Confused about the Trump-Russia Probe? Read this Memo
Confused about the Trump-Russia Probe? Read this Memo
If you feel lost amid the various smokescreens and conspiracy theories surrounding Robert Mueller’s investigation of President Donald Trump, his presidential campaign, his advisers and his family, then the memo the House Intelligence Committee minority released late Saturday afternoon may help clarify your thinking.
A refresher on the history of the memo: It’s a rebuttal by the committee’s Democrats, led by California Representative Adam Schiff, to a memo that the Republican staff of the committee’s chairman, Devin Nunes, drafted and released to the public earlier this month.
The Schiff memo has some jarring facts in it, including revelations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had reason to believe that a Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, was acting as an agent of the Russian government, and that Russian agents told Page and another Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, that the Kremlin wanted to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign.
At play in this battle of the memos is the provenance of federal investigators’ interest in Russian involvement with the Trump campaign, and the question of whether Mueller, the Justice Department’s special counsel, was eventually launched on his probe in bad, partisan faith.
In keeping with the president’s oft-repeated claims that Mueller is on a “witch hunt,” the memo from Team Nunes tried to discredit the investigation by asserting that the FBI and the Justice Department misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when it sought approval to monitor Page as part of its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. The way the FBI and DOJ went about their work amounted to a “troubling breakdown of legal processes,” the Nunes memo said (even though the scanty four-page memo itself offered enough facts to refute that very claim).
The Nunes memo also asserted that federal investigators were partisan hacks because their application to surveil Page relied on the infamous Steele dossier, a report by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele about Trump and his team’s intersections with Russians. Democrats had funded the Steele dossier as opposition research during the campaign. Yet the Nunes memo also made plain that federal investigators originally relied on information quite apart from the Steele dossier when they decided to make their surveillance requests, and that the FBI launched its probe in July 2016. That was nearly two months before it even was aware of the dossier’s existence.
Enter the Schiff memo, which is six pages longer than the Nunes memo and, even with black blocks of redacted material, a much more thorough recounting of how investigators got onto the Russians, the Trump crew, Page and Papadopoulos. A fair reading of the memo leaves little doubt that federal investigators had every reason to suspect and monitor Page (and given Page’s loopy unreliability in recent interviews, every reason to wonder why the Russians placed much faith in him).
Page traveled to Moscow, had “past relationships with Russian spies,” spent time during the 2016 campaign involved in “interaction with Russian officials,” was “knowingly assisting clandestine Russian intelligence activities in the US” and was “someone the FBI assessed to be an agent of the Russian government,” the Schiff memo notes.
The FBI’s animating force for requesting surveillance of Page was not the Steele dossier, but boatloads of its own observations that the Steele report simply corroborated. And the judges who approved the warrant, as well as subsequent renewals, to surveil Page? There were four of them, the Schiff memo notes, all appointed by Republican presidents. (Mueller himself is a Republican, by the way.)
A glaring hole in the Schiff memo is its failure to address a core claim in the Nunes memo concerning the then-deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. The Nunes memo said that McCabe “testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.” Unless information about McCabe is contained in the redacted material in the Schiff memo, which it doesn’t appear to be, then McCabe’s personal view of Steele and his importance still need to be clarified.
Still, the Schiff memo notes that the Justice Department “cited multiple sources to support the case for surveilling Page” and “made only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources.” It also points out that ongoing federal investigations continued to corroborate elements of the Steele report and that the FBI found him to be “credible.” The Justice Department made it clear to the court that Steele’s work was funded by Democrats, and made the court aware of Steele’s “background, credibility and potential bias.” It later told the court that it decided to end its relationship with Steele because he had shared his findings with the media. The Nunes memo suggested that all of these issues surrounding Steele were somehow hidden from the court. As the Schiff memo makes clear, they weren’t.
The Schiff memo also states that by the time the FBI had the Steele dossier -- in mid-September 2016 -- the bureau was already conducting “sub-inquiries” into other unidentified “individuals linked to the Trump campaign.” Page wasn’t law enforcement’s only target in all of this, and he had formally departed from the Trump campaign before the DOJ even applied for the warrant to surveil him.
“FBI and DOJ officials did not ‘abuse’ the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) process, omit material information, or subvert this vital tool to spy on the Trump campaign,” the Schiff memo says.
The Schiff memo goes on to describe multiple ways in which the Nunes memo drew selectively on classified information and characterizes it as relying upon “distortions and misrepresentations.” Distortions and misrepresentations have been Nunes’s stock in trade, of course, ever since the Mueller probe began, and he continued apace on Saturday. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he described the Schiff memo as “clear evidence that the Democrats are not only trying to cover this up, but they’re also colluding with parts of the government to help cover this up.”
President Trump offered a similar perspective in a tweet on Saturday evening: “The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” During an interview with Fox News on Saturday night, he said that the Schiff memo “was a nothing.”
But the Schiff memo is most certainly not a “nothing.” And the reality is that while the Nunes and Schiff memos are wildly different documents, they concur on a crucial fact -- that the FBI’s investigation began long before the Steele dossier found its way to the bureau.
As I noted in a column last October, “The provenance and funding of the Steele dossier, while interesting to those of us caught up in Trumplandia minutiae, doesn't really matter much beyond its role in the never-ending brawl between Trump's critics and his fans.”
What does matter is that partisan flame-throwing in Washington about the bona fides of the Mueller investigation finally ends, so that the special counsel, Congress and the country can focus instead on fully understanding all the forces that were at work when the Kremlin decided to meddle in the US electoral process in 2016.