If you’ve been following the story about former FBI official Charles McGonigal, the short version is that he was arrested after it was discovered he taking money from a former Albanian intelligence employee and from a representative of Oleg V. Deripaska, a Russian oligarch. He is accused of starting an investigation into one of Deripaska’s rivals at his behest, trying to launder the money he was getting paid, and violating economic sanctions on Russia, among other things.
On 23 January, we learned that a former FBI special agent, Charles McGonigal, was arrested on charges involving taking money to serve foreign interests. One accusation is that in 2017 he took $225,000 from a foreign actor while in charge of counterintelligence at the FBI's New York office. Another charge is that McGonigal took money from Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch, after McGonigal’s 2018 retirement from the FBI. Deripaska, a hugely wealthy metals tycoon close to the Kremlin, "Putin's favorite industrialist," was a figure in a Russian influence operation that McGonigal had investigated in 2016. Deripaska has been under American sanctions since 2018. Deripaska is also the former employer, and the creditor, of Trump's 2016 campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
The reporting on this so far seems to miss the larger implications. One of them is that Trump’s historical position looks far cloudier. In 2016, Trump's campaign manager (Manafort) was a former employee of a Russian oligarch (Deripaska), and owed money to that same Russian oligarch. And the FBI special agent (McGonigal) who was charged with investigating the Trump campaign's Russian connections then went to work (according to the indictment) for that very same Russian oligarch (Deripaska). This is obviously very bad for Trump personally. But it is also very bad for FBI New York, for the FBI generally, and for the United States of America.
Another is that we must revisit the Russian influence operation on Trump’s behalf in 2016, and the strangely weak American response. Moscow’s goal was to move minds and institutions such that Hillary Clinton would lose and Donald Trump would win. We might like to think that any FBI special agent would resist, oppose, or at least be immune to such an operation. Now we are reliably informed that a trusted FBI actor, one who was responsible for dealing with just this sort of operation, was corrupt. And again, the issue is not just the particular person. If someone as important as McGonigal could take money from foreigners while on the job at FBI New York, and then go to work for a sanctioned Russian oligarch he was once investigating, what is at stake, at a bare minimum, is the culture of the FBI's New York office. The larger issue is the health of our national discussions of politics and the integrity of our election process.
Read the whole thing. Snyder makes a lot of connections that are being ignored or dismissed as there seems to be a desire on the part of some to move on from this. Snyder, among other things:
- Notes that the FBI investigations into Russia-Trump connections seemed curiously circumscribed
- His field of expertise in studying Russia includes an understanding of the myriad ways Russia has sought to gain soft power — as in getting someone like Trump into power. He sees parallels with Russian maneuvering in Ukraine.
- There are serious questions about the NY FBI Office. James Comey has been criticized for tipping the scales against Hillary Clinton in 2016 with his ill-timed announcements about investigations into her emails. Snyder suggests he may have been forced into it because he was afraid the NY Office was going to leak the story.
- There’s also a question as to how much the NY FBI Office and its aversion to the Clintons allowed it to be manipulated into serving Russian intentions.
- It’s not enough to describe Deripaska as a Russian oligarch; he had direct connections to Trump’s campaign through Paul Manafort. Manafort has a long history of troubling actions and connections. He was convicted of a number of crimes — and given a full pardon by Donald Trump...
This is not something that can be dismissed; it raises too many questions.
Thinking our way back to 2016, keeping in mind Russia's pattern of seeking soft control, recalling what we know now, let's now reconsider how the FBI treated the Trump-Putin connection that year. After Trump became president, he and some other Republicans claimed that the FBI had overreached by carrying out any sort of investigation at all. Now that McGonigal has been arrested, Trump has claimed that this somehow helps his case. Common sense suggests the opposite. The man who was supposed to investigate Russian support of Trump then took money from a Russian oligarch close to Putin, who was at one remove from the Trump campaign at the time? That is not at all a constellation that supports Trump's version of events. If the FBI special agent (McGonigal) who was investigating Trump's connection to Russia was on the payroll of the Russian oligarch (Deripaska) to whom Trump's campaign manager (Manafort) owed millions of dollars and provided information, that does not look good for Trump. It looks hideous —but not just for Trump.
Anne Applebaum once put the question the right way: why didn't the FBI investigate Trump’s connections to Putin much earlier? In retrospect, it seems as though the FBI investigation of Trump’s campaign and its Russian connections in 2016 was not only late, but weirdly understated. Known as "Cross-Fire Hurricane," it defined the issue of Russian influence narrowly, as a matter of personal contact between Trump campaign officials and Russians. Meanwhile, as that investigation was going on, Russia was in the middle of a major social media campaign which, according to the leading scholar of presidential communications, made it possible for Trump to be elected. And that larger influence campaign was not investigated by the FBI, let alone countered.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump has to be one of the biggest wins for Russia ever. We are still a long way from understanding how much of that outcome was the result of Russian actions — and from understanding what we need to know now about Russia’s ongoing efforts. As Snyder warns:
The Russian operation to get Trump elected in 2016 was real. We are still living under the specter of 2016, and we are closer to the beginning of the process or learning about it than we are to the end. Denying that it happened, or acting as though it did not happen, makes the United States vulnerable to Russian influence operations that are still ongoing, sometimes organized by the same people. It is easy to forget about 2016, and human to want to do so. But democracy is about learning from mistakes, and this arrest makes it very clear that we still have much to learn.
26 January 2023
Unfortunately, the maniacs now in charge in the House are going to do everything they can to trash the FBI for even daring to investigate Trump, whitewash and bury the Russian connections, and muddy the waters in every way possible.
And how much of that is a result of Russian efforts is something we need to know. The conflict isn’t limited to Ukraine.
Subscribing to support Snyder’s efforts would be a good thing.