The FBI opened counterintelligence investigations into four Trump campaign associates in late July 2016, earlier than previously known, former FBI Director James Comey told Congress on Friday.
“I was briefed sometime at the end of July that the FBI had opened counterintelligence investigations of four individuals to see if there was a connection between those — any of those four and the Russian effort,” Comey said during a seven-hour interview with the House Judiciary and House Oversight Committees.
The revelation comes as something of a surprise because Democrats and many in the media have insisted that the probe, dubbed Crossfire Hurricane, was launched solely based on information that the Australian government provided the FBI on Trump aide George Papadopoulos.
It is not clear why the FBI added three other Trump associates to its investigation.
Comey declined to name the four Americans, though The New York Times has previously reported that the initial focus of the investigation was Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort.
Comey disclosed the new information while disputing a claim from South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy that the FBI opened an investigation into the Trump campaign.
Comey quibbled with that characterization, saying that the investigation was not into the campaign but into the four individuals.
“The Trump campaign was not under investigation. The FBI, in late July, opened counterintelligence investigations of four Americans to see if they were working in any way with the Russians to influence our elections,” Comey said.
Gowdy, the outgoing chairman of the House Oversight panel, suggested that he had a document that showed that the FBI documents initiating Crossfire Hurricane made reference to the Trump campaign. Comey said he did not review the documents, which were put together by Peter Strzok, the disgraced former FBI official who oversaw Crossfire Hurricane.
The date and rationale for the opening of Crossfire Hurricane were leaked to the press on Dec. 30, 2017 in an effort to undercut a GOP-backed theory that the infamous Steele dossier was the impetus for the FBI’s investigation.
The New York Times reported the probe began after the Australian government provided information gathered on Papadopoulos by Australian diplomat Alexander Downer.
Downer claimed that Papadopoulos told him during a conversation in London on May 10, 2016, that he had heard the Russian government had damning information on Hillary Clinton. Downer included the information in a cable that he sent back to Canberra, but the Aussies did not share the intelligence with the FBI until after WikiLeaks began releasing hacked DNC emails on July 22, 2016.
Papadopoulos, who was the first Trump aide to plead guilty in the special counsel’s probe, has denied seeing, disseminating or handling Democrats’ emails. He did tell the FBI that on April 26, 2016, he met in London with a mysterious professor who claimed to have learned that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands” of her emails.
Republican lawmakers pressed Comey on whether the FBI made attempts to gather information on Trump associates before Crossfire Hurricane was formally launched.
“I’m sure there was lots of effort to figure out what the heck was going on with the Russians because we saw their effort blossom in the middle of June,” Comey said. “But I’m not aware of any information before that at the end of July about the possibility that Americans were working with the Russians.”
At least one longtime FBI informant made contact with Carter Page, the Trump adviser, in early July 2016. As The Daily Caller News Foundation has reported, Stefan Halper, a former University of Cambridge professor, met Page at a political event at Cambridge on July 11, 2016. The pair maintained contact through September 2017, the same month that the FBI’s surveillance warrants against Page expired.
Halper also had contact with Papadopoulos. In September 2016, he flew Papadopoulos to London and paid him $3,000 under the guise of writing a policy paper about Mediterranean energy issues.
It is not clear whether Halper’s initial contacts with Page were part of an FBI operation. The Times and Washington Post have reported that Halper was also a longtime CIA asset.
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