The House Intelligence Committee Saturday afternoon released the Democrats’ long-awaited response to the Nunes memo, the GOP’s bumbling, partisan attempt to undermine the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The initial Republican effort had quickly collapsed under the weight of its own hackishness, so the Democrats’ memo had the practical effect of beating a corpse that had taken its own life. Nunes’ memo was a bad joke from the start, and Schiff’s response underscores that by providing fresh detail of the GOP’s bad faith; but it also provides new details about the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign, including clues that point toward at least four campaign operatives being under investigation as of September 2016, including retired Gen. Michael Flynn who would go on to become Trump’s short-lived national security adviser.
The Schiff memo takes hammer and tong to the central claim of the Nunes product, which is that the process for getting a surveillance warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was abused. Nunes and company attempted to show this by portraying the hapless Carter Page, who was a Trump foreign policy adviser for a time, as an innocent bystander and vilifying retired British spy Christopher Steele. Suffice it to say that the Democrats’ memo paints both men in starkly different lights.
Page, the memo states, was “someone the FBI assessed to be an agent of the Russian government,” adding that the Department of Justice had “compelling evidence and probable cause to believe Page was knowingly assisting clandestine Russian intelligence activities in the U.S.” The warrant request apparently included Page’s history of contacts with the Russian government, which had previously targeted him for recruitment as an operative. (This was around the time that Page was portraying himself as “an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin.”) In its official response to Schiff’s memo, the GOP points out that Page’s would-be recruiters described him as an “idiot” but that hardly seems exculpatory; the Russians have a long history of looking for useful idiots after all. Even after indicting the Russian spies who had targeted Page (who cooperated in the case) the FBI kept tabs on him, including interviewing him in March 2016, the same month he officially joined Trump’s campaign.
That summer, Page was invited to give the commencement address at Moscow’s New Economics School, “an honor usually reserved for well-known luminaries,” the memo notes. Indeed, President Barack Obama gave the commencement in 2009. According to “Collusion,” by Luke Harding, the Guardian’s former Moscow bureau chief, Russian sources indicated that the government arranged the visit. (“Page’s lecture was distinctly strange – a content-free ramble verging on the bizarre,” Harding writes.)
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The initial FISA warrant was reauthorized three times, meaning that four different (Republican-appointed) judges signed off on it; and in order for extensions to be approved it had to be actually producing useful information. Indeed, the Democrats’ memo notes that “DOJ provided additional information obtained through multiple independent sources” in its renewals, though the specific examples are largely redacted, and one of the endnotes adds that the FISA application was “updated with new information in subsequent renewal applications.” Some of that information directly contradicted Page’s sworn testimony about whether or not he had met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich.
The specific context of the “additional information” mentioned above is the defense of Steele; the information corroborates Steele’s reporting regarding Page, the memo asserts.
If the GOP’s defense of Page is puzzling so is its targeting of Steele, an accomplished British former spy with an expertise in Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Nunes’ memo asserted that the FBI failed to inform the court that Steele’s work had been funded by partisan sources in an attempt to find negative information about Trump; Republicans have subsequently acknowledged that this is untrue, that the FBI did make a disclosure but whines that it was in a footnote. The Schiff memo provides the precise language used:
The identified U.S. Person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.
The “identified U.S. Person” is Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS, who hired Steele; Source #1 is Steele; and Candidate #1 is Trump. If all of the aliases seem needlessly opaque it’s because standard operating procedure is to avoid needlessly naming U.S. citizens and entities – or in this case, presumably, citizens of close U.S. allies – in these sort of filings, a practice called “unmasking.” Nunes is sometimes deeply troubled by unmasking; but in this case he wants more of it.
But the FISA brief is clear enough: The information provided was likely the product of partisan opposition research; whether it came from the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee or some other political group is beside the point. The larger point is whether the information and its source are credible. And Steele, who had worked with the FBI on other cases, including helping bureau dig out corruption in FIFA, international soccer’s governing body.
Nunes’ memo obsessed over the fact that Steele, frustrated by apparent inaction on the part of the FBI as the campaign wound down, talked to reporters. It even suggested that the FISA application had cited a Yahoo! story by Michael Isikoff for which Steele had been a source as corroboration of Steele’s work. Not so, per the Democrats: “In fact, DOJ referenced Isikoff’s article … not to provide separate corroboration for Steele’s reporting, but instead to inform the Court of Page’s public denial of his suspected meetings in Moscow.”
And while the GOP memo described Steele’s reporting as “essential” to the FISA application, the Democratic response notes that a single “specific sub-section of the application … refers to Steele’s reporting on Page and his alleged coordination with Russian officials. Steele’s information about Page was consistent with the FBI’s assessment of Russian intelligence efforts to recruit him and his connections to Russian persons of interest.”
The whole idea that a FISA warrant would be based solely or largely on Steele’s reporting always seemed unlikely given their voluminous nature. We know from the endnotes of the Democratic memo, for example, that the June 2017 reauthorization application ran at least 56 pages.
The Democrats’ memo does notably fail to address one aspect of the original Nunes memo, that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe had told the committee that no warrant would have been sought without the Steele dossier. It’s a curious omission since numerous reports in the immediate wake of the Nunes memo debunked the claim.
Perhaps it’s addressed in one of the redacted passages from the Democrats’ memo. The redactions can be tantalizing, frustrating and at times just weird. One section, for example, has these bits not redacted: “DOJ also documented evidence that Page [redacted], anticipated [redacted] and repeatedly contacted [redacted] in an effort to present himself as [redacted]. Page’s efforts to [redacted] also contradict his sworn testimony to our Committee.” One of the redactions is broken up to not delete the endnote number 15, while in the previous paragraph the endnote number 14 is specifically redacted. (And the endnote itself, 14, is largely unredacted, go figure.)
One footnote provides what may be an interesting clue about the progress of the FBI’s investigation in 2016. By mid-September 2016, the memo states, “the FBI had already opened sub-inquiries into [redacted] individuals linked to the Trump campaign: [redacted] and former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. As Committee testimony bears out, the FBI would have continued its investigation, including against [redacted] individuals, even if it had never received information from Steele, never applied for a FISA warrant against Page, or if the FISC had rejected the application.”
OK so that tells us that the FBI was investigating other campaign officials in mid-September but it doesn’t name them. There’s an endnote though, which points out that: “Under the Special Counsel’s direction, Flynn and Papadopoulos have both pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and are cooperating with the Special Counsel’s investigation, while Manafort and his long-time aide, former Trump deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, have been indicted on multiple counts and are awaiting trial.” Papadopoulos is George Papadopoulos, the adviser whose bar-room blabbing to an Australian diplomat got the investigation rolling; he’s mentioned several times elsewhere in the memo. But neither Manafort nor Flynn are mentioned elsewhere in the declassified parts of the document; especially given that, unlike Gates, they seem to have been previously mentioned (since only their last names are used), it seems reasonable to infer that they are the other Trump advisers whose names are blacked out in the main part of the document.
If that’s correct, it would mean that the FBI had opened a “sub-investigation” into Flynn’s dealings with Russia as early as September 2016, when he was busy leading “lock her up!” chants on the campaign trail. It would also mean that the FBI was investigating numerous Trump advisers in the campaign’s home stretch and it never leaked. Keep that in mind the next time some Trumpite complains that the FBI was working to keep him from getting elected.
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But this is not surprising. We’ve known since before the Nunes memo that both the document and its sponsor were intellectually dishonest and duplicitous. The whole thing was an exercise in partisan massaging and incitement – cheap red meat meant to keep the Trump base duped and angry.
That same mentality was on display on Saturday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where Nunes was given the “Defender of Freedom” award (they misspelled “Trump” there). The memo was released as he was on stage and he gave his insta-spin, accusing Democrats of “colluding” with “parts of the government” to cover up FISA malfeasance. “And I think as you read it,” he said of the Schiff memo, “you will see personal attacks on myself, personal attacks on Chairman Gowdy…”
Typically, Nunes was just making stuff up, unless he considers stating the fact that he did not read the intelligence underlying his own memo a “personal attack.” Gowdy, the memo notes, reportedly gave “guidance and input” to the drafting of the Nunes memo. Some personal attacks; but Nunes probably figured he could make stuff up because the CPAC crowd wasn’t going to rush out to read the Schiff memo.
Or who knows, maybe the personal attacks were top secret and had to be redacted.