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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

A Deal That Never Happened

Donald Trump is making false and grossly inflated claims about an alleged “quid pro quo” between the State Department and the FBI regarding one of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

Trump insists in campaign appearances that newly released documents show that a State Department official offered a deal to the FBI if it would declassify one of Clinton’s emails, and that this reveals “how corrupt she is.”

What the FBI documents actually show is that:

  • A deal was first suggested by a now-retired FBI official — not anyone at State — and he quickly dropped it.
  • The FBI-State deal never happened. The sentence remains classified as “Secret” as the FBI wanted, and the FBI didn’t get the added agents in Iraq that it wanted State to approve.

Furthermore, our reporting shows the deal would have involved one short sentence in a single email that was forwarded to Clinton, then secretary of state, regarding arrests of suspects in the Benghazi attacks of Sept. 11, 2012.

But to hear Trump describe it, this amounts to a massive, illegal cover-up. At an Oct. 18 campaign stop in Grand Junction, Colorado, he said:

Trump, Oct. 18: You heard about the newly released FBI documents? They reveal just how corrupt [Clinton] is and [Washington] is. Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy illegally pressured – really, illegally pressured the FBI to unclassify emails from Hillary’s illegal server.

It’s true that the documents revealed that a former Clinton aide at the State Department, Patrick F. Kennedy, argued at length that the FBI’s counterterrorism division should reverse its decision to classify the sentence — and he lost the argument. But there’s nothing illegal about that. And Trump (like some news organizations) got it wrong when he said:

Trump, Oct. 18: The FBI documents show that Patrick Kennedy made the request for altering classification as part of a quid pro quo.

That’s false. It wasn’t Kennedy who made the request. One of the two FBI employees whose interviews were summarized in the documents took responsibility for offering the deal. Neither document points to Kennedy as initiating such an offer.

The two interview summaries are among 100 pages of documents that the FBI released Oct. 17 relating to its investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server for her official communications while she was secretary of state.

One memo (starting on page 25) stated that an unnamed FBI documents manager interviewed at FBI headquarters in Washington on July 30, 2015, said he had been “pressured” — by another FBI official — to remove the classification as part of a “quid pro quo.”

FBI interview summary, July 30, 2015: [The documents manager said the other FBI official] indicated he had been contacted by Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary of State, who had asked his assistance in altering the email’s classification in exchange for a “quid pro quo.” …[I]n exchange for marking the email unclassified, State would reciprocate by allowing the FBI to place more agents in countries where they are presently forbidden.

Note that the documents manager didn’t say who proposed the “quid pro quo.” Trump (and to be fair, some careless reporters) have made an incorrect assumption that Kennedy made the offer. In fact, as made clear in the second FBI interview, it was not.

The second FBI memo (starting on page 28) summarizes an interview that agents conducted Sept. 3, 2015, with the man who allegedly “pressured” the documents manager. That official wasn’t named in the edited FBI interview summary but is now known to be Brian McCauley, the FBI’s deputy assistant director for international operations from 2012 to 2015. He had retired by the time of the interview.

McCauley told the FBI interviewers that Kennedy had contacted him to ask his assistance in getting the email marked unclassified.

FBI memo: Not yet knowing the email’s content, [McCauley said he] told Kennedy he would look into the e-mail matter if Kennedy would provide authority regarding the FBI’s request to increase its personnel in Iraq.

So the FBI documents show McCauley, not Kennedy, first proposed the idea of an exchange of favors.

McCauley confirmed that when the Washington Post and New York Times tracked him down and separately interviewed him. In accounts published Oct. 18, the newspapers quoted McCauley as saying he had agreed in a telephone call with Kennedy that he would try to help with the classification of Clinton’s email if Kennedy would help get the State Department to restore two spots that the FBI had lost in the Baghdad embassy.

McCauley (in Washington Post): He said: “Brian. Pat Kennedy. I need a favor,” … I said: “Good, I need a favor. I need our people back in Baghdad.”

McCauley (in New York Times): I’m the one that threw that out there. …[I]t was a quid pro quo; I don’t deny it.

In his FBI interview, McCauley said he soon discovered that the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division had declared the email classified, and that he then called Kennedy back and “informed him that there was no way he could assist Kennedy in declassifying the information contained in the e-mail.”

McCauley elaborated on that in his Post and Times interviews. After learning that the email involved the Benghazi attack, he said, he called Kennedy back immediately and said he could not help.

McCauley (in Washington Post): I said, “Absolutely not, I can’t help you,” and he took that, and it was fine.

McCauley (in New York Times): It was off the table; the quid pro quo was not even close to being considered.

Kennedy didn’t stop trying to get the material declassified, according to the FBI interview with the unnamed documents manger. The manager said he met Kennedy personally and that Kennedy spent “15 minutes debating the classification of the email and attempting to influence the FBI to change its markings.”

The documents manager said he “continued to assert that the email was appropriately marked SECRET//NOFORN” (meaning “no foreign dissemination”). He said Kennedy then appealed in a conference call to the FBI’s Michael Steinbach, who was then assistant director of the agency’s counterterrorism division.

According to the FBI documents manager: “Kennedy continued to pressure the FBI to change the classified markings on the email to unclassified. Steinbach refused to do so.”

That seems to have ended the matter. Both the FBI and the State Department have officially denied any deal took place.

After the Oct. 17 release of these memos, the FBI issued a statement saying “the classification of the email was not changed, and it remains classified today.”

The FBI statement added, “Although there never was a quid pro quo, these allegations were nonetheless referred to the appropriate officials for review.” That review resulted in the two FBI interview memos already mentioned.

In a press briefing Oct. 17, Mark Toner of the State Department said the FBI didn’t get the extra slots in Baghdad, and the email was released in May 2015 with the “secret” classification intact.

That’s when the State Department published a set of 296 documents that previously had been provided in February 2015 to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. Toner did not specify which of these was the subject of Kennedy’s conversations, but only one of them had any material deleted because it was found to be classified. This was a brief message forwarded to Clinton on Nov. 18, 2012, by an aide regarding news that Libyan police had arrested several people who “may have some connection to the Benghazi attack.”

The message was forwarded to Clinton by Jacob Sullivan, then her deputy chief of staff. He in turn had received it from Beth Jones, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs at the time. In forwarding it, Jones noted, “FBI in Libya fully involved.”

Just how the FBI was involved in the arrests isn’t known. There’s no mention of the FBI in the heavily edited portions of the original message that Jones had forwarded from the author, William V. Roebuck, then-director of the State Department’s office of Magreb affairs.

One sentence of what Roebuck wrote, half a line long, is blotted out citing exemption B1 to the Freedom of Information Act, which is the exemption for classified information. A notation says that sentence was classified “Secret/Noforn” on May 22, 2015.

Not clear in any of this is why Kennedy took even 15 minutes to dispute the classification of this sentence. The sentence is scheduled to be declassified on Nov. 18, 2032.