It was arguably the most consequential "October Surprise" in the history of American presidential elections. In the waning days of the 2016 race, with polls showing Hillary Clinton clinging to a lead over Donald Trump, two last-minute stories broke that rekindled on-the-fence voters' ethical doubts about Democrat Clinton and quashed a budding scandal around her GOP rival.
Except the "October Surprise" was no surprise to one key player: Rudolph Giuliani, the ex-New York City mayor and Trump insider who later became the 45th president's attorney. Late that month, Giuliani told Fox News that the trailing Republican nominee had "a surprise or two that you're going to hear about in the next few days. I mean, I'm talking about some pretty big surprises."
Just two days later, then-FBI Director James Comey revealed the bureau had reopened its probe into Clinton's emails, based on the possible discovery of new communications on a laptop belonging to disgraced New York politico Anthony Weiner. The news jolted the campaign with a particularly strong boost from The New York Times, which devoted two-thirds of its front page to the story — and the notion it was a major blow to Clinton's prospects.
It was later reported that Comey was motivated to make the unusual announcement about the laptop because he feared leaks from the FBI's New York field office, which, according to Reuters, had "a faction of investigators based in the office known to be hostile to Hillary Clinton." Indeed, Giuliani bragged immediately after that he had sources in the FBI, including current agents.
The supposed bombshell — it turned out there was nothing incriminating or particularly new on the laptop — wasn't the only FBI-related story that boosted Trump in the homestretch of the 2016 campaign. On Oct. 31, citing unnamed "intelligence sources," The Times reported, "Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia." That article defused a budding scandal about the GOP White House hopeful — at least until after Trump's shock election on Nov. 8, 2016. In the coming days and weeks, the basis of that Times article would melt, but by then the most unlikely POTUS in U.S. history was ensconced in the Oval Office.
There are many reasons for Trump's victory, but experts have argued the FBI disclosures were decisive. In 2017, polling guru Nate Silver argued that the Comey probe disclosure cost Clinton as many as 3-4 percentage points and at least 1 percentage point, which would have flipped Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and handed her the Electoral College.
Clearly, the wrong investigation was reopened.
The stunning corruption charges against a top FBI spymaster who assumed a key role in the bureau's New York office just weeks before 2016′s "October Surprise" — an agent who by 2018 was known to be working for a Vladimir Putin-tied Russian oligarch — should cause America to rethink everything we think we know about the Trump-Russia scandal and how it really happened that Trump won that election.
The government allegations against the former G-man Charles McGonigal (also accused of taking a large foreign payment while still on the FBI payroll) and the outsize American influence of the sanctioned-and-later-indicted Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska — also tied to U.S. pols from Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell — should make us also look again at what was really up with the FBI in 2016.
How coordinated was the effort in that New York field office to pump up the ultimate nothingburger about Clinton's emails while pooh-poohing the very real evidence of Russian interference on Trump's behalf, and who were the agents behind it? What was the role, if any, of McGonigal and his international web of intrigue? Was the now-tainted McGonigal a source who told The New York Times that fateful October that Russia was not trying to help Trump win the election — before the U.S. intelligence community determined the exact opposite? If not McGonigal, just who was intentionally misleading America's most influential news org, and why?
As a veteran journalist, I find The Times' role in this fiasco — although likely an unwitting one — deeply disturbing. To be sure, the 2016 FBI leaks weren't the first time a major news organization has been burned by anonymous law enforcement sources, and regrettably, it probably won't be the last. Media critics have been talking for years about The Times' flawed coverage, and how its near certainty that Clinton would win and a desire to show its aggressiveness toward a future president seemed to have skewed its coverage.
It's not only that America's so-called paper of record has never apologized for its over-the-top coverage of the Clinton emails or the deeply flawed story about the FBI Trump-Russia probe. It's that The Times has shown a stunning lack of curiosity about finding out what went wrong. In May 2017, or just seven months after Trump's election, the paper ended the position of public editor, an independent journalist who was embedded in the newsroom to cover controversies exactly like these.
Publisher Arthur Sulzberger said the rise of social media meant the public could now raise such questions. OK, those questions are being raised. When can we expect answers? (I've sent a Twitter direct message to one of the co-authors of the 2016 FBI-Trump-Russia article, Eric Lichtblau, and attempted connecting with the other, Steven Lee Myers, and I'll let you know if I hear back.)
Last week's indictment of McGonigal is a classic case of raising more questions than were answered. The evidence presented by prosecutors suggests the FBI counterintelligence expert wasn't introduced to Deripaska until his waning days with the bureau in 2018, aided by a pair of Russian diplomats. In 2019, after he'd retired, the indictment says McGonigal went to work for the oligarch to help him evade U.S. sanctions and to investigate a rival. But The Times also reported that U.S. counterintelligence — in which McGonigal had been a key player — had tried unsuccessfully to recruit Deripaska as an asset in the years around the 2016 election.
Like the Woody Allen character Zelig, Deripaska — a 55-year-old aluminum magnate who at one time was the richest man in Putin's Russia — is turning up in the background everywhere in the ongoing corruption of American democracy. The oligarch's history of multimillion-dollar business dealings with Paul Manafort — Trump's campaign manager in the summer of 2016 — is central to the theory of Russian interference, after it was confirmed that Manafort shared key campaign data with a suspected Russian intelligence agent also connected to Deripaska.
In 2019, Deripaska did manage to get those U.S. sanctions lifted, in a controversial deal backed not only by Team Trump but critically by then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. That same year, a Deripaska-linked aluminum company announced it would build a large plant in Kentucky, where McConnell was running for reelection. (It eventually wasn't built.) This is the same McConnell who, during that critical fall period in 2016, refused to sign a bipartisan statement warning about Russian election interference.
Another coincidence in a scandal that is drowning in so-called coincidences.
It's becoming clear that the tamping down of the most explosive parts of the Trump-Russia story is the greatest case of gaslighting since the George Cukor movie dropped in 1944. It's not just the FBI leaks in New York. We also learned last week — yes, thanks to that same New York Times — about the extraordinary and ethically dubious lengths that Trump's second attorney general, William Barr, and Barr's handpicked special prosecutor, John Durham, went to to try to prove the FBI was out to sink Trump. That's the exact opposite of what really happened. Indeed, The Times noted the only major criminality turned up in the Durham probe was a potentially explosive new charge of financial impropriety — by Donald Trump.
Seven years later, the lack of accountability and justice for the gaslighting of American democracy is appalling. Barr did a remarkable job in blunting the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, including squashing his findings about obstruction of justice by the Trump administration. A much-hyped probe by Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz into the FBI's New York office took four long years and failed to find the leakers. And new revelations — including that tip about Trump financial crimes that Italian intelligence passed on to Barr and Durham — continue to surface.
Why does it matter? Trump is no longer president, after all, and America has a lot of other problems, with police brutality and mass shootings currently on the front burner. Yet when it comes to this all-encompassing Trump-Russia scandal, the past isn't even past. The seemingly untouchable 45th president was in New Hampshire and South Carolina last weekend, campaigning to become the 47th. The man that critics call "Moscow Mitch" McConnell could return as majority leader in that same election. And Putin's obsession with Ukraine — always a focus of his U.S. interference and Trump dealings — has become a war with dire global implications.
More importantly, this never-ending scandal has demolished our trust in so many institutions — an FBI that seems to have corrupted an election, a Justice Department that covered up those deeds instead of exposing them, and, yes, a New York Times that enabled several lies instead of exposing them.
Congress and Merrick Garland's Justice Department can shine a true light on this giant mess, but there's a reason I'm picking on The New York Times today. It's a massive temple of journalism that gives us both great work (like the Barr-Durham piece) and inexcusably bad work on a daily basis. The Times can finally apologize for the sins of 2016, expose exactly what went wrong, and then reveal the rest so this kind of disaster never happens again. It owes it to American democracy.
McGonigal, meanwhile, will get a chance to clear his name in court. His defense lawyer comes from the firm Bracewell LLC, the law firm that was previously known as Giuliani and Bracewell after its onetime name partner, the former New York City mayor. Just another coincidence, probably.
(Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.)