One of the FBI agents involved with the inquiry into retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn jokingly referred to the Trump-Russia investigation as “Collusion Clue” and argued that many investigators, including some on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, were out to “get Trump.”
FBI special agent William Barnett spoke with a number of DOJ and FBI investigators on Sept. 17, including U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Jeffrey Jensen, whom Attorney General William Barr assigned earlier this year to do a deep dive review of the Flynn investigation. Barnett joined the Crossfire Hurricane investigation in August 2016 after being asked by an unnamed FBI special agent in August 2016, and he became the case agent for the Flynn case, dubbed Crossfire Razor. He was eventually asked to join Mueller’s investigation by now-fired FBI special agent Peter Strzok after his May 2017 appointment, which he did reluctantly.
Barnett’s interview earlier this month, recorded in a 13-page FBI summary submitted by the Justice Department to a federal court on Thursday, walked investigators through his time on the Flynn case and revealed that he doubted Flynn had committed any crimes, that he and others did not dismiss the possibility of Trump-Russia collusion, and that he thought certain FBI investigators as well as special counsel’s office prosecutors such as Jeannie Rhee and Andrew Weissmann were single-minded and overly aggressive in their tactics in going after people in President Trump’s orbit, including Flynn.
“Barnett thought there was a ‘get Trump’ attitude by some at the SCO,” the FBI wrote.
Barnett first “referred to incidents involving Trump which were taken in the most negative manner, or in some cases misinterpreted.” As an example, Barnett “described comments made by Trump in that investigators needed to ‘get to the bottom’ of a matter,” which led one of the Mueller attorneys to say this meant Trump wanted to “cover it up.” Barnett “corrected” them saying, “No, he said get to the bottom of it.” As another example, “Barnett said the firing of FBI Director Comey was interpreted as obstruction when it could just as easily have been done because Trump did not like Comey and wanted him replaced.” And Barnett said that “concerning Flynn, some individuals in the SCO assumed Flynn was lying to cover up collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia,” whereas Barnett “believed Flynn lied in the interview to save his job, as that was the most plausible explanation and there was no evidence to contradict it.” Barnett said that “such statements were simply discounted because they did not fit the opinions of some at SCO.”
Barnett said, “the second way the ‘get Trump’ attitude was exhibited at SCO was what Barnett referred to as Mueller’s ‘all stars’ which was a term used in news articles” describing Mueller team members. The FBI agent said that “all of the attorneys wanted to be part of something ‘big’ a successful prosecution,” and so “it was not necessarily ’get Trump’ but more the conviction there was ‘something criminal there’ and a competition as to which attorney was going to find it.” Barnett described it as “a lack of letting the evidence lead the investigation and more the attitude of ‘the evidence is there and we just have to find it.’” Barnett said an example was Mueller attorneys “during the interviews would be convinced the interviewee had information” the special counsel team wanted, so he “suggested to the SCO attorneys the idea the interviewee did not possess the information desired.”
Flynn, a target of Mueller’s investigation, pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to FBI investigators about his December 2016 conversations with a Russian envoy. But after changing legal teams, Flynn claimed he was innocent and had been set up by the FBI. After Barr appointed Jensen, a host of new documents deemed exculpatory by Flynn’s lawyers were discovered, and Jensen wrote in a statement that he “concluded the proper and just course was to dismiss the case” and recommended this to Barr.
The Justice Department told the district court in May that “continued prosecution of this case would not serve the interests of justice” as it sought to drop its case against Flynn after new records were made public. Instead, District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who has handled the Flynn case since December 2017, appointed retired New York Judge John Gleeson to serve as an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) to present arguments in opposition to the Justice Department’s motion and to explore whether Flynn should be charged with perjury or contempt.
Before the Flynn case was wrapped into Mueller’s investigation, Barnett said that “information obtained through National Security Letters did not change Barnett’s mind that Flynn was not working with the Russian government.” He “believed there were grounds to investigate the other three subjects in Crossfire Hurricane” but called Flynn the “outlier.” Barnett told the FBI that a redacted “FBI Analyst 1” “was very skeptical of the Flynn collusion investigation,” and Barnett “also thought it was a ‘dumb theory’ that did not make sense.” Barnett said he thought the Flynn case should have been closed and offered to interview Flynn himself to help bring the case to an end, but his request to interview Flynn was denied. When Strzok and FBI agent Joseph Pientka, who had also given a pretextual intelligence briefing to Flynn and Trump in the summer of 2016, interviewed Flynn on Jan. 24, 2017, Barnett wasn’t informed until the next day. The FBI said that “in hindsight, Barnett believed he was ‘cut out’ of the interview.”
Once Mueller was picked as special counsel in May 2017, Barnett said he was told to give a Flynn briefing to a number of Mueller team members, including Rhee. Barnett “said he briefly went over the Razor investigation, including the assessment that there was no evidence of a crime, then he started to discuss [redacted] which Barnett thought was the more significant investigation,” but “Rhee stopped Barnett’s briefing [redacted] and asked questions concerning the Razor investigation.” Barnett said, “Rhee wanted to ‘drill down’ on the fees Flynn was paid for a speech Flynn gave in Russia,” and so Barnett “explained the legal reasons for the amount of the fee, but Rhee seemed to dismiss Barnett’s assessment.” The FBI said he “thought Rhee was obsessed with Flynn and Russia and she had an agenda,” and when “Rhee told Barnett she looked forward to working together, Barnett told Rhee they would not be working together.” Barnett said he “expressed his concerns about Rhee” to a redacted special counsel attorney and said that “he wanted nothing to do with the Razor investigation.” The next day, Strzok “said he really wanted Barnett to work with the SCO.” Barnett told Strzok he “did not wish to pursue the collusion investigation as it was ‘not there.’” But Barnett says he ultimately “decided to work at the SCO hoping his perspective would keep them from ‘group think.’”
“Barnett said numerous attempts were made to obtain evidence that Trump directed Flynn concerning [redacted] with no such evidence being obtained. Barnett said it was just an assumption, just ‘astro projection,’ and the ‘ground just kept being retreaded.’ Barnett said it seems there was always someone at SCO who claimed to have a lead on information that would prove the collusion only to have the information be a dead end,” the FBI wrote. “Barnett provided an example: Weissmann said there was a meeting on a yacht near Greece that was going to be the proof of collusion, ‘quid pro quo.’ Barnett said within a day or two the information was not substantiated.”
Mueller’s 2019 report said that Russians interfered in the 2016 election in a “sweeping and systematic fashion,” but the special counsel’s team “did not establish” criminal conspiracy between Russians and anyone in Trump’s circle.
“Barnett thought the Trump Campaign may have been aware the Russians were attempting to impact the election, but that was far different from the Trump Campaign and the Russians having a deal and/or working together, quid pro quo,” the FBI said. “Barnett and others joked about how the investigation into collusion could be made into a game, which they referred to as ‘Collusion Clue.’ In the hypothetical game, investigators are able to choose any character conducting any activity, in any location, and pair this individual with another character and interpret it as evidence of collusion.”
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