Members Only | February 7, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
Did the FBI’s Charles McGonigal sabotage the 2016 election?
McGonigal was promoted just before the FBI’s October 2016 announcement that it saw no ties between Trump and Russia.
The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is pressing the Department of Justice for details about a former FBI agent who was indicted for working for a sanctioned Russian oligarch and laundering the proceeds.
Charles F. McGonigal retired as special agent in charge of counterintelligence for the FBI’s New York office in 2018. McGonigal allegedly began cooperating with an agent of aluminum baron Oleg Deripaska while he was still working for the FBI. Deripaska is under indictment for allegedly evading sanctions and obstructing justice.
Dick Durban raised urgent questions in his open letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland. As Durban noted, McGonigal was promoted to special agent in charge just before the FBI’s October 2016 announcement that it saw no ties between Trump and Russia.
Durban is asking the questions that are on everyone’s mind:
Did McGonigal do anything to tip the scales of justice in favor of anyone he’s now linked to in the indictments? What roles did McGonigal play in the 2016 FBI’s Trump-Russia probe and the Mueller investigation? Is there any chance that McGonigal compromised sources, methods or evidence? How did one of the most elite counterintelligence operations not notice that one of its main guys was allegedly doing favors for a sanctioned Russian oligarch while he was still on the FBI payroll.
Deripaska’s history with the FBI is long and bizarre. The FBI has investigated Deripaska for links to Russian organized crime.
Nevertheless, 2007, the FBI colluded with Deripaska to spring a kidnapped CIA contractor from captivity in Iran. His name is Robert Levinson and he was an FBI agent before he went to work for the CIA.
Deripaska reportedly spent $25 million of his own money on the mission. You might wonder why the FBI needs a Russian oligarch’s money. The idealistic answer is that Iran is under economic sanctions, so Americans couldn’t legally spend money there. Realistically, it’s probably because some of that money went to bribe people the FBI regards as terrorists. Deripaska went along with this scheme because the FBI was supposed to make his US visa problems go away.
And Levinson didn’t get to come home.
The US State Department had barred Deripaska from the country because of his alleged ties to Russian organized crime. As the Deripaska camp tells it, they were on the cusp of a deal to release Levinson when the mean old State Department scuttled the visa scheme once and for all. Perhaps because they didn’t want to be in the debt of a man like Deripaska.
Undeterred, the FBI tried to enlist Deripaska’s help again in 2014, first as an informant on Russian organized crime and in 2016 as a source for their probe into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Two months before Donald Trump was elected, FBI agents reportedly visited Deripaska in New York City and asked him whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia. Deripaska put on his best innocent face and insisted that the agents were making something out of nothing.
By this point, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had been feeding sensitive campaign and polling data to Deripaska’s associate for months, information that made its way to Russian intelligence. It’s unclear how much impact Deripaska’s denial had on the FBI’s later announcement that it knew of no links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Did the FBI’s attempts to recruit Deripaska ultimately result in Deripaska recruiting a top FBI agent? A recent story in the Times strongly implies as much, albeit without providing much in the way of supporting evidence.
Let’s hope that answers are forthcoming.
Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.