Trump says Nunes memo ‘vindicates’ him
President Trump was facing political pressure this week to release a 10-page Democratic response to a Republican memo alleging political bias and misconduct in the FBI and Justice Department. The original memo, issued by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), accuses Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and other officials of misleading judges to obtain a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016. Its key claim is that allegations in the Steele dossier, a piece of “opposition research” paid for by Democrats, “formed an essential part” of the application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA), and that the FBI didn’t reveal the dossier’s partisan origins to the court. The president tweeted that the memo “totally vindicates” him and proves that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.” Asked by reporters whether he was now more likely to fire Rosenstein, who is overseeing special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump replied, “You figure that one out.”
After the memo’s release, Nunes was forced to concede that the FISA application had in fact included a footnote explaining that some of the information came from partisan sources. Democrats also noted that Page first came on the FBI’s radar when Russian spies tried to recruit him in 2013 (see Talking Points), and that the FBI began its Russia investigation three months before obtaining the dossier. Having blocked the publication of a Democratic counter-memo last week, Republicans on the committee joined Democrats in voting on Monday for its release, giving President Trump five days to approve or reject the decision.
While many Republicans said the Nunes memo raised questions about the FBI’s conduct (see Controversy), several senior GOP lawmakers insisted its release shouldn’t interfere with Mueller’s investigation. “There’s a Russian investigation without a dossier,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who helped compile the memo. Citing contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, Gowdy said he supports the Mueller investigation “100 percent.”
What the editorials said
“Seriously?” said The New York Times. “That’s all they’ve got?” Nunes claimed his memo would reveal “the biggest political scandal in a generation,” but it consists mostly of politically motivated assertions without evidence or context. We have no idea how big a part the dossier played in the FISA approval, because the memo doesn’t say what other evidence was presented. It also omits the fact that the court issued three separate renewals for the surveillance of Page—each requiring “new evidence”—which strongly suggests he was a valid target.
In fact, the memo “does more to refute than to support the FBI corruption narrative,” said The Washington Post. It admits that the bureau originally launched the Russia probe because another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, bragged the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. It shows that the Justice Department sought its first warrant against Page only after he left the Trump campaign. And two of the officials involved in the FISA applications—Rosenstein and then–Acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente—were Republicans appointed by Trump himself. Were they part of the conspiracy, too?
Actually, the Nunes memo “ought to alarm anyone who wants the FBI to be a nonpartisan enforcer of the law,” said The Wall Street Journal. The bureau let itself and the FISA court “be used to promote a major theme of the Clinton campaign,” that Trump was a Vladimir Putin puppet; after the election, the dossier’s unverified allegations were leaked to the press “to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s victory.” You need not be “a civil libertarian to be shocked” by that.
What the columnists said
The Nunes memo is simply not convincing, said David French in NationalReview.com. The use of “biased sources” like Steele is inherent in intelligence gathering, and common to terrorism and organized crime investigations. Did the FBI really try to mislead the FISA court, as Nunes alleges? What other information about Page did the warrant application include? To judge the FBI’s actions, we need to see the underlying intelligence itself, which should be made public with appropriate redactions. To many Americans, said David Harsanyi in TheFederalist.com, it sure looks as if Democrats gave opposition research to its allies in the FBI and Obama Justice Department to justify spying on their political opponents. What’s needed is full transparency—a “narrow, independent inquiry into the FBI and potential FISA abuse.”
Republicans have backed themselves into a corner, said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com. While Trump wants to use the Nunes memo as an excuse to stop or limit the Mueller probe, GOP lawmakers know it actually shows that the Russia investigation was not launched because of the Steele dossier. The Democrats’ rebuttal could “undermine Trump’s position even more dramatically,” by providing new information about the Trump campaign’s many suspicious contacts with Russia. If the president now tries to replace Rosenstein with a “loyalist,” even Republicans may find it hard to defend him.
I highly doubt that, said Dahlia Lithwick in Slate.com. The aim of the memo was to enable Trump to declare that the “federal intelligence apparatus is corrupt and out to get him.” Why? So that when Mueller releases his findings, the president can dismiss them as a politically motivated witch hunt. That the memo itself was a “dud” is irrelevant—if enough Republican voters accept its core premise, Republican lawmakers will have both the motivation and an excuse not to impeach Trump. It’s a cynical strategy, but probably a winning one.
Nunes already “has a new target,” said Natasha Bertrand in TheAtlantic.com: the State Department. The committee chair is reportedly focusing on the dissemination of a second intelligence memo. This document, which examines Trump’s “personal behavior and financial transactions,” was written by Cody Shearer, a political activist with links to the Clintons. Shearer reportedly passed his findings on to Jonathan Winer, the Obama State Department’s special envoy to Libya. Winer then gave the document to Christopher Steele—who in turn handed it over to the FBI.