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When Did The Trump-Russia Probe Actually Start?

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Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
  • The FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign formally began in late July 2016, after the Australian government sent in a tip about George Papadopoulos.
  • But there are strong indications that the Trump campaign and Trump associates came under scrutiny much earlier than that. 
  • California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes has recently started claiming that “spying” began against the Trump campaign in late 2015 or early 2016. 

The FBI claims that the investigation into the Trump campaign began in late July 2016, when FBI official Peter Strzok opened Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia.

According to the FBI’s telling, the probe was opened only after the bureau received a tip from the Australian government in late July 2016 regarding George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign adviser. An Australian diplomat claimed that Papadopoulos told him in a conversation two months earlier that Russia might release information on Hillary Clinton.

But while Papadopoulos-as-investigation-catalyst is the official story line, there are indications that Trump associates came under scrutiny much earlier than that.

California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, has recently started hinting at an earlier timeline for when the investigation began.

“In late 2015, early 2016, spying began on the Trump campaign,” Nunes said Thursday in an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity. “That information leaked that led to what they considered to be legal spying that began, that they have acknowledged that they started doing at the end of July.”

WATCH:

Nunes made similar comments in a Fox News interview on March 25.

“Let’s not forget it is likely that this investigation started in late 2015, but for sure by early 2016 by Clinton operatives and likely people at the highest levels of the FBI and the Department of Justice,” he said.

Nunes has not explained his rationale for saying the investigation began months earlier than widely believed. That’s likely because the information he is referring to is highly classified.

Three weeks before the start of Crossfire Hurricane, a longtime FBI and CIA informant named Stefan Halper made his first contact with Carter Page, another Trump adviser who would later be the target of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants.

Halper met with Page at a political forum held at Cambridge University, where Halper ran an intelligence think tank with Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of MI6. Page was invited to the forum more than a month earlier, on June 7, 2016, by a doctoral student studying under Halper. (RELATED: Report: DOJ Watchdog Scrutinizing FBI Informant Who Made Contact With Trump Campaign)

Page and Halper remained in contact through September 2017, the same month that the FBI’s surveillance warrant against Page expired.

There are indications that Page was on the FBI and Justice Department’s radar before then. According to various news reports, James Comey, the FBI director, briefed Attorney General Loretta Lynch about Page’s position on the campaign in “late spring.” Comey also briefed members of the National Security Council about Page during that time frame.

Page, an energy consultant who has worked in Moscow, was announced as a member of Trump’s national security advisory team on March 21, 2016.

There has also been reporting that suggests that U.S. officials began receiving information about Trump associates in late 2015.

The Guardian reported on April 13, 2017 that GCHQ, the U.K.’s equivalent to the National Security Agency, first became aware of “interactions” between Trump associates and suspected Russian assets in late 2015.

According to The Guardian, that information and other intelligence gathered by Western intelligence agencies, was shared with U.S. intelligence officials. In Summer 2016, the head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, met in Washington with John Brennan, the director of the CIA.

Several mysteries surround Halper’s activities. Since the FBI and CIA have not officially confirmed that he was an informant, it is unclear which agency he was working for when he made contact with Page. Halper carried out operations on U.S. and British soil, raising questions about whether he worked interchangeably on behalf of the CIA and FBI. The CIA is legally prohibited from spying on targets on U.S. soil.

Halper also met with Page on American soil. Their second encounter was on Aug. 20, 2016 at Halper’s farm in Virginia. Halper met with Sam Clovis days later near Washington, D.C. But Halper’s next contact with the Trump campaign took place in London. Halper invited George Papadopoulos in September 2016, to fly to London to discuss writing a policy paper on Mediterranean energy issues. Papadopoulos accepted the offer and met with Halper and his purported assistant, Azra Turk.

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