WASHINGTON — The top Justice Department official who oversaw the FBI investigation into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia in its early stages said she never viewed the president as a “Russian asset” but that the president and some of his top aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, were susceptible to being “used” by foreign intelligence agencies.
“I do not personally think that I ever believed the president might be a Russian asset,” Mary McCord, the former acting assistant attorney general for national security, said in an interview for the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”
But, she added, Trump’s “lack of familiarity with foreign intelligence operations, particularly from adversarial states such as Russia, North Korea, Iran, etc., made him vulnerable. And others within his orbit, including Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. and others, [were] vulnerable to being used by foreign intelligence agencies.”
And she said that view was validated at a 2018 Helsinki summit, where Trump appeared to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of interfering in the 2016 presidential election despite the firm conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies saying otherwise.
“You want to hear some adjectives about my reaction?” she said. “That was jaw-dropping to me.”
McCord’s comments in the “Skullduggery” interview, one of the rare occasions she has spoken publicly, are significant because she was a key player in the early months of Crossfire Hurricane — the code name for the FBI’s investigation into Russian links to the Trump campaign. McCord served as the acting assistant attorney general for national security between October 2016 and May 2017.
It was a role that was underscored this week when she was identified in a Justice Department inspector general’s report as one of a handful of senior Justice Department officials who reviewed renewals of a flawed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant of Carter Page, a member of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy team.
The report, by inspector general Michael Horowitz, found that the FBI’s applications for the secret warrant were riddled with “basic and fundamental errors,” including misstating key evidence and withholding exculpatory facts that undercut allegations in the so-called dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele. Steele’s “dossier” depicted Page as a crucial figure in a “well-developed conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
As the report made clear, and McCord emphasized, FBI agents, supervisors and lawyers seeking the warrant and renewals never disclosed the withheld evidence to her and other Justice Department officials responsible for signing off on the warrant applications to a federal court.
And one of those errors especially upset her when she learned about it from reading Horowitz’s report: an FBI lawyer’s doctoring of an email he received from the CIA that identified Page as an “operational contact” for the agency, providing an innocent explanation for his contacts with Russians that the FBI was portraying as potential evidence he was an “agent of a foreign power.”
“That’s the one that was the most shocking to me, because we’re talking about a lawyer altering a document,” McCord said. “There’s no explanation for that that’s a good explanation unless it was totally a mistake, like he meant to type something else. … And, of course, that’s material information that should [have been] included” in the FISA application. (Horowitz testified that he has referred the FBI lawyer’s conduct to the Justice Department for potential criminal prosecution.)
McCord said she has not yet spoken to John Durham, the U.S. attorney in Connecticut who has been assigned by Attorney General William Barr to conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the origins of the Russia probe — a probe that is broader than Horowitz’s in scope and could lead to criminal charges.
But she said she was “very surprised” and “very shocked” by Durham’s public statement this week disagreeing with Horowitz’s separate conclusion that the launching of Crossfire Hurricane was adequately predicated under FBI rules and untainted by any evidence of anti-Trump political bias.
“It’s sort of like, prosecutor 101, you don’t talk about ongoing investigations,” she said. “It’s hard not to look at that and think of it as political. But I also realize he’s a career guy, and I’m not going to put labels on it until I get some maybe further explanation.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Mary McCord, former acting assistant attorney general for national security. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: AP)
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