The following is an excerpt from Lee Smith’s forthcoming book, The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History, which will be released October 29.
In mid-March 2017, California congressman Devin Nunes, then Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), found out the FBI had obtained a warrant to spy on Donald Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. And they’d used the Steele dossier, opposition research paid for by the Clinton campaign, as evidence.
But Nunes and his committee couldn’t say anything, not to the U.S. public, not even to fellow members of Congress. The FBI and DOJ had buried the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant, like so much of the anti-Trump operation, under the heading of classified intelligence.
It marked a low point for Nunes’ team. Shortly after, former DOJ prosecutor Kashyap Patel joined them. At first Patel’s new colleagues didn’t know what to make of him. As a New Yorker, Patel’s style sometimes clashed with those of the easygoing Californians, southerners, and midwesterners who made up the HPSCI staff.
Nunes told his team he trusted Patel. “I wanted Kash to lead, and I wanted them to follow his lead,” says Nunes. “I hired him to bust doors down and didn’t want them to get in his way.”
Patel likes to mix it up in the corners. He’s a lifelong hockey fanatic. He coaches youth hockey in the Washington, DC, area and skates defense for the nationally renowned Dons, an amateur team named after the hockey commentator and fashion legend Don Cherry.
Patel grew up on Long Island cheering for his local franchise, the New York Islanders, and was born in Queens, like the forty-fifth president. He says he knew Trump was going to win the moment he came down the escalator. “One, he’s from New York and doesn’t like to lose. He plans everything. Two, no one dominates the media like that guy. So everyone calls me crazy for eighteen months, but I was right.”
We’re sitting in one of the few remaining Washington, DC, bars where smoking cigars is permitted. Patel hands me a Gurkha, made by a friend in Miami, Kaizad Hansotia, and lights it. He says he was expecting that there would be irregularities with the FBI’s Russia investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane. He knew the figures involved, FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, FBI agent Peter Strzok, and his mistress FBI lawyer Lisa Page. “They’re really good agents and really good lawyers,” Patel says.
The problem, he says, was that there was no accountability in significant parts of Obama’s Justice Department, often even when dealing with high-profile cases. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way the upper echelons worked. It was out of the ordinary, Patel thought, that FBI director James Comey had never investigated the Democratic National Committee’s servers after the alleged Russian hack of DNC emails.
“Instead, Comey just accepted CrowdStrike’s assessment,” says Patel. “Some random outside company that happened to be retained by Perkins Coie, the Clinton campaign’s lawyers. I never worked a case involving cyber where the FBI said, ‘Let’s not use our own people on this one.’ You’re supposed to do it yourself, you’re the FBI.”
For Patel, Comey’s exoneration of Clinton was a stark illustration of everything that was wrong at DOJ. “He hijacked the Clinton investigation,” he says. “That was not his call to make. You don’t go on TV and say, ‘I, the FBI director, am deciding what is a prosecutor’s decision.’ And by the way, all my colleagues in the national security division, all truly apolitical, every one of us would have taken the Clinton case to a grand jury.”
Patel had had enough. “I was at the doctor’s that day, and he asked why my blood pressure was running so high. I told him it was Comey’s speech. All that just added up over time, and I was thinking ‘I got to get out of here.’”
When Patel accepted the job with Nunes’s team, he didn’t know much about Congress or the Intelligence Committee. “But I was prepared to know who I would be dealing with in DOJ when I came on. I told Devin that we will find that the people running the Russia investigation will have done inappropriate things. Maybe from an outsider’s view looking in, I might have also called myself crazy for saying that. Because it’s supposed to be DOJ.”
Patel explains that as a public defender he learned that documents are the key to taking on DOJ. “You have much fewer resources as a public defender. Witness testimony is great but if we can get the government’s own evidence to show X, Y, and Z, then you’ve got them.”
He collected all the investigative documents surrounding Crossfire Hurricane. “I knew I had to get the documents leading to the production of the FISA,” he says. “I wanted to know what the government knew, when they knew it, and if there were any material omissions in the FISA application.”
Once they secured the documents from the FBI, Patel and the Intelligence Committee moved to interviews to get people on the record. Did anyone have proof that the Trump team had colluded with Russia?
“I had to tell a lot of people that collusion isn’t a crime,” says Patel. “It sounds bad, but it doesn’t exist, it’s a legal fiction. But I was like, okay, we’ve got to use that because it’s in the media and everybody’s already using it.”
The important thing was to determine if there had been any criminal activity. Patel, along with HPSCI staff came up with the “three Cs”: collude, conspire, coordinate.
“Conspiracy is a real crime,” says a colleague of Patel’s who asked his name not be used. “Coordination isn’t a crime, but it was a way to explain in layman’s terms a predicate for conspiracy. So did anyone see any coordination between the Trump team and Russia?”
Nunes’s committee interviewed officials from the Obama administration, the law enforcement and intelligence communities, and the Trump campaign. It was the same line of questioning for all of them.
“We asked them the three Cs straight up,” says Patel.
He runs down a partial list:
“‘Do you, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, have evidence of the three Cs?’
“‘No, I don’t.’
“‘Do you, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates?’
“‘Do you, Jim Comey?’
“‘Do you, Andy McCabe?’
“‘Do you, John Podesta?’
“‘Do you, Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS?’
A number of witnesses tried to sidestep Patel’s line of questioning.
“And I said, ‘Hang on. I’m not asking if you thought it happened or if you heard it happened,’” Patel says. “I said, ‘Do you have information that exactly addresses this issue? If you tell me it exists, we’ll go get the documents, we’ll go get the people, we’ll use subpoenas.’ We weren’t hired to clear Donald Trump. We were charged with figuring out what happened.”
The investigation, he says, was going to reveal whether there was collusion or not. “It’s a finite question. We weren’t trying to solve an unsolvable murder. Donald Trump got elected. We knew the Russians definitely did some squirrely stuff, hacked some things and whatnot. The issue was, was there evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign said anything to the Russians like ‘Trump wants to be president, you help him, he’ll help you down the road’? We asked every single person we interviewed, and not a single person answered affirmatively to that question.”
There was nothing.
“So if no one had any evidence,” says Patel, “including the principals that were running the investigation, then maybe it didn’t happen. It became evident that the answer was no across the board. I didn’t expect to find that clean of an answer. But we did.”
If there was no evidence of collusion, conspiracy, or coordination, what had happened? The FBI had opened an investigation on the Trump campaign and had obtained a surveillance warrant without any real evidence. Something was very wrong.
“I said from the beginning that Jim Comey and Andy McCabe are not squared away guys,” says Patel. “I knew that something was up.”
Patel had worked with Comey and the others. “You cannot put on paper the value of sitting in a room with people,” he says. “My job has always been to read people. I was a trial lawyer. I had to read juries. I was pretty good at being able to read people and find their biases. I said the same thing when I was running this investigation: ‘I know these guys, I know their biases. I’ve been in a room with them. They present well. But they have agendas. And they tailor their investigations to reflect those agendas, at least the high-profile ones.’”
The fundamental problem with the Crossfire Hurricane investigation was the Crossfire Hurricane group. Now it was time for the Nunes team to pivot; they were going to investigate the investigators.
“I told Devin that our investigation is going to be a thing,” says Patel. “I told him we needed a name. It’s going to be big. There are so many parts to this. There were so many snakes on one head. I told Devin, ‘We need to cut off the head, like Medusa.’ So that’s what I called it: ‘Objective Medusa.’ It was our thing.”
The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History will be released October 29.