The Nunes Memo: What It Tells Us

The Nunes Memo: What It Tells Us

It's out: the sure-to-sink-the-special-counsel juggernaut is finally here. Is it everything you hoped and dreamed? 

If you want to read the memo yourself, this is it: 

Let's start with this: the memo is a clearly biased, partisan document which attempts to undercut the integrity of the FBI, specifically those responsible for the appointment of Robert Muller and the Muller investigation team itself. It alleges that the FBI and top Department of Justice Officials used insufficient, partisan evidence to gain a surveillance warrant. That being said, it raises some important questions and offers a few answers too. So let's put away the posturing and bluster and look at what it gives us.

1. The Dossier didn't start the Russia Investigation

Republicans have spent quite a bit of time bashing Christopher Steele, the Fusion GPS investigator responsible for compiling a suite of intelligence memos alleging criminal misconduct by the Trump Campaign in collusion with the Russian government, at times in salacious detail. The memo reveals, however, that it was surveillance of George Papadopoulos that tipped the FBI to the connection in July 2016, months before the original FISA application in late October of the same year.

2. Unverified intelligence is sufficient to wiretap an American citizen

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires that the Federal Government seek a court order for surveillance of a US citizen; to give approval, the court must find probable cause that the target is "a foreign power" or an "agent of a foreign power." Carter Page was suspected of being the latter, specifically "knowingly engaging in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of" Russia, and the memo asserts that FBI applied for and was granted a surveillance warrant using the "minimally verified" Steele Dossier as key evidence, without revealing its partisan origins. This claim has been disputed by multiple news outlets and Ranking Member Adam Schiff, and it is important to note that information from a biased source is considered in court on a regular basis. Even if the source has an ax to grind, their evidence can still be used to obtain a FISA warrant. 

3. The FBI has gained legitimate and useful evidence from the Page wiretaps

FISA requires that federal officials obtain a renewal of their warrant every 90 days to prove that the wiretap is actually yielding some actionable intelligence. The memo reveals that the FBI was granted four separate renewals of the warrant by a FISC court, meaning that while Page was involved in the Trump campaign and after he left, investigators could prove in court that the information they were receiving indicated an ongoing intelligence relationship. 

4. Andrew McCabe's testimony is the key to a much of the controversy

The memo asserts that "Deputy Director McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information," implying that the FBI only had extremely partisan evidence as the basis for wiretapping an American citizen. Multiple GOP sources have endorsed this characterization, but Democrats have pushed back hard, saying it simply leaves out important facts: "The Majority purposefully mischaracterizes both what is actually contained in the FISA applications and the testimony of former FBI Deputy McCabe before our committee in December 2017," a top Democrat told The Daily Beast. It is worth noting that Nunes himself admits to never having read the FISA warrant application. There is a simple solution to this problem: release the transcript. 

If you're Sean Hannity and Fox News, this memo is enough to go on for a few weeks. It specifically targets Rod Rosenstein, the only official with the power to fire Rober Muller, and is clearly intended to undercut the Russia investigation. But the general consensus appears to be that while the memo casts aspersion on the FISA process, likely raising legitimate concerns about the ease with which a warrant can be obtained, it does not, as the President claims, have much of an impact on the probe as a whole. In fact, it makes plain that the FBI's investigation spans far further than just the dossier.

This morning on Face the Nation, Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a Republican investigator on the House Intelligence Committee well-known for his attacks on Hillary Clinton's role in the Benghazi scandal, had this to say about the memo's relevance to the Russia investigation:

Rep. Gowdy: "I actually don't think it has any impact on the Russia probe for this reason--"

Margaret Brennan: "The memo has no impact on the Russia probe?"

Rep. Gowdy: "No -- not to me, it doesn't -- and I was pretty integrally involved in the drafting of it. There is a Russia investigation without a Dossier. So, to the extent the memo deals with the Dossier and the FISA process, the Dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The Dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The Dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopolous' meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn't have anything to do with obstruction of justice. So there's going to be a Russia probe, even without a dossier." 

Gowdy's response is important because it shows that leading Republicans are still somewhat committed to allowing a legitimate justice process to take place, even if that means allowing Devin Nunes to trash the good faith of the House Intelligence Committee but maintaining Robert Muller's right to continue his investigation. Speaker Paul Ryan assured reporters on Thursday, just before the memo's release, that "It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general."

This memo will surely be fuel for continued attempts by Donald Trump and right-wingers to discredit top Justice Department officials, even potentially setting up the basis for more firings or pressured resignations. And perhaps unintentionally, it re-established Carter Page as an important Trump Campaign figure (undercutting claims by the White House) and undercut claims that the Dossier is the only significant 'evidence' of the Trump-Russia scandal.  Aside from that, I don't see this memo causing too much to change. 

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