The following is excerpted from “Abuse and Power: How an Innocent American Was Framed by an Attempted Coup Against the President” (Regnery Publishing).
At long last, the FBI wanted to have a discussion with me. When I worked as an informant, they had called in advance for meetings; now they sprung on me unexpectedly on the afternoon of March 9, 2017, in the ornate, art deco lobby of the Empire Hotel in Manhattan. Two agents, both men, showed me their badges, and we walked around the corner near an empty conference room to have a slightly more discreet conversation. The agents asked me to meet them the next day.
I could have brought a lawyer, but I chose to stick with my plan—wagering that a spirit of openness would help them see what a sham this entire Witch Hunt had already become. I still had hope that the whole debacle might be written off by the FBI, which I imagined might have originally misunderstood what it was dealing with.
The next day, the FBI booked a suite at the Andaz Hotel across Fifth Avenue from the New York Public Library in Manhattan. I called them upon my arrival at the reception on East Forty-First Street. The two famous stone lions staring at me from across the busy thoroughfare had appropriate names for what would be required over the coming days and years. Legendary mayor Fiorello La Guardia nicknamed them “Patience” and “Fortitude” (though they were originally named Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, after major donors to the library).
An agent came down to bring me up to the suite that afternoon. For only this first long meeting, there were three agents in attendance for my interrogation—the two men I’d met the day before and a woman. At first they spoke in friendly tones, but like gladiators in a ridiculous modern equivalent of the Forum Boarium from ancient Roman times, they came at me from every direction in a relentless onslaught. But I was by then adept at verbal sparring, with months of practice with TV conspiracy theorists under my belt. I had heard most of their questions many times before. And as had long been reported throughout those recent months and at the risk of stating the obvious, I immediately gave the agents extensive background information on the Democrats’ role behind the Steele Dossier. A day earlier, I had provided them with a letter that detailed the facts I had recently sent to Senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
If any of these larger investigations were to have any purpose at all, there should have been some shred of truth to the fraudulent accusation that I had met with the two Igors or some other sanctioned individuals. I also must have had conservations with these gentlemen or some other Russian operatives about some kind of a “quid pro quo” relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. When I honestly answered “no” to all of these outrageous preliminary questions, it seemed obvious that there wasn’t much more to discuss.
After the frustrated agents ran out of relevant questions and started fishing further afield after various trivialities, I took the opportunity to fill them in on the “Dodgy Dossier” and its financiers, a dire warning sign of emerging scandals to come. I suggested that the purpose of using such a document would be to inject “false evidence” into a criminal or intelligence case. Essentially, it amounted to obstruction of justice.
The agents asked me about the Democrats’ false allegations that I had received a stake in Rosneft. I replied that I obviously had not. I added that to the best of my knowledge, the only group other than the government of Qatar who had mixed politics with Rosneft was a commodity trading company named Glencore and its associates. In December 2016, Glencore had publicly announced the very same deal that I had been falsely accused of by the Democrats, the media, and the U.S. Intelligence Community. Coincidentally, Glencore was founded by Marc Rich—the late donor to the Clinton Library and international fugitive pardoned by President Clinton on his last day in office. Even the New York Times had called the decision “An Indefensible Pardon.”
When asked, I confirmed to the FBI that the New Economic School had not paid me a cent (or one Russian ruble) to speak at my engagement—unlike Bill Clinton, who had received a half-million dollars for a Moscow speech while his wife served as U.S. secretary of state. I did get an airline ticket for the trip, as I had countless times before for pro bono speaking engagements at other academic institutions worldwide. They asked for details about my schedule in Moscow. I walked them through it, including a meeting with a few executives I had long known at Tatneft, a vertically integrated oil and gas company I had done business with in the past. I confirmed that I had momentarily greeted Russian deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich as he passed by me after walking off the stage of the NES graduation event. All complete irrelevancies. They drilled down on Igor Divyekin. I reiterated that I was pretty sure I had never met him, even briefly or in passing.
Just like a lot of silly media reports, we talked through the events of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and any possible contact I might have had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In his Senate confirmation hearings after appointment as attorney general, Senator Jeff Sessions had been raked over the coals for not remembering his fleeting, irrelevant encounters with Kislyak. I drew them a diagram of the conference room in Cleveland where Sessions and Kislyak had sat. The senator and the ambassador were on the other side of the large
banquet hall, far away from me, but I recalled the two men having a brief conversation amidst a large congregation of lollygaggers after Sessions finished his speech. Far from offering any kind of forum where one might engage in collusion negotiations, most of the audience at this Case Western Reserve University event were lazily hanging out to listen to some vaguely intellectual chit chat.
As our conversation began, I set up my MacBook laptop on the living room table of the Andaz suite and began to present a PowerPoint slide deck. Earlier that morning and throughout much of the previous night, I had composed a presentation that outlined the connections in the swamp between the Democrats, the media, and their bosses at Justice and FBI headquarters. I spoke with these FBI agents as Americans who would actually care about underlying issues of fairness and democracy. Little did I know that those principles continued to elude their government superiors and their political allies in Washington.
I also gave them a USB with a lot of my documents, not that I needed to bother. As I subsequently learned, the FISA warrants signed by their director, James Comey, and the former U.S. deputy attorney general Sally Yates had already given them the run of pretty much everything I had. I did not yet know that Perkins Coie was the law firm that had helped to orchestrate the financing of the Dodgy Dossier, but I informed the agents of what I had heard: that a law firm had acted as the intermediary between the Democrats and their opposition research team from London.
That wasn’t the last that I’d hear from the FBI. Six days later, the same two agents interviewed me about a more recent trip that I’d made to Russia. I traveled to Moscow in December 2016 in a fruitless endeavor to restart my business and engage in dialogue with some of the academics I had previously met there. With the recent Trump election victory, I had incorrectly assumed that the world would return to normal. During a dinner at a Russian restaurant with Shlomo Weber and an associate, Deputy Prime Minister Dvorkovich briefly stopped by and expressed interest in the possibility of better bilateral relations between our two countries following Donald Trump’s victory. Again, nothing of substance was discussed, as I informed him that the manufactured controversy was still upending my life. I was also asked about my earlier, fleeting contact with Viktor Podobnyy. I emphasized to the agents how young this man was. I told the FBI that I viewed my interactions with Podobnyy in much the same light as my NYU students. The only difference was that NYU students had a lot more interest in what I was saying and asked much better questions.
My third interrogation was on March 16, 2017, at the W Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, where I again met the same two primary agents. By this time, the death threats were coming in bulk. I complained that the FBI did not seem to be taking the mounting death threats seriously. They told me to call them if I had a “specific future threat.”
This time, they wanted to talk about former Trump campaign official Paul Manafort. As with so many other topics, once I told them that I had never met Manafort and that he had never returned any of the several emails I had sent him, a hundred other questions fell to the floor. The conversation returned to Kislyak. I told them that in our brief conversation, I had handed the ambassador one of my business cards. He had not reciprocated and seemed entirely uninterested.
The agents asked me about the platform committee and the change in the Ukraine plank. All I knew was that J.D. Gordon had been involved in that process a week before the main events of the RNC convention. I didn’t even find out about it until the decisions had been made.
Our fourth pre-scheduled meeting was at the Hilton Manhattan East Hotel on the afternoon of Thursday, March 30, 2017. They peppered me with questions about a Rosneft employee I had known for a decade, since his years as a junior capital markets staffer at Gazprom. I told the
FBI that we had never discussed anything remotely secret or politically sensitive. I had seen this young man, Andrey Baranov, at a party held by one of the banks in Moscow on my July 2016 trip. Two longtime acquaintances briefly catching up, we did little more than exchange pleasantries. To give the agents an idea of what I was up against, I told them how Obama’s former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, had started live-tweeting during my NES speech. He became a key node of the network trying to make the false case against me.
Every time the FBI agents asked a question, I would answer it and then try to remind the agents of the fraudulent sources behind these ridiculous allegations. That of course didn’t break through. Unbeknownst to me, and as America would learn years later, I wasn’t telling the agents anything they weren’t already aware of.
The agents wanted to return to Kislyak again, and I detailed every conceivable moment in which we might have been in proximity to each other, such as walking with a group to a shuttle bus on our way to the next event. Always surrounded by countless others in large gatherings, I made the definitive statement that I had never met with Kislyak alone at any point in my life.
When asked about the campaign, I showed the agents my response to Don McGahn’s letter spelling out that I had never advised the candidate. I discussed the texts I had exchanged with Steve Bannon, telling them that we talked about getting together but never got around to it.
My fifth and final interrogation was in a conference room at New York’s Grand Hyatt, next to Grand Central Station. Called in at the last minute, I wondered the reason for the surprise rendezvous. I got a clue when I picked up a copy of that Friday’s Wall Street Journal as I headed
out the door. One of the headline stories of that morning’s March 31, 2017, edition announced: “Flynn Offers Deal for Testimony.” As expected, this was the first question and the intended primary line of interrogation as our meeting began. They both seemed very disappointed to hear that I had never met or spoken with General Flynn at any point in my life. Yet another Russia collusion theory, quickly dashed.
The morning after I mockingly wore a big red bucket hat for my visit to the Senate Intelligence Committee clown show, I wore somewhat more subdued attire for my appearance before the grand jury assembled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. I had good reason to believe that the
U.S. Department of Justice’s Special Counsel Office (SCO) operated with the same bag of politically-minded tricks that Senators Mark Warner, Richard Burr, and their “Security Director” James Wolfe had recently relied on. There was one key difference: Mueller’s SCO, without question, had infinitely more prosecutorial power than those lollygaggers in Congress. Perhaps realizing that they still had nothing on me, my FBI handler chose to make my red bucket hat a topic of conversation when we met. The agent brought it up that morning as I prepared for my short ride in the Bureau’s unmarked squad car into the E. Barrett Prettyman FISA Courthouse on Friday, November 17, 2017.
I had last seen this agent over seven months earlier, throughout March in New York City. It had the awkward feel of a mutually uncomfortable reunion. The complete mockery of the entire situation turned out to be a perfectly apt start to the day. My final illegitimate FISA affidavit had been approved by another broken-down legal forum in that very same building less than five months prior, a result of the outrageously false court filing of June 2017 by Mueller’s appointer Rod Rosenstein and his colleagues.
This investigation targeted not just myself, but the entire Trump movement and indeed the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, all of whom had been swept up in this outlandish fictional drama concocted by the Democrats. It was still tearing America’s legal system asunder. But the month and a half that led up to my one grand jury appearance followed an old, familiar pattern: the more preposterous the partisan operatives could make these prolonged experiences, the better they seemed to feel about themselves. After months of getting slammed, often on national television, I waited to be submerged in the darkness of the underground tunnel to the courthouse on C Street Northwest. I was about to receive a thorough dunking in the filthy murk of the Swamp.
I had growing reasons to be skeptical of this special counsel grand jury process. A month earlier in October 2017, I had received a surprise call from my accountant. As the national news surrounding privacy invasions grew more preposterous, an FBI agent had barged into the office of my accounting firm demanding my personal financial information. After everything I had been through during the past year, nothing really surprised me anymore. I had developed a thick skin throughout my many years of service, so on a personal level it didn’t bother me too much. What annoyed me was when other innocent people, like my accountant, were pulled into the Witch Hunt dragnet.
It had already been a long time since the Democrats had succeeded in turning me into a social pariah and an infamous public figure, beginning with the strategic leaks that created the first, false news reports about the DNC Dossier in September 2016. After a year of continued defamation, any return to normalcy remained effectively on hold. I tried in fits and starts to reestablish some sort of routine in my life. Every time I did, acts like this unnecessary, even thuggish, harassment of my accountant certainly didn’t help give my friends and associates the sense that I could still be considered a functioning member of society. The FBI could barge into the office of anyone I knew without any semblance of legitimately justified due cause.
I remained a pariah.
The same week as the FBI’s visit to my accountant, I received a few subpoenas to testify before the grand jury in November 2017. In total, the Mueller Witch Hunt would tally over 2,800 subpoenas, or an average of at least four per day. Like ballplayers trying to jack up their statistics, this waste of taxpayer dollars often served as little more than an ego boost for the bureaucratic harassment squad.
Earlier that year, I had spent many hours with my lawyer Tom Buchanan at Winston & Strawn. After looking at most aspects of my life, both before and during my limited volunteer work with the Trump campaign in 2016, it became clear to him, as it would to any reasonable individual, that I had never done anything even remotely wrong, unethical, illegal, or otherwise questionable in Russia.
A few weeks before the FBI came knocking again, on September 22, 2017, my final secret surveillance warrant expired. But hope springs eternal, and the Rosenstein-Sessions DOJ continued to try any last step to dig up dirt. Like Custer’s Last Stand, my testimony before the Mueller grand jury could offer a last ditch restoration of credibility to their ill-fated endeavor in this media disinformation war. Having tried constant harassment and unprecedented civil liberties violations, the Justice Department focused their efforts on snaring me in small procedural errors or minor mix-ups in my recollection. They needed to catch me in some—any—wrongdoing after digging themselves into a deep hole with their corrupt FISA bargain. There was more than a whiff of authoritarianism in their approach. As Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz has similarly noted, it reminded me of the famous boast Stalin’s sidekick Lavrentiy Beria once made: “Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.” I wondered what these people would be like unconstrained.
For the sake of all Americans, not just myself, I wanted to do everything I could to end this madness as quickly as possible. That’s precisely why I had spent over ten hours talking with the FBI during my long series of meetings in March, over half a year earlier. I had been an open book to them in the interest of putting an end to the illegitimate Russia Witch Hunt. I had done so without an attorney present and had provided the agents with countless documents. All of this exculpatory evidence should have made the allegations against me seem preposterous to any official without a political agenda. On the face of it, I had already shown each of the allegations from opposition research consultant Christopher Steele to be demonstrably false.
And yet, the central danger I faced still remained. Amidst this grand miscarriage of justice, my eagerness to talk could have put me at even greater legal risk. The special counsel and Congress had requested tens of thousands of additional documents via their subpoenas. While trying my best to fulfill these demands, I soon realized that it would be impossible for me to provide a comprehensive record that could match the enormous data collection, processing, and storage
capacity of the National Security Agency (NSA). Although full details of the spy scandal had still not been confirmed at the time, I started to learn that the NSA and FBI had already wiretapped and hacked me for at least a year. Nearly five months had passed since I submitted my Privacy Act and FOIA requests for the FISA warrants on May 21, 2017. But the powers that be still dragged their feet. The authorities were equally defiant of Senators Grassley and Graham and other senior members of Congress who had continued strenuously to demand the truth.
Other than Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, some of the people I really needed help from were burrowed deep in the bowels of government. The Office of Information Policy and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) team over at DOJ had blocked disclosure, essentially daring me to spend a fortune on more assertive legal tactics. It became a game of chicken—a lone advocate against a behemoth with unlimited resources. Basically wiped out, I continued to fight for my life.
I had no experience in anything like this. With few personal sources of insight, I assumed at the time that what the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and other news outlets had reported since April 2017 was mostly correct. If, as reports said, I was the target of FISA collection expeditions, then data I provided to the special counsel, FBI, or Congress could never conceivably match all of the more detailed information that the U.S. Intelligence Community had already hacked from my email and wiretapped from my phones. This made it clear to me that I faced thousands of opportunities to step into a perjury or false evidence trap. Given this preceding year of government surveillance, testifying before the Mueller grand jury carried the risk of inadvertently stepping in one of those traps.