Former top FBI lawyer defends origins of the Russia investigation

The top lawyer at the FBI when the Russia investigation was started said Friday that the probe was opened for “lawful, legitimate reasons,” and pushed back on conspiracies that President Donald Trump has spread about the origins of the investigation.

James Baker, the former FBI lawyer, said he felt compelled to speak out amid growing scrutiny of how the investigation started, concerns that have been stoked by Trump and Attorney General William Barr, who is conducting an internal review to see if there was any misconduct.

Almost all of the top FBI officials who oversaw the Russia investigation have now publicly spoken out against Trump, an extraordinary and unprecedented rebuke of a sitting president.

“There was a point in time relatively recently where I just became sick of all the BS that is said about the origins of the (Russia) investigation, and I just got fed up with it,” Baker said.

“I want to talk about the origin of the investigation to reassure the American people that it was done for lawful, legitimate reasons and was apolitical throughout, in my experience.”

The wide-ranging interview, held in Washington and hosted by the Brookings Institution, featured Baker’s most extensive public comments about the inner workings of the probe. As the FBI’s top lawyer at the time, Baker played a key role in overseeing FBI techniques and was one of the few people then-FBI Director James Comey briefed about his interactions with Trump.

Refuting a debunked theory peddled by Trump and his Republican allies, Baker said that the investigation began in July 2016 because of a tip that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had inside information about Russian meddling. Trump has asserted, without any evidence, that the investigation started based on a dossier compiled by a former British spy.

“The Papadopoulos information is what triggered us going down this path,” Baker said. “… It would have been a dereliction of our duty not to investigate this information.”

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report also offered this explanation about the origins of the investigation, as have reports issued by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, Trump has continued to claim that the dossier triggered the Russia investigation.

“The investigation was not predicated on the basis of the information that (British spy) Christopher Steele gave to us in the form of the dossier,” Baker said. “That is just not — was not my understanding at the time and has never been my understanding. Just to say that, flat out.”

Baker also pushed back against criticism that the FBI did not properly vet Steele’s information before including it in an application requesting court approval to monitor Carter Page, another Trump campaign aide. Page was mentioned in the dossier and had extensive Russian ties.

Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani ramped up that criticism on Thursday, tweeting that Comey and the FBI “deliberately avoided discovering the truth” about the dossier.

“We’re not stupid, the FBI. People roll in to give us information all the time, from all kinds of different angles … all kinds of stuff. People come to us for lots of different reasons,” Baker said. “So, the FBI has an obligation to both take that seriously and be highly skeptical of the information as well.”

That surveillance, conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), is being reviewed as part of Barr’s internal examination. The Justice Department’s inspector general is also looking into potential abuses of the FISA process during the Russia investigation.

In effect, the highest ranks of the FBI during the Russia investigation have now all publicly rebuked Trump’s comments about the probe. This includes Baker and Comey, who excoriated Trump at a CNN town hall on Thursday night, calling him a “chronic liar” and “immoral” leader.

It also includes Comey’s former deputy, Andrew McCabe, and Peter Strzok, who led the FBI’s counterespionage section. Both McCabe and Strzok were fired from the FBI last year — McCabe for lying to internal investigators about a leak in the Hillary Clinton investigation and Strzok for having an affair and sending anti-Trump texts to the FBI lawyer he was having an affair with.

Baker also published an op-ed in Lawfare on Friday, asserting that he does not hate Trump, even though Trump has “tweeted and spoken about me personally, uncharitably and by name.”

He resigned from the FBI one year ago, after his influence waned in the post-Comey era and he was reassigned from the general counsel position that he previously held. House Republicans revealed in a letter earlier this year that Baker was under criminal investigation for leaks.