Former US federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy, in Ball of Collusion, leaves the reader with a sense that one day the Great Kremlin Conspiracy or Spygate might be known as Obamagate. The Obama administration’s concerted effort to expose Candidate Trump as an agent of President Putin was a counter-intelligence undertaking rather than a criminal investigation. A counter-intelligence operation, unlike a standard criminal inquiry, is at the behest of the White House, its ostensible purpose to safeguard the American people against the intrigues of a foreign entity. How extraordinary, then, that Australia’s own Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1996 to 2007, should have assumed the role of an informant to the Obama administration with the purpose of protecting America from a foreign entity. The further irony is that Downer himself was a foreign entity engaging—unwittingly or not—in an intrigue against the American people.
The Great Kremlin Conspiracy, according to McCarthy, has its origins in the unorthodoxy of Donald Trump’s candidacy. Powerful figures in Obama’s administration viewed the presidential ambitions of the property developer and reality-television personality with great suspicion. Trump’s freewheeling oratory, especially before he employed proper speechwriters and a teleprompter, made the guardians of US political propriety nervous. Candidate Trump’s scathing attacks against the parsimony of America’s NATO allies, coupled with assertions about how he could work with the feared and loathed Vladimir Putin, suggested to some that he might be less an inept amateur in foreign policy than a dangerous iconoclast. The problem, though, is that Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, had herself attempted to “reset” relations with the Kremlin back in 2009. Additionally, President Obama had lambasted Candidate Romney for scaremongering about Russia during the 2012 presidential campaign. If, however, Trump were being blackmailed by Putin that would put a very different complexion on Trump’s desire for rapprochement with Moscow.
It was the unverified GPS/Steele dossier, the Moscow Project if you will, that set the hearts (and imaginations) of Obama’s intelligence chiefs racing—the CIA’s John Brennan, the National Intelligence’s James Clapper, the FBI’s James Comey, and, quite likely, President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. If even some or even one of the salacious details in Steele’s Clinton-financed research were true, not least Trump’s alleged tryst with Moscow hookers, the world would be a cheerier place for a lot of formerly powerful people. If the central claims of the Russia-Trump dossier are counterfeit, then the counter-intelligence operation against Trump, which formally began with the FBI’s Operation Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016, and continued into the early days of the Trump presidency before metamorphosing into the Mueller’s investigation (May 2017 to March 2019), will qualify as one of the greatest political scandals in American history. Those who signed the four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants against Carter Page, commencing in October 2016, enabling Big Brother to spy on the Trump campaign, will all be in the deep trouble. This is because in each case Christopher Steele’s opposition-research material was falsely categorised as verified. James Comey was one of those signatories.
Originally, writes McCarthy, mainstream media, such as the New York Times, advanced Carter Page, a minor foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign between March and September 2016, as the key to unlocking the Trump campaign’s purported collusion with the Kremlin. His name, after all, appears in the Steele dossier. The super-sleuths in American intelligence appear to have realised soon enough the absurdity of the idea, and so a new origin story had to be conceived. From 2017, the New York Times, along with the rest of the mainstream media, including in Australia, duly adopted version 2.0 of the genesis of what President Trump would fittingly term a “political witch hunt”. This brings us to twenty-eight-year-old George Papadopoulos, another minor foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump, this time between March and August 2016. It was while enjoying a drink with Papadopoulos at a London wine bar, on or about May 10, 2016, that Alexander Downer, Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, supposedly learned that the Trump campaign had “Russian dirt” on Candidate Clinton. The Mueller Report, released in April 2019, insists it was this explosive information, passed on to the American authorities by Downer, that initiated Operation Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016. The Papadopoulos turn is of great significance because without it the basis for the counter-espionage operation against Donald Trump rests entirely on the Trump-Russia dossier, something the Mueller investigation was never able to corroborate.
Andrew McCarthy helps us to make sense of the Papadopoulos–Downer tête-à-tête in the Kensington Wine Rooms. The two participants agree on little, apart from the claim that neither drank very much. Papadopoulos asserts in Deep State Target (2019) that Downer was part of a set-up orchestrated by US intelligence to destroy Donald Trump. Two weeks earlier, on April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos had met with Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud at the Andaz London Liverpool Street Hotel. Claiming connections with powerful Kremlin figures, Mifsud informed the credulous Papadopoulos that the Russians were in possession of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Today Papadopoulos regrets not communicating this hearsay to the appropriate American authorities and instead gossiping about his “discovery” to random members of the diplomatic community in London over subsequent days.
Joseph Mifsud, in the opinion of Andrew McCarthy, was not a Russian agent, if for no other reason than that the FBI never charged him with being one, even though he has been in their custody as recently as 2018. I would go further: Mifsud is also unlikely to be an American “asset”. It is even less likely that any self-respecting intelligence agency would deploy the blundering Alexander Downer as an agent in the field. George Papadopoulos, of course, thinks otherwise, but that might have to do with the fact that one drink with Downer landed him in jail for twelve days. Papadopoulos wants us to believe that he was set up by Downer and Mifsud in an undercover scheme to affect the 2016 presidential election, but on this—if little else—Downer might be closer to the mark. In short, Downer did not meet with Papadopoulos with the expressed purpose of grassing on him, although that is what Downer ended up doing.
Ball of Collusion goes a long way to reconciling Papadopoulos’s and Downer’s seemingly incompatible eyewitness accounts of their meeting. On the one hand, McCarthy agrees that the ham-fisted Alexander Downer was not a part of a high-powered intelligence sting against Donald Trump; on the other, Downer’s inaccurate account of his conversation with George Papadopoulos was exploited by anti-Trump schemers in the Obama administration. The assertion, in Deep State Target, is that Downer sought a meeting with Papadopoulos after one of Downer’s young deputies reported back to him that an American volunteer for the Trump campaign had been boasting about the existence of “Russian dirt” on Clinton. Papadopoulos, in fact, claims he never confided Mifsud’s gossip to Downer during their chat. Downer and indeed McCarthy submit that the High Commissioner’s interest in the young American was piqued by Papadopoulos’s earlier public criticism of Prime Minister Cameron. Obviously, Downer’s purpose for wanting to meet Papadopoulos could be twofold: in the first instance, to speak on behalf of the pro-EU David Cameron; in the second, to look out for the interests of Hillary Clinton—after all, one of Downer’s last initiatives as Australia’s foreign minister was to arrange the payment of $25 million of taxpayers’ money to the Clinton Foundation.
Whether Alexander Downer heard the story about “Russian dirt” second-hand or third-hand, he eventually acted upon it, the key word here being eventually. McCarthy calculates that Downer’s visit to the American embassy occurred in July 2016—two months after his drink with Papadopoulos. If Downer thought his “intelligence” so crucial to the fate of America and the Free World, why the long interval? Mainstream media outlets were full of stories during July about the hacking of John Podesta’s and the Democrats’ computer networks. But these Wikileaks revelations were not connected to Clinton’s Emailgate controversy, which relates to the 2009 to 2013 period. The secrets of the Democratic Party machine have nothing to do with the so-called “Russian dirt” story supplied by Papadopoulos before the Podesta story hit the airwaves. Hillary Clinton herself was not greatly affected by disclosures about the DNC’s internal modus operandi because she rarely communicated by email with Party apparatchiks. Downer had, seemingly, conflated scuttlebutt from two months prior with an emerging news story.
Once the High Commissioner had made his untraditional trip to America’s embassy in July, it was all action stations, starting with the launching of the FBI Operation Crossfire on July 31. Within days, FBI agent Peter Strzok was winging his way to London, hopeful of uncovering a sinister connection between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. We can assume that the FBI was desperate to back up its flimsy Carter Page lead—now totally debunked by the Mueller Report—before passing off the unvalidated Steele dossier as authentic intelligence to the FISA court. We can reasonably assume that American intelligence’s ensuing investigation of George Papadopoulos, pursued throughout August and September 2016, turned up nothing. (A panicked Papadopoulos was later jailed for lying to the FBI about ever talking with Mifsud; he was never charged with any untoward connections to the Kremlin.) McCarthy submits that Downer possibly “twisted” or exaggerated Papadopoulos’s political gossip, although Downer now insists that there was never any suggestion in the Kensington Wine Rooms that “there was collusion between Donald Trump or Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians”. We now know that FBI agent Strzok privately messaged back from London that Alexander Downer was a time waster: “I cannot believe we are seriously looking at these allegations and the pervasive connections.” Downer, according to Ball of Collusion, had a similar opinion of Papadopoulos: “Downer believed Papadopoulos was an air-head and took no action because he thought so little of the remark.”
The FBI, according to McCarthy, distorted Papadopoulos’s role in the Great Kremlin Conspiracy because of their over-reliance on the uncorroborated Steele dossier. McCarthy is no Papadopoulos apologist, describing the young self-promoter as “not a straight shooter”. Nevertheless, McCarthy cannot but feel sympathy for the treatment Papadopoulos received after CIA employee and FBI informant Stefan Halper failed, in September 2016, to extract any information from Papadopoulos on the Trump–Kremlin conspiracy. Halper, an academic of sorts, had approached Papadopoulos on the basis of promoting the younger man’s academic bona fides, promising him $3000 for a research article. Papadopoulos wrote the piece, but it was not hard to figure out why Stefan Halper had suddenly insinuated himself into the life of a member of the Trump campaign, especially when their conversations devolved into this: “So George, hacking is in the interests of your campaign. Of course the Russians are helping you … and of course you’re probably involved in it, too.” Even allowing for some caricaturing on the part of Papadopoulos, this depiction of the awkward and “sweating” Halper strikes me as only too real. The FBI’s later treatment of Papadopoulos, arresting him on his arrival back in the USA and interrogating him into the early hours of the morning, bears all the hallmarks of shadowy, albeit powerful, figures attempting one last time to get blood out of a stone. Frustrated once again, they charged Papadopoulos with lying to them about having ever met Joseph Mifsud—a lie, yes, but understandable under the nightmarish world the FBI itself had fabricated—and jailed him. McCarthy brilliantly gauges the relative severity of the treatment meted out to George Papadopoulos with this one line: “[The FBI] never had evidence of a serious crime.”
That sentence might be the very essence of the Great Kremlin Conspiracy. In legal terms, at least, there is no basis for the assertion that Donald Trump, or anyone even at the farthest reaches of his 2016 campaign, colluded with the Kremlin. The one thing to be said for Operation Crossfire Hurricane and the Second Operation Crossfire Hurricane (the Mueller investigation) is that after almost three years of investigation, there was no Trump–Kremlin collusion and, ipso facto, the investigators never had any evidence to support their suspicions. Former CIA Director John Brennan’s admission in the wake of the Mueller Report’s findings says it all: “Well, I don’t know if I received bad information, but I suspected there was more than there actually was.” This, crucially, is out of the mouth of the man who was, allegedly, more responsible for the genesis of the Great Kremlin Conspiracy than any other single political figure. If a three-year-long counter-intelligence operation against Trump was founded and fuelled on “bad information”, then it stands to follow that leading members of Obama’s administration—the top people in the Department of State, Department of Justice, the FBI, the CIA, National Intelligence, and the White House itself—were (a) incompetent, (b) deluded or (c) criminal. Robert Mueller’s excruciating post-report performance before Congress in July 2019 might fall under the first category, but the rest, as McCarthy concludes, finishes up as a judicial mix of all three.
Towards the end of Ball of Collusion, McCarthy includes the scene in which President Trump receives the news of the Mueller investigation: “Oh my God. This is terrible, this is the end of my presidency, I’m f***ed. How could you let this happen, Jeff?” In the minds of Trump’s enemies, this might be seen as confirmation that his righteous enemies had unmasked his Kremlin subterfuge and that his days in the White House would be short-lived. But now that we know that these righteous folks had it exactly wrong, where does that leave us? If the Kremlin played any role in America’s domestic politics it was because of the mistakes and machinations of Obama’s administration. President Trump was stunned by the announcement of a Special Counsel investigation in May 2017 because not even the Attorney-General, the top law officer in the country, was going to protect him.
Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency
by Andrew C. McCarthy
Encounter Books, 2019, 466 pages, US$35