Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the recent disclosure that the FBI opened an investigation into whether President Donald Trump was working for Russia after his firing of former FBI Director James Comey. In reading the story, it struck me that the emerging picture from early 2017 looks increasingly like a study in cognitive bias. Indeed, it raises a rather intriguing possibility that both sides may feed each other in reaching the wrong conclusions.
Here is the column:
The New York Times has published another bombshell with a story that President Trump was named as a possible national security threat in a counterintelligence operation that was launched after his inauguration.
If true, this is likely the only time in history that the FBI has investigated whether a sitting president was either a knowing or unknowing agent of a foreign power. However, the real benefit of the investigative story may not be the original suspicion, but rather how it could explain the course that both sides have taken into our current quagmire. What if there were no collusion or conspiracy but simple cognitive bias on both sides, where the actions of one seemed to confirm precisely the suspicions of the other?
There are now two possibilities. The first of those is that Trump really was some “manchurian candidate” placed in the Oval Office by Russia and controlled from afar by Vladimir Putin. Many are unlikely to ever accept any other possibility, though the New York Times story does not suggest that this counterintelligence operation found any basis for the original allegation. Indeed, the problem arose when part of the operation was made public. Such inquiries are usually completed and never disclosed. In this case, various forces led to a partial disclosure that Trump associates were investigated and that Trump himself might have been compromised.
Now to the more intriguing theory that is more consistent with known facts. We have a clear picture of what the two sides saw at the start of the Trump administration. At the FBI, investigators, including then director James Comey, actively considered the unthinkable possibility that the president was controlled by Russia. At the White House, Trump believed that his associates and campaign had been placed under investigation by federal officials with close ties to Democratic figures. What happened next could be a lesson in cognitive bias, and it could indeed explain a lot.
At the start of the Trump administration, the FBI has a dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and opposition research firm Fusion GPS, alleging a myriad of suspicious financial and personal connections between Trump and Russia. It also had an investigation into the Russia connections of Trump adviser Carter Page. There was Trump encouraging Russia to locate the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton and some evidence of Russia internet trolling and hacking operations. There also was the curious refusal of Trump to criticize Russia, an anomaly within Republican politics.
Soon after the inauguration, Trump started to counterpunch against what he saw as a deep state conspiracy. He asked Comey if he would be loyal and to go easy on resigned national security adviser Michael Flynn. He eventually fired Comey. He lashed out on social media against the FBI. He said in an interview that he had the Russia investigation in mind when he fired Comey. He met with Russians the very next day in the Oval Office and told the diplomats, “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That is taken of.”
No charges were ever brought against Page, who appears to have been pursuing business interests in Russia. Moreover, investigative journalist Michael Isikoff, who broke the dossier story, admitted recently, “When you actually get into the details of the Steele dossier, the specific allegations, we have not seen the evidence to support them, and, in fact, there is good grounds to think that some of the more sensational allegations will never be proven and are likely false.” Even the New York Times bombshell now reports that “no evidence has emerged publicly that Trump was “secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.”
However, the FBI back then did not know all of that. From the perspective of the counterintelligence operation, every one of those moves confirmed the concern that Trump may have been working for Russian interests. They understandably began an investigation into whether Trump was acting not erratically but by design to conceal his Russian influence.
Now go back to the same period after the inauguration. Trump had just won an unwinnable election against the establishment. He had expected much of the government to be hostile to his administration. He soon learned that the FBI secretly investigated some of his aides. Then the dossier story hit. The Clinton campaign first denied funding the dossier but later admitted that it funded the effort at a considerable expense, with the money hidden as legal costs by its lawyer and his firm.
From the perspective of Trump, it all fit pattern of a deep state conspiracy of Clinton operatives and establishment officials. Soon, Trump witnessed events that confirmed his suspicions. Key FBI officials like Andrew McCabehad Democratic connections and his wife, Jill McCabe, received roughly $700,000 from a close Clinton ally and the Virginia Democratic Party in her campaign for the state legislature. Then emails surfaced, showing sentiments of clear bias against Trump from relevant figures like McCabe and lead FBI investigator Peter Strzok, including discussion of “insurance policies” against his election and resistance against his administration.
Trump also learned that the dossier was given to the FBI by the wife of Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, who worked closely with former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Nellie Ohr was employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump. Everything that Trump was seeing confirmed the theory of a conspiracy of Democratic operatives and deep state figures against his administration.
The result is two separate narratives that fed off the actions of each other. There likely was bias in the initial assumptions, with a willingness at the FBI to believe Trump would be a tool of the Russians, and a willingness by Trump to believe the FBI would be a tool of the Clintons. Every move and countermove confirmed each bias. Trump continued to denounce what he saw as a conspiracy. The FBI continued to investigate his obstructive attitude. One side saw a witch hunt where the other saw a mole hunt.
Of course, neither side can accept at this point that they may have been wrong about the other side. In economics that is called path dependence. So much has been built on the Republican and Democratic sides on these original assumptions that it is impossible to now deconstruct from those narratives. In other words, there may have been no Russian mole and no deep state conspiracy. Moreover, the motivations may not have been to obstruct either the Trump administration or the Russia investigation. Instead, this could all prove to be the greatest, most costly example of cognitive bias in history, and now no one in this story wants to admit it.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.