obamagate is a manufactured scandal. While there might yet be more real wrongdoing discovered, there's no evidence of a grand conspiracy against Trump or his campaign, and the fundamental basis of the Russia investigation is and was rock-solid.
The real scandal — which shares many features with the imaginary "Obamagate" — is what happened to Hillary Clinton.
The FBI's treatment of Hillary Clinton has long served as a strong rebuttal point to the anger Trump and others have expressed about the Russia investigation. While the president, Attorney General Bill Barr, and their right-wing allies have alleged or suggested that the 2016 Trump campaign was illicitly targeted by the Obama administration in order to hurt his chances at election and then to hobble his presidency, this is just hard to square with what happened to his opponent. Quite infamously, FBI Director James Comey announced the re-opening of the Clinton email investigation less than two weeks before the 2016 election, an event many argue cost her the race.
So it becomes very difficult to claim that the FBI was being weaponized against Trump when it's most overt action in 2016 race clearly benefited him.
But the treatment of Hillary Clinton was even worse than that. The reality of the Clinton case embodies the fantasy of "Obamagate."
Because while Trump and his allies often rail against the use of the Steele dossier, campaign opposition research against Trump alleging nefarious ties between his camp and Russia, Horowitz found that the document wasn't used as the basis to start an investigation. The FBI began investigating Trump campaign ties to Russia after an Australia diplomat flagged a suspicious conversation with George Papadopoulos.
The New York Times reported, however, that a 2016 investigation into Clinton was launched on the basis of opposition research:
In August, around the same time the decision was made to keep the Manafort investigation at a low simmer, the F.B.I. grappled with whether to issue subpoenas in the Clinton Foundation case, which, like the Manafort matter, was in its preliminary stages. The investigation, based in New York, had not developed much evidence and was based mostly on information that had surfaced in news stories and the book “Clinton Cash,” according to several law enforcement officials briefed on the case.
The book asserted that foreign entities gave money to former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, and in return received favors from the State Department when Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state. Mrs. Clinton has adamantly denied those claims.
The "Clinton Cash" book was backed by a group founded by Steve Bannon, one of Trump's campaign chairs, and funded by Robert Mercer, a Trump donor.
And that FBI investigation, triggered by opposition research, was leaked in the run-up to the 2016 campaign to the Wall Street Journal. It later turned out that Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, who is often cast as one of Trump's top enemies, fed this information to the paper. It added to the aura of scandal around Clinton, even though that investigation never turned into anything.
The FBI investigation of Trump campaign links to Russia leaked, too. But the New York Times piece that reported on the investigation sharply downplayed the seriousness of the issue with the much-criticized headline: "Investigating Donald Trump, FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia."
Even this headline was too strong. The FBI had not at that point opened an investigation into Trump himself; it wouldn't until he fired Comey in 2017.
Of course, it's not just the pre-election FBI conduct that Trump and his allies bemoan. They are perhaps more aggrieved about the investigations of Trump once he became president.
And yet this is where the Obamagate conspiracy theories really fall apart. Even assuming that Obama and Joe Biden and everyone else wanted to use the FBI against Trump following the election, they didn't really have any leverage once they were out of office. Everything that happened with the investigation once Trump was president happened on the watch of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who Trump himself appointed.
It's really some conspiracy if you can get the target of it to play along.
But while that's where the "Obamagate" story comes to a screeching halt, that's where the abuse of Clinton just gets started.
As the Mueller report documented, Trump directed then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 to re-investigate Clinton's emails. This order came despite the fact that the basis fo the investigation was always paper-thin, and credible observers never believed there was a chance she would be prosecuted. Sessions recusal from campaign-related matters likely should have prevented him from doing do — but it appear he did it anyway. The Washington Post reported in January:
A Justice Department inquiry launched more than two years ago to mollify conservatives clamoring for more investigations of Hillary Clinton has effectively ended with no tangible results, and current and former law enforcement officials said they never expected the effort to produce much of anything.
Sessions did not appoint a second special counsel, but weeks later sent a letter to Huber telling him to “review” a wide array of issues related to Clinton. They included the Clinton Foundation and Uranium One matters, along with the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state and alleged leaks by former FBI director James B. Comey. At the time, Sessions was facing persistent public and private criticism from Trump, who was upset over his recusal from the Russia probe.
Huber was a prosecutor with bipartisan credentials — having been named the U.S. attorney first by President Barack Obama before he was retained in the Trump administration.
But from the start, senior officials inside the Justice Department viewed Huber’s task as unlikely to lead to anything of significance beyond appeasing those angry lawmakers and the president.
“We didn’t expect much of it, and neither did he,” said one person familiar with the matter, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of persistent political sensitivities connected to the 2016 election. “And as time went on, a lot of people just forgot about it.”
So Hillary Clinton was targeted by the Trump administration, even though the investigators doing the work thought there was nothing to the allegations her, while a corrupt president demanded it. This is exactly what Trump says happened to him. But in his case, it's a fantasy — and the investigation was well-grounded, as the Mueller report shows. Huber, on the other hand, came up empty.
Moreover, while much has been made of the texting FBI agents who hated Trump and worked on both the Clinton and Trump investigations, Horowitz found there was no indication that either investigation were affected by this improper bias.
But Horowitz also reported this:
We reviewed the text and instant messages sent and received by the Handling Agent, the co-case Handling Agent, and the SSA for this CHS, which reflect their support for Trump in the 2016 elections. On November 9, the day after the election, the SSA contacted another FBI employee via an instant messaging program to discuss some recent CHS reporting regarding the Clinton Foundation and offered that “if you hear talk of a special prosecutor .. .I will volunteer to work [on] the Clinton Foundation.” The SSA’s November 9, 2016 instant messages also stated that he “was so elated with the election” and compared the election coverage to “watching a Superbowl comeback.” The SSA explained this comment to the OIG by saying that he “fully expected Hillary Clinton to walk away with the election. But as the returns [came] in … it was just energizing to me to see …. [because] I didn’t want a criminal to be in the White House.”
On November 9, 2016, the Handling Agent and co-case Handling Agent for this CHS also discussed the results of the election in an instant message exchange that reads:
Handling Agent: “Trump!”
Co-Case Handling Agent: “Hahaha. Shit just got real.”
Handling Agent: “Yes it did.”
Co-Case Handling Agent: “I saw a lot of scared MFers on … [my way to work] this morning. Start looking for new jobs fellas. Haha.”
Handling Agent: “LOL”
Co-Case Handling Agent: “Come January I’m going to just get a big bowl of popcorn and sit back and watch.”
Handling Agent: “That’s hilarious!” [my emphasis]
This indicates, as has not been previously known, that anti-Clinton FBI agents were using an informant (a confidential human source/CHS) to investigate her. As Marcy Wheeler pointed out, while the findings of anti-Trump FBI texts triggered a firestorm and investigations, it's doesn't appear there's any serious review of this matter.
And in Horowitz's review of the email probe, while he didn't conclude political bias influenced the conclusion of the investigation, one of his findings indicated that it may have played a role in a key event. Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch recounted for Horowitz a conversation she had with Comey in 2016 after he sent the letter affirming the re-opening of the email case right before the election:
The other issue I raised with him was...I said, look, I’ve known you for a long time. You and I have been in the Department a long time. I said, my view is you would never have done something like this if you didn’t feel tremendous pressure to do it. And I said, and I don’t understand that pressure. I said, but, it was conveyed to me that you were very concerned about leaks, specifically. And I said, I can only assume that you were thinking of leaks that would have been of this information in a much, much worse way. And he said, you’re right. You’re exactly right about that.
Now, I knew that the laptop had been handled in a case out of New York. And so I said, you know, we have to talk about the New York office...and the concern that both you and I have expressed about leaks in the past. And I said, do you think that this was the right way to deal with the issue, the concern about leaks?... He didn’t have much of a response. But we were having a conversation.... And I said, you know, I’ve talked, you and I have talked about that before.... [McCabe] and I have talked about them before....
And then I said, now, we’ve got to talk about the New York office in general. And he said yes. And I said we both work with them. We both know them. We both, you know, think highly of them. I said, but this has become a problem. And he said, and he said to me that it had become clear to him, he didn’t say over the course of what investigation or whatever, he said it’s clear to me that there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton. And he said it is, it is deep. It’s, and he said, he said it was surprising to him or stunning to him. [empahsis added]
What this suggests is that, in Lynch's view, Comey went forward with the damaging Clinton letter in the run-up to the election because he was fearful that if he didn't, the news would leak anyway. (Recall that Trump later defended his firing of Comey by citing the impropriety of his decision to send the letter.) It would leak because a certain segment of the FBI hated Clinton passionately.
Because Clinton is for the most part out of the spotlight these days — and, we should be able to assume, she's living a comfortable life — the extent of her victimhood by the FBI and DOJ has largely been ignored. But compared to the bunk being promoted as "Obamagate," the treatment Clinton received is a historic scandal. And since it likely determined the result of the 2016 election, it was and remains enormously consequential. It's a deep shame that there hasn't been a public reckoning with these facts.