Center for American Progress Action

RELEASE: New CAP Action Issue Brief Shows How the FBI Botched the Russia Investigation in 2016
Press Release

RELEASE: New CAP Action Issue Brief Shows How the FBI Botched the Russia Investigation in 2016

Washington, D.C. — A little more than one year after the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, a new CAP Action issue brief examines how the FBI mishandled its investigation into the Trump campaign and hamstrung the Mueller investigation as a result. Through close reads of the Mueller report, the U.S. Department of Justice inspector general’s 2019 report, and contemporary reporting, the authors find that the FBI kept such a close hold on its investigation, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” that the agency hindered its own investigative efforts and failed the American people.

There were many problems plaguing the FBI’s investigation, including:

  • The desire to keep the investigation close left the agency bureaucratically isolated and devoid of resources.
  • The FBI was so hypersensitive to Washington politics—specifically bad-faith attacks from congressional Republicans—that it focused more on appearing impartial than defending against Russian election interference.
  • The bureau failed to interview key witnesses during the presidential transition or when they were in the United States attending Trump’s inauguration, including foreign figures such as Konstantin Kilimnik, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, and Aleksandr Torshin.
  • The agency also failed to track other key Russian figures, such as Dmitry Peskov and Kirill Dmitriev, who traveled from Russia to New York City the day after the election and should have been on the FBI’s radar.
  • Contrary to the president’s persistent accusations against the FBI about its harsh treatment of Carter Page, the FBI was in fact too slow in pursuing an investigation into his frequent activity in Russia.
  • The bureaucratic delay of transmitting Christopher Steele’s dossier to the appropriate Crossfire Hurricane team took almost two months to resolve.
  • FBI leadership demanded such a “light footprint” in investigating Trump that they all but exonerated him publicly in an October 31, 2016, New York Times article headlined “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” In contrast, they consistently publicized their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, which resulted in virtually no charges or legal action.
  • Due to the FBI’s failings in 2016, Mueller had to conduct an investigation after the fact, relying on turning witnesses instead of real-time information.

“President Trump’s attacks on the FBI and the law enforcement community have in some ways immunized them from appropriate public scrutiny,” said Max Bergmann, director of CAP Action’s Moscow Project and co-author of the brief. “Understandably, Trump’s critics have rallied around those who have been unfairly targeted and attacked. At the same time, however, it is necessary to recognize the mistakes the FBI made by failing to investigate collusion and the Trump campaign in 2016 because fears about attacks on their bureaucracy outweighed their fear for the country.”

“Because Mueller could only piece together what happened after the fact, the public may never know the depth and scope of collusion that occurred in 2016,” added Jeremy Venook, a research associate at CAP Action and co-author of the brief. “Filling in the gaps about the Russia investigation matters both because the public needs to learn more about Trump and his campaign and because the country must know how to defend against Russian interference in the 2020 election and beyond.”

In spite of the many headwinds he faced, Mueller was still able to secure 37 indictments, including convictions of Trump’s national security adviser, campaign chairman, deputy campaign chairman, personal lawyer, and close political adviser. With proper resources, timing, and political willpower, it is likely that much more could have been achieved. Unfortunately, the FBI’s timid investigation into foreign interference during the 2016 election cost them a chance to uncover a conspiracy against American democracy in real time.

Read the brief:The FBI Botched the Russia Investigation in 2016” by Max Bergmann and Jeremy Venook

For more information on this topic or to speak with an expert, contact Morgan Finkelstein at mfinkelstein.af@americanprogressaction.org.