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Opinion: Did the New York Times help crooked FBI agents elect Trump?

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It was arguably the most consequential “October Surprise” in the history of American presidential elections. In the waning days of the 2016 race, with polls showing Hillary Clinton clinging to a lead over Donald Trump, two last-minute stories broke that rekindled on-the-fence voters’ ethical doubts about Democrat Clinton and quashed a budding scandal around her GOP rival.

Except the “October Surprise” was no surprise to one key player: Rudolph Giuliani, the ex-New York City mayor and Trump insider who later became the 45th president’s attorney. Late that month, Giuliani told Fox News that the trailing Republican nominee had “a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days. I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises.”

Just two days later, then-FBI Director James Comey revealed the bureau had reopened its probe into Clinton’s emails, based on the possible discovery of new communications on a laptop belonging to disgraced New York politico Anthony Weiner. The news jolted the campaign with a particularly strong boost from The New York Times, which devoted two-thirds of its front page to the story — and the notion it was a major blow to Clinton’s prospects.

The supposed bombshell — it turned out there was nothing incriminating or particularly new on the laptop — wasn’t the only FBI-related story that boosted Trump in the homestretch of the 2016 campaign. On Oct. 31, citing unnamed “intelligence sources,” The Times reported, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” That article defused a budding scandal about the GOP White House hopeful — at least until after Trump’s shock election on Nov. 8, 2016.

There are many reasons for Trump’s victory, but experts have argued the FBI disclosures were decisive. In 2017, polling guru Nate Silver argued that the Comey probe disclosure cost Clinton as many as 3-4 percentage points and at least 1 percentage point, which would have flipped Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and handed her the Electoral College.

Clearly, the wrong investigation was reopened.

The stunning corruption charges against a top FBI spymaster who assumed a key role in the bureau’s New York office just weeks before 2016′s “October Surprise” — an agent who by 2018 was known to be working for a Vladimir Putin-tied Russian oligarch — should cause America to rethink everything we think we know about the Trump-Russia scandal and how it really happened that Trump won that election.

The government allegations against the former G-man Charles McGonigal (also accused of taking a large foreign payment while still on the FBI payroll) and the outsize American influence of the sanctioned-and-later-indicted Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska — also tied to U.S. pols from Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell — should make us also look again at what was really up with the FBI in 2016.

How coordinated was the effort in that New York field office to pump up the ultimate nothingburger about Clinton’s emails while pooh-poohing the very real evidence of Russian interference on Trump’s behalf, and who were the agents behind it? What was the role, if any, of McGonigal and his international web of intrigue? Was the now-tainted McGonigal a source who told The New York Times that fateful October that Russia was not trying to help Trump win the election — before the U.S. intelligence community determined the exact opposite? If not McGonigal, just who was intentionally misleading America’s most influential news org, and why?

Why does it matter? The seemingly untouchable 45th president was in New Hampshire and South Carolina last weekend, campaigning to become the 47th. The man that critics call “Moscow Mitch” McConnell could return as majority leader in that same election. And Putin’s obsession with Ukraine — always a focus of his U.S. interference and Trump dealings — has become a war with dire global implications.

More importantly, this never-ending scandal has demolished our trust in so many institutions — an FBI that seems to have corrupted an election, a Justice Department that covered up those deeds instead of exposing them, and, yes, a New York Times that enabled several lies instead of exposing them.

Congress and Merrick Garland’s Justice Department can shine a true light on this giant mess, but there’s a reason I’m picking on The New York Times today. The Times can finally apologize for the sins of 2016, expose exactly what went wrong, and then reveal the rest so this kind of disaster never happens again. It owes it to American democracy.

Will Bunch is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist. (c)2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.