To understand what the memo is talking about, you have to trace back three separate threads.
Carter Page. In 2013, a number of Russian government agents tried to recruit him, via a lucrative deal with Gazprom. In return, Page admits to feeding them documents (which he claims were “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents”). As luck would have it, at least one of those agents was already under surveillance (which would later lead to a conviction for espionage), so the FBI asked for and got a FISA warrant to ensure Page wasn’t part of a Russian spy network. That would have been scary, as Page was an advisor to then-candidate Donald Trump. These warrants expire every 90 days, and if the government wants them renewed they have to plead their case to a judge in a special court. The warrant against Page was renewed at least four times, by multiple people and multiple judges.
George Papadopoulos. According to the New York Times, “During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” By “dirt,” he meant “stolen emails;” a spear-phishing campaign against the DNCC by a Russian government hacking group dubbed “Fancy Bear” succeeded in mid-March 2016, and on April 26th a Russian intelligence agent was teasing Papadopoulos with the emails. When they were released to the public in July 2016, the FBI opened an investigation into Papadopoulos. According to his guilty plea to the Special Investigator, Papadopoulos was bullish on getting Trump to meet Vladimir Putin and kept up his contacts with Russian spies during his time on the Trump campaign. As late as December 4th of 2016, Papadopoulos was publicly calling himself a Trump advisor.
Fusion GPS. In multiple congressional testimonies, Glenn Simpson said that his company was hired by The Washington Free Beacon to dig up dirt on Trump. Fusion GPS’s research found a tonne of it, most notably potential money laundering for Russian oligarchs. Simpson hired Christopher Steele, a former British spy with decades of Russia experience and a solid track record, to investigate the Russian angle. Steele’s work would eventually become “the Trump Dossier” (which may need to be renamed, as I somehow missed a second dossier). Partway through generating the 17 separate memos which would become The Dossier, Trump was crowned the official Republican presidential candidate and the Washington Free Beacon stopped funding it; the Democratic National Committee then picked up the tab. What Steele found had him so terrified that he, with Simpson’s approval, started sharing the information around. The first contact was an FBI agent in Rome; when the FBI themselves seemed oddly disinterested, he went to journalist David Corn and later Senator John McCain. The Dossier’s veracity has improved over time, and the Kremlin may have iced one of Steele’s contacts.
You’ll need a bit more background to fully grok it, but I can sprinkle that in while covering the claims of the memo itself.
The central claim of the memo is that numerous facts were repeatedly omitted during the FISA warrant process. The most important of which was that Steele was paid by the DNC to dig up dirt on Trump, but it also includes:
- The FISA order quotes extensively from a Yahoo News article, yet doesn’t acknowledge Steele was a source for said article.
- Steele was suspended as an FBI source because he talked to the press.
- Steele “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” Where that quote comes from is unclear.
- Steele talked with Bruce Ohr at the Department of Justice, and Ohr’s wife was helping Fusion GPS research Trump.
- At the time of the warrant, Steele’s Dossier was only “minimally corroborated” according to the memo.
- “there is no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy between [Carter] Page and [George] Papadopoulos.”
Right off the bat, a lot of the claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. In the first transcript to be publicly released, Glenn Simpson had this to say about Steele’s “suspension:”
On October 31st the New York Times posed a story saying that the FBI is investigating Trump and found no connections to Russia and, you know, it was a real Halloween special. Sometime thereafter the FBI — I understand Chris severed his relationship with the FBI out of concern that he didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI and there was a concern that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people and that we didn’t really understand what was going on. So he stopped dealing with them.
Given Trump would go on to make multiple demands for loyalty from government officials, that turned out to be a well-founded fear. The point about who paid for the Dossier and Mrs. Ohr are irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what your source was if the information that source provides gives you solid evidence of criminal activity. And Steele’s Dossier is hardly the first document to suggest Trump engaged in money laundering; one of Trump’s businesses paid a $10 million settlement for money laundering in 2015, he had extensive investments in Panama during a time where money laundering was rampant there, Trump properties have been rented by multiple rich dictators, plus he has a lot of business ties with Russian oligarchs, and they’re notorious for money laundering. At worst, Steele’s Dossier is just another document on that pile.
On top of that, the memo itself is more claim than evidence. All of documents which back it up are classified, and revealing them to the public would compromise sources and endanger ongoing investigations. We’re relying on Devin Nunes to accurately report on those documents, which is tall ask given he admits hasn’t seen them. Democrats are saying Nunes got it wrong, unsurprisingly, but the FBI also issued a rare public statement saying they had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Trent Gowdy, a Republican who has seen those documents, didn’t think they tainted the Special Council investigation. The White House itself has gotten cold feet, despite initially being bullish, and Trump himself waited until Saturday to say anything despite claiming to have read the memo days before. This is on top of Nunes’ dodgy history as a Trump partisan, the fact that Republicans prevented a similar Democrat memo from being released or any intelligence agency from getting a good look at Nunes’ memo, and the possibility that Nunes coordinated with the White House again:
Mike Quigley: … let me ask you another question with the greatest respect. When you, as the majority, conceived of doing this memo for release to the body and to the public, the preparation, the thought of doing it, the consultation of it, was any of this done after/during conversations or consultations with anyone in the White House? Did they have any idea you were doing this? Did they talk about doing this with you? Did they suggest it? Did you suggest it to them? Did you consult in deciding how to go forward with this before, during, and after this point right now?
Devin Nunes: I would just answer, as far as I know, no. ….
Quigley: Mr. Chairman, does that mean that none of the staff members that worked for the majority had any consultation, communication at all with the White House?
Nunes: The chair is not going to entertain – a question by another member.
Quigley: Does that mean just questions you don’t like or questions in general, sir?
Meanwhile, numerous Republicans embarrassed themselves by loudly pouncing on the fainting couch, which is distracting them from policy. Democrats, who’ve been saying the memo would be much ado about nothing, argue it’ll have big repercussions.
In exchange for the intelligence community’s willingness to reveal closely guarded national secrets to a select group of members and staff for the purposes of oversight, the committees and the congressional leadership pledged to handle that information responsibly and without regard to politics.
That contract has now been spectacularly broken by the creation of a partisan memo that misrepresents highly classified information that will never be made public. Intelligence agencies can no longer be confident that material they provide the committee will not be repurposed and manipulated for reasons having nothing to do with national security. As a result, they will be far more reluctant to share their secrets with us in the future. Moreover, sources of information that the agencies rely upon may dry up, since they can no longer count on secrecy when the political winds are blowing. This is a grave cost for short-term political gain.
They may be wrong on that one, but if so they won’t be alone.
Based on what I’ve seen and read, this memo is a spectacular self-own. Now there’s no doubt Trump is gunning for Rod Rosenstein, in the hope he can either pressure Rosenstein into controlling the Special Council or replace him with a loyal soldier who’ll neutralize the investigation. Republicans are distracted when they need to be sharply focused on more pressing matters, and seem even more eager to follow Trump off the cliff. That will encourage Democrats to break norms themselves, in order to preserve US democracy.
This will get worse before it gets better, I’m afraid. Buckle in.
While writing this, I was certain there was a Democrat who, like Trent Gowdy, had read the intelligence behind the Nunes memo. I couldn’t find them back then, but I’ve got’m now: Senator Mark Warner said “I have actually read the underlying documents on which the memo was based. They simply do not support its conclusions.” He went a bit further during a podcast interview.
“We are in an area again where I can’t think of any administration in my lifetime that has gone out and actively undermined law enforcement,” the Virginia senator said. Warner, who is leading the Senate investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election alongside Sen. Richard Burr, R-North Carolina, said neither he nor his Republican colleague was permitted to view the memo before its release after being flatly told “we will not grant you access.”
Warner said he believes both he and Burr were blocked from viewing the memo prior to its release because “any legitimate entity would question both the methodology behind the memo, the willingness to use classified information this recklessly and … feel like we need to contradict or at least need to point out its flaws.”
And while digging that up, Lynna pointed me to another Democrat who’s read the same intelligence, Representative Jerry Nadler. From a memo he crafted today, intended for Democrats but leaked to MSNBC:
… there is already a well-established body of law dealing with allegations that “material and relevant information was omitted” from the application to the court—and, in the case of Carter Page, that law appears to fall almost entirely on the side of the government. In Franks v. Delaware (1978), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a court may only void a search warrant if the government “knowingly and intentionally, or with reckless disregard for the truth,” included false information or excluded true information that was or would have been critical to the court’s determination of probable cause. The Nunes memo alleges nothing that would even come close to meeting this standard. Indeed, we have every indication that the government made its application to the court in good faith.
So, to be clear: Carter Page was, more likely than not, an agent of a foreign power. The Department of Justice thought so. A federal judge agreed. That consensus, supported by the facts, forms the basis for the warrant issued by the FISA court. The Russian government waged a massive campaign to discredit our election. Carter Page appears to have played a role in that effort. The FBI has a responsibility to follow these facts where they lead. The Nunes memo would have us sweep this all under the rug. And for what, exactly?