After spending weeks breathlessly advertising its allegedly “shocking” content, House Republicans released on Friday a six-page memo which accused officials at the FBI and the Department of Justice of politicizing the early stages of the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.
The memo alleges that the DOJ and FBI used the infamous Steele dossier, compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, as a lynchpin in their application for a secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) warrant to monitor Trump campaign associate Carter Page. The document was paid for, in part, by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign, and a third party conducted and compiled the research. This, in the eyes of House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA), makes everything the dossier has touched — including the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller — a poisoned chalice.
“Our findings… raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DOJ and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” the memo reads. “[They] represent a troubling breakdown of legal process established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process.”
But while conservatives are breathlessly describing the memo’s release as “beyond shocking” — thereby broadly claiming that Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion has been irredeemably tainted — there are several gaping holes in this argument.
Firstly, there’s the problem of Carter Page: it’s exceedingly unlikely the Steele dossier was the only reason to grant a FISA warrant to monitor him. He has a long history of meeting with dubious Russian officials. According to the Wall Street Journal, Page “has been known to U.S. counterintelligence officials dating back to at least 2013.” He met in 2013 repeatedly with Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged with trying to recruit Page as an informer while posing as a U.N. attaché to the Russian consulate. Page has confirmed that he knew Podobnyy. Even at the height of the Trump campaign, Page took two trips to Moscow where he boasted about his outreach with Russian legislators and “senior members of the presidential administration.” There were plenty of suspicious Russian connections that Page had which would have opened him up to scrutiny, but Rep. Devin Nunes’ memo would have you believe the Steele dossier was the sole basis for the surveillance on Page.
There’s also the issue of the FBI and DOJ publicly doubting the veracity of the memo. In a strongly-worded statement released on Wednesday, FBI chief Christopher Wray said the Bureau was provided with a limited time frame to review the memo before Republicans voted to release it. “The FBI was provided with a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” FBI chief Christopher Wray said. “As expressed in our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Former attorney general Eric Holder went even further, saying that releasing the Republican version of the memo was “dangerous and irresponsible”.
In response to the FBI’s criticism, Trump (who billed himself as the “law and order candidate” during the election) took the extraordinary step of publicly broadsiding his own FBI director Christopher Wray — a man Trump himself selected as political nominee. After previously tweeting that Wray was “a man of impeccable credentials,” Trump said on Friday that the leadership in the DOJ and FBI had “politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” It’s hard to imagine Wray suddenly became an anti-Trump operative or Hilary sympathizer after assuming the office.
Finally, even if you accept the Republicans’ memo at face value — i.e. that Christopher Steele had been bought and paid for by scheming Clinton acolytes to falsely tie the Trump campaign to the Kremlin — that doesn’t explain why multiple sections of the dossier have been independently verified. For instance, it claims that former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort agreed to sideline talks with Russia on Ukraine for information about Hillary Clinton. Last year, the New York Times reported that Manafort had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence agents and previously registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act partly due to his pro-Russia work in Ukraine. Numerous law enforcement and intelligence have also confirmed that Michael Flynn was “regularly communicating” with Russian nationals — the evidence of “extensive conspiracy between [the Trump] campaign team and [the] Kremlin, sanctioned at the highest levels” which the Steele dossier claims.
Overall, the memo represents an attempt, by Republicans, to discredit the investigation into Russian collusion and save Trump from its potential implications — a point that Democrats have been eager to emphasize.
“Chairman Nunes’ decision… to publicly release misleading allegations against the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation is a shameful effort to discredit these institutions, undermine the Special Counsel’s ongoing investigation, and undercut congressional probes,” Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence said in a press release. “It is tragic, if all too predictable, that this President would allow the release of the memo despite FBI and DOJ’s expressions of ‘grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the [Republicans’] memo’s accuracy’. But most destructive of all may be the announcement by Chairman Nunes that he has placed the FBI and DOJ under investigation, impugning and impairing the work of the dedicated professionals trying to keep our country safe.”