The official White House line is that President Donald Trump fired James Comey because the former FBI director mishandled the Hillary Clinton email investigation. While there are many reasons to believe that the actual motive is related to the Bureau’s probe of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, Comey’s questionable decision to inform Congress — just days before the election — that the email investigation was being reopened deserves scrutiny.
Over the course of a month, WhoWhatWhy looked into the players and events that culminated in Comey writing the letter and influencing the presidential race. We found a sophisticated, well-funded covert operation that put enough pressure on the FBI director to get him to act.
We published our findings earlier this week in an 8,200-word exclusive. In this week’s podcast, WhoWhatWhy editor-in-chief Russ Baker and journalist Matt Harvey, who wrote the story together with Jonathan Larsen, talk about the plot to create an “October Surprise” and those involved in it — including Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s daughter-in-law, as well as Blackwater founder Erik Prince, right-wing journalists and very likely Trump-supporting FBI employees.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
There are those events that are inflection points that change history. Last week, Hillary Clinton made the argument that the FBI’s reopening of her email investigation changed the outcome of the election. Days later, in one of his longest and most detailed statistical analyses ever, Nate Silver provided the supporting argument that Comey’s announced reopening of the email investigation did make a difference in the election. Today, we mark day 111 of the Trump presidency instead of the Clinton presidency, arguably because of emails discovered on Anthony Weiner’s computer. How those emails got there and the larger story of the Weiner, Abedin, and FBI connection is an even larger story that we’re going to talk about today. It’s a story that shows how fragile and how subject to foul play our democratic process really is. Joining me to talk about it are Russ Baker and Matthew Harvey, two of the authors of yesterday’s 8,000-word story on WhoWhatWhy.org that begins to shed light on the elaborate plot behind the exposure of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer. Russ Baker, Matthew Harvey, thanks so much for being here.
Matthew Harvey: It’s a pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: Russ, I want to start with you. This notion that these emails just showed up on Anthony Weiner’s computer was not just a twist of fate, arguably, but really a much more elaborate set of circumstances that may have taken place that really led the FBI to that computer in the first place.
Russ Baker: That’s right, Jeff. In the course of months of looking at that, we began to see indications that, shall we say the public was helped along to this sort of conclusion. We began to see a whole series of events that suggested that there was some kind of collusion on the part of people who wanted Donald Trump to win in terms of creating the interest in those emails, the interest in Anthony Weiner and quite possibly, creating the incident that brought Anthony Weiner together with this young woman that made the whole thing possible.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other aspects of this, Matt, is the degree to which there were constant statements in the weeks leading up to the discovery of these emails on Weiner’s computer, statements from the Trump campaign about an October surprise that would be coming.
Matthew Harvey: I think that was part of an information campaign developed from foreknowledge of this event. How they knew about it is open to speculation. There may have been leaks. Certainly, Giuliani is very close to the NYPD, of course and people in the FBI. That may have been one conduit. He was one of the Trump surrogates, most in front of trying to push this narrative. Erik Prince as well, who has sources certainly in law enforcement. Now, whether these sources were real or not and whether they were telling the truth or not, it seems no, but of course there was the truth that there was something coming down the pipe, but all the rest was speculation.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things, Russ, that’s particularly interesting is going back even further than this incident, that Trump had frequently talked about Anthony Weiner and exposing Weiner as a way to get at Hillary Clinton.
Russ Baker: Yeah. When we read those tweets over the course of several years and in the article on WhoWhatWhy, I believe we’ve embedded some of those tweets and there are links so that people can read the rest of them. Trump definitely appears to be signaling, I think at the time, starting a couple of years ago when Trump started saying “Hillary Clinton’s emails, and Huma Abedin is her aid, and her husband, Anthony Weiner, they know something.” How did he know that they knew something? That’s deeply intriguing.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to take this back a little bit to the idea that the discovery of these emails on Anthony Weiner’s computer were really because of a second investigation that was going on into Weiner’s sexting, in this case with an underage girl. Russ, talk a little bit about that. Give a little backstory of it.
Russ Baker: This story emerged last year during the campaign, that Anthony Weiner had been exchanging explicit text messages with an underage girl, reportedly located in a small town in North Carolina. This story got a lot of attention right away because a) people are interested in Anthony Weiner to begin with. The second part of the story, Jeff, is that there is an alleged crime here being committed and then the authorities supposedly go to seize his phone and at some point, his computer. Then, we are told that on the computer, they discover Hillary Clinton’s emails. Now, you’ve got the perfect storm. You’ve got this guy that everybody loathes and suddenly, somehow he’s connected to Hillary Clinton and to this email thing that was so damaging to her. It’s a double whammy or a triple whammy and that’s where everything just goes to a whole different level. I’m not sure that most people, including most people in the media, ever really understood what any of this was about. Again, you boil it down. These buzz words: Hillary Clinton, emails, Anthony Weiner, depraved sexual behavior, I mean these just start pushing all kinds of buttons in people’s brains and at that point, when you’re talking about a close election, you don’t need a lot more to push a few people over the line and make a difference.
Jeff Schechtman: In fact, as pointed out in the article, Hillary Clinton and Anthony Weiner had very little contact or connection with each other, even in spite of Huma Abedin.
Russ Baker: That’s right, but that’s where we got interested in whether this whole thing was a setup and the fact that Trump seemed to be trying to draw people’s attention to it. In a nutshell, what our article is about is this copious evidence that Trump realized, or his organization and he
realized that one way to harm Hillary Clinton was to tie her to a kind of a really noxious flypaper. They must have looked around. I mean, this is speculation but I think the details of this very long article strongly suggest this; that they looked around and said, what is there about Hillary that you could really go after her. One thing was obviously Bill Clinton. They did that at that debate, where they brought all these women that had allegations against Bill Clinton for misbehavior. They didn’t have a lot else to go on with her and the thing about the emails themselves was a little bit dry, frankly. They really were not striking oil, particularly. How had that endangered the United States and so forth and so it was a struggle. It was a little too bureaucratic, the whole thing. Once you then bring in some reviled figure, that just takes it to a whole level. As you point out, these early tweets of Donald Trump seem to set the stage for that; that they were thinking about this. As Matt points out, the later behavior by Rudy Giuliani, who is plugged into all these key law enforcement centers in New York that would have dealt with this case and his hinting gleefully that something is coming… These are very, very strong signals that this is just what happened.
Jeff Schechtman: Matt, talk a little bit about the way this arguably got started, as you lay it out in this article; the way in which Weiner may have actually been entrapped with respect to this 15-year old girl in North Carolina.
Matthew Harvey: Well, he had been possibly entrapped before, as far back as 2011. There were people that knew that it could be done already and one of the people was Sydney Leathers and she was the person that really brought his 2013 campaign to a halt. She was very outspoken about her ability to entrap politicians. So, she was already a character speaking extensively about her sexting relationship with Anthony Weiner to anyone who would listen. Then, you enter this character, Chuck C. Johnson, like an independent, alt-right money source, but he became very close to the Trump campaign. He was very good at finding weaknesses and chinks in armor of politicians. So, him and Leathers got together and they figured out a way to find more women that would be potential targets, potential “victims” of Weiner. That’s kind of what got the ball rolling and then they shopped the story around to different journalists and we see it one, two, three, coming in the months right before the election: two in October, then the big one in September with the young girl. And this is speculation: that the other two had to do with Johnson, but certainly the one on September 21, which was the big one with the underage girl, was money paid to Leathers to find a girl that could get Weiner in a lot of trouble.
Jeff Schechtman: What was it, Russ, that precipitated the FBI’s investigation into Weiner and this alleged underage girl?
Russ Baker: Well, this is all very murky and I think it’s important to point out that almost none of what was claimed has come about. For example, even the notion that Anthony Weiner committed a crime, that he was being investigated, that he faced possible prosecution, some of the conservative right wing media basically said he faces long jail time, but as far as we can tell, he does not face anything. This is very interesting. When we talk about the FBI investigation, we really don’t know and they haven’t said and if you watch Comey when he was asked about any of these things – I guess they never say very much publicly – but there may not be a lot to say. You’ve got an allegation of this sexting, it’s across state lines, it would be a federal issue but again, the fact that, as far as we know, that there is no current prosecution going on. So, we don’t know that there’s a lot to it. We do know that the FBI got hold of his computer and we know that on that computer, they found some Hillary Clinton emails, although, even that in recent days, we find that may have been misstated. Originally, there was a sense that there were vast numbers, hundreds or thousands of Hillary Clinton emails, supposedly many of them containing classified material. But just the last few days, we hear that Comey misspoke and that there may have been very, very few emails on there. In fact, this may have been about nothing more than the fact that Hillary Clinton liked to read memos on paper, not on computer and she would have her assistants print them out. So, it made sense since Huma Abedin was a close aide of Hillary Clinton, constantly with her, that she’d be the one to print these out. What we now understand is that her husband may have helped her sometimes. She had so much printing to do that she would just forward certain ones to him and then he’d print them out and as we now hear, it may be that very, very few of them were classified and even if they were, they were duplicates of other ones that already were in issue. This is where the whole thing becomes so murky and so remarkable, Jeff, that it could change the course of history. This thing could change the course of history! We don’t even know what really went down here.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about is that one of the reasons that arguably Comey had to go public with this is that there were potential forces inside the FBI that would have exposed this if he hadn’t.
Russ Baker: That’s right. In fact, we were struck by the fact that – again, this is all supposedly – supposedly Comey did not learn of these emails on Hillary Clinton’s computer until two days before he made his statement in late October, but the FBI itself, or at least some of the people in the New York office knew about them weeks earlier. This is fascinating too because if they found those emails on the computer in early October, why did it take them so long to tell Comey the net effect of this. Of course, it wasn’t until extremely close to the election, about ten days before the election that this whole thing broke. Now, had they notified Comey in the beginning of October, and had he then made the same decision that he needed to go public with this, there would have been weeks for a course correction and you very likely would have seen another outcome. Now, how did that all play? This raises the question of whether the New York FBI office deliberately delayed telling Comey because the excuses they made sound rather feeble. They said that they were busy with other things, it didn’t seem that important, that the computers that were processing these kept crashing – that seems sort of ridiculous. If you think about the FBI’s vaunted capability for handling huge amounts of data; the fact that that one didn’t even go scrutinized by the media is another indication of just how pour our media often is. This does suggest – again, there’s quite a bit about the New York FBI office. We are told that it was very Trump friendly, certainly very Giuliani friendly and Giuliani himself, very, very Trump friendly.
Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned Eric Prince a while ago, of Black Water fame and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss, where does he fit into this equation?
Russ Baker: Eric Prince, I’ll just mention him and then maybe Matt can provide some more detail. Eric Prince is very important in this story because he runs these various sorts of businesses that benefit tremendously from the kind of outsourcing that particularly Republican presidents have done in the areas of foreign policy and military. As you point out, his sister then is named by Donald Trump to be the secretary of education; very, very powerful family, very wealthy family and he’s plugged in, as Matt said into law enforcement, very connected or at least he claims to be extremely well connected into New York FBI, New York Police Department and to have inside information on all this. Perhaps Matt could speak a little bit more to that.
Matthew Harvey: Sure. Well, among the alt-right information outlets, I think he would be a main person, the main Trump surrogate pushing that there was so much more to this story and because of his alleged connections, he was taken quite seriously. He was speculating, but his speculation led to even further speculation about Clinton’s sex crimes and he spoke of great evils to be discovered on these emails and we’re talking about two or three days before the election. We already have a very angered Trump base that Hillary is getting away with something wrong, and then you add to this all this sex stuff, speculation about Pizzagate and it’s a real conspiratorial stew that of course, had no basis as has come out. He was out there pawging away on this and his word was taken quite seriously among Trump voters.
Russ Baker: I’d just like to add: this is a crucial point Matt just raised. People who did not vote for Trump probably have no idea and when they hear these kind of things, they dismiss them as ludacris. They miss the whole point. They may dismiss them as ludicrous, but if you actually talk to a lot of people who voted for Trump, if you read the kinds of things that they post online, they are almost singularly focused on the idea that the Clintons are morally depraved, bad people. This is a tremendous motivator for people to get out and vote, to convince other people and so forth. This kind of psychological operation is calculated. In other words, if you push certain buttons with people, you could get them to do whatever you need them to do. I think the failure of news outlets in the United States to really explore the role of disinformation, calculated disinformation, manipulation in our political system, not just in this election but in all elections, I think this is a real travesty. Unless we get our hands around this kind of problem and its recurrent role in the American political system, I think it’s going to continue to get worse.
Jeff Schechtman: All we have to do is look back to the swift boating of John Kerry in his election to see the way this stuff started to evolve, Russ.
Russ Baker: That’s right. I personally over the years have covered many of these things in my book Family of Secrets. I go into how the Bush family mastered creating scandals around their opponents, their enemies, defaming people, smearing people, falsifying things. So yes absolutely, Swift Boats was one. On WhoWhatWhy.org, if you type in the names Gary Hart, John Edwards and so forth, you will see that in every one of those cases, where a liberal or progressive candidate was taken down over a sexual situation, there are indications that these things were helped along. I think that this is a failing of the media to acknowledge the critical role of covert operations, the kinds of tricks and tools of the trade used by intelligence organizations in the course of American political campaigns – that this is actually the norm. So, if you only cover the surface of movements and statements, you talk to the pollsters and you sort of characterize how the candidates are perceived without paying any attention at all to this sort of sub-rosa manipulation, you’re not doing your job. This gets to a deeper point, which is the media’s absolute terror of being labeled as so called conspiracy theorists. Of course, this article and the sorts of things the FBI investigates are all about conspiracies, because conspiracies are part of the fiber of life and we’ve got to acknowledge that and take that seriously, while also not embracing or giving any sort of credibility to those who try to postulate conspiracies everywhere, and where there are none. Journalists and others need to be empowered to be thoughtful and to be intelligent and to dig deep to find out why things are happening.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s interesting. We talked about the swift boating with respect to Kerry. There was also a kind of New York based predicate for some of this in terms of what happened with Eliot Spitzer and the arguments and the confusion that, to this day surround that.
Russ Baker: That’s right. In fact, of course if you see the documentary of that on Client 9, I think it makes pretty clear that people knew that Eliot Spitzer had these inclinations and were able to, shall we say, help this thing along. That’s precisely my point: that there is a history to this sort of thing. Our failure to look back, to dig deep, we are destined to keep repeating this over and over again.
Jeff Schechtman: Before we try to draw all this together in this story, how many people were involved? You mentioned early on, Russ, that there is a fascinating cast of characters involved. We’ve mentioned a few people like Eric Prince, Giuliani and several others, but there are many others that were really part of getting this story out there.
Matthew Harvey: There’s Alana Goodman, who is the person who wrote the story for the Daily Mail. She was a new hire for the Daily Mail. She had been there maybe a month when she wrote this story; she’s quite young, but for several years before that, she had been at the Washington Free Beacon, writing almost exclusively about the evils of the Clintons. In fact, her first story of note, maybe ever for that outlet, which again many people haven’t heard of that but it’s very popular among the folks that would vote for Trump – her first story ever was going down to Arkansas and finding these tapes that had Clinton talking callously about a rapist that she got off when she was younger in Arkansas as a public defender. It wasn’t really a bombshell by any means, but for the right wing that already, the rank and file, especially that already think that she’s a monster, it added fuel to that fire. Then, she just went from that story to Clinton scandal to Clinton scandal to Clinton scandal. She was friends was this agent provocateur called Cassandra Fairbanks, who writes for Sputnik, which of course is the Kremlin-backed outlet. It’s kind of the second string of the Russian English language [base?], it’s mostly radio and online content. It’s basically like RT, but not quite as professional. She was also very close to the FBI informants and she was an interesting character because she had, for maybe years gone around saying she was a progressive and kind of working Black Lives Matter marches and those kinds of activism pushes; she was kind of suspected because of her behavior. She posed a lot and she created a lot of provocations. Sure enough, it came out that she was close to this FBI informant. So, add to that stew Chuck C. Johnson, who’s probably the most interesting of these characters because of the money he has and the connections he has. He’s not just an Independent; he’s also friends with Steve Bannon, he’s acquaintances with Peter Thiel, as he admits and very close to Eric Prince. As he says, they talk every week. He was the guy that set the whole thing up with Sidney Leathers. It’s a very close circuit and as [was said in?] the interview with Chuck Johnson, he got a hundred people or more on the Trump government. The Trump transition changed everything for these guys.
Jeff Schechtman: Finally, Russ, talk a little bit briefly about how you think that the firing of Comey may impact how this story continues to unfold and be revealed.
Russ Baker: First of all, there’s a shock to say the least, over the Comey firing although shock seems to be the norm now, the daily diet. We have a new piece up today on WhoWhatWhy about the Comey firing. I think that they are trying to portray it as Trump just did it on his own, he’d had enough and it was sort of a surprise to everyone, but I highly doubt that. I think the problem is that Comey now has been under pressure for a variety of reasons, that he has to do something. He’s got to redeem the FBI’s reputation by going after these things, by going after all of these different stories that are in play, most important of all, the Trump-Russia story. Now that he’s out and since Trump does seek yes-men, we can assume that he will replace him with somebody who is told in no uncertain terms not to pursue any of this. Of course, if they don’t pursue any of this, what will happen next? You’ve got the Republicans in control in Congress, will they push for aggressive investigations? Frankly, I doubt it. Then the question is who’s going to be able to push for it? A minority party? People going into the streets? We really don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Jeff Schechtman: Russ Baker, Matthew Harvey, the story appears at WhoWhatWhy.org. Thank you both for shedding some light on this today.
Russ Baker: Thank you.
Matthew Harvey: Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Russ Baker: Hi, this is Russ Baker. If you liked that podcast, please feel free to share it and help others find it by rating it and reviewing it on iTunes. Also, if you’d like to see us continue to do this kind of hard hitting investigative journalism, we need your help. Please support our work. Go to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.
Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Dell laptop (India7 Network / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), bubbles (Derek Keats / Flickr – CC BY 2.0), catfish (Bébéranol / Wikimedia – CC BY-SA 4.0), diver (Derek Keats / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and Hillary sign (afish / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0).