Ex-FBI lawyer to plead responsible to creating false assertion in predicate to Trump-Russia probe

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WASHINGTON (AP and Valley News staff) — A former FBI lawyer plans to plead guilty to making a false statement in the first criminal case arising from U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the probe of ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign, his lawyer said Friday.

Kevin Clinesmith is accused of altering a government email about former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page who was a target of secret FBI surveillance, according to documents filed in Washington’s federal court.  His lawyer, Justin Shur, told The Associated Press that Clinesmith intends to plead guilty to the single false statement count and that he regrets his actions.

The case against Clinesmith was cheered by President Donald Trump and his supporters as they look to the Durham investigation to expose what they see as one of many improper actions to fraudulently create predicate by the White House and the FBI to open an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was coordinating with the Kremlin to sway the outcome of the 2016 election. 

“The fact is they spied on my campaign and they got caught,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Friday. His political campaign issued its own statement saying “abuses of power” in the Russia investigation “represent the greatest political crime in American history” and everyone involved should be held accountable. 

On NBC News December 10, 2019, Attorney General Barr said in relation to the Russia probe, “I think our nation was turned on its head for three years based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press. I think there were gross abuses…and inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI.”

Attorney Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, who has done much work to uncover FBI documents related to the investigation said, “Obamagate is now officially a crime.  We had an FBI lawyer who was instrumental in the illicit spying on the president of the United States and his team, admit to committing a crime to get it done.”

The five-page charging document is limited in scope and does not allege criminal wrongdoing by anyone other than Clinesmith, nor does it offer evidence to support Trump’s assertions that the Russia probe was tainted by widespread political bias in the FBI. However, while the charging document doesn’t assert bias outside of this one charge, many documents and notes have recently been uncovered and released supporting the president’s claim of widespread blatant political bias from the FBI. The charging document just makes clear that the FBI relied on Clinesmith’s misrepresentations as it sought to renew its surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. 

In a Judicial Watch press release issued this week, Fitton said, “We released 168 pages of records from the U.S. Department of Justice, including a handwritten timeline of meetings going back to 2015 connected to Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and Steele/Fusion GPS (Clinton political strategist/consultants), as well as a list of records the DOJ sent to Congress related to their investigation into the FISA warrants involving the Clinton-funded dossier (that was used to predicate the Russia probe).

The Durham probe, which is also examining the intelligence community’s assessment about Russian election interference, has caused concern among Democrats, who view it as a politically charged exercise meant to relitigate an already closed investigation. They fear that charges or public reports issued so close to the 2020 election could be timed to affect November’s vote.

Durham’s inquiry has proceeded alongside a parallel effort by Senate Republicans to investigate whether there was real predicate to initiate an investigation or whether it was just political in order to discredit President Trump. Attorney General William Barr has escalated his own criticism of the FBI’s probe and whether documents released in recent months have called into question the validity of information the FBI relied on, particularly from the dossier of Democratic-funded research, when the agency applied for applications to surveil Page.

Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, had no comment, a spokesman said. It remains unclear what additional charges, if any, Durham might bring, though he has been closely scrutinizing how intelligence agencies arrived at the conclusion that Russia had interfered in 2016 to benefit Trump. 

Justice Department policy directs prosecutors to not take investigative actions aimed at affecting an election, or that could advantage or disadvantage a candidate. But Barr has said he does not feel constrained by that policy in part because the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, is not a target of Durham’s investigation.

Durham’s work parallels in some respects a separate investigation into the Russia probe by the Justice Department’s inspector general office. That office concluded in a report last December that the Russia investigation was opened for a valid reason, but it also identified significant “errors and omissions” in surveillance applications filed in 2016 and 2017 that targeted Page. 

Specifically, Clinesmith is pleading guilty after Durham charged him with fraudulently altering his communication with the CIA. Clinesmith emailed the CIA asking if Carter Page was a CIA source. The CIA responded that yes Page was indeed a CIA source and Clinesmith is accused of changing that email to read no, Page is “not a source” for another government agency. Page has also stated publicly that he was a CIA source. This fraudulent document was one of the documents which predicated the entire investigation and accusations of the Russia-Trump probe. Clinesmith said that Page not being a CIA asset was a fact that would need to be disclosed as the FBI applied to the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to renew its surveillance of Page.

In June 2017, the documents show, Clinesmith was provided with information about Page’s relationship with the agency, which had approved him as an “operational contact” between 2008 and 2013.

When an FBI colleague who was involved in preparing the surveillance application followed up by instant message with Clinesmith on the question of whether Page had ever been a government source, Clinesmith responded that Page had “never been a source,” according to court documents. 

When asked if he had that information in writing, the documents allege, Clinesmith altered an email he had received from the other agency by adding the words “and not a source” and then forwarded it to the FBI supervisory special agent.

The FBI relied on those misrepresentations in its final surveillance application and omitted that information about Page, prosecutors allege, even though any relationship between Page and the government would have been important to disclose to the FISA court to the extent it could help explain interactions Page had had with Russians.

Clinesmith told the inspector general that he had not actually understood Page to be a source, or “recruited asset,” for another government agency.

“Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email,” Shur said in a statement. “It was never his intent to mislead the court or his colleagues, as he believed the information he relayed was accurate, but Kevin understands what he did was wrong and accepts responsibility.”

Durham is a veteran prosecutor with a history of special assignments from Washington, including leading a Justice Department investigation into the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques of terror suspects and the destruction of videotapes documenting those interrogations.

Barr appointed Durham just weeks after special counsel Robert Mueller concluded his nearly two-year investigation. 

Mueller found significant contacts during the 2016 campaign between Russians and Trump associates but did not allege a criminal conspiracy between them. He also examined multiple episodes in which Trump allegedly sought to affect the Russia investigation, but he did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had obstructed justice. Trump has said from the beginning of the investigation that it was a “witch hunt” and should never happen again to any president. 

Barr quickly signaled his skepticism with the Russia investigation, concluding that Trump had not obstructed justice even though Mueller had pointedly left that question unresolved.

ERIC TUCKER and MICHAEL BALSAMO from the Associated Press contributed to this story.