The Nunes Memo Is a Complete Flop

U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, Chairman of House Intelligence Committee, listens to President Donald Trump's remarks during a lunch at the 2018 House & Senate Republican Member Conference February 1, 2018
U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, Chairman of House Intelligence Committee, listens to President Donald Trump’s remarks during a lunch at the 2018 House & Senate Republican Member Conference February 1, 2018. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The heavily hyped classified memo produced by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes to discredit the Russia investigation was released on Friday.

The document makes bold declarations about its own significance and asserts to find damning proof of an orchestrated campaign within the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation to smear Donald Trump, both during his candidacy in 2016 and now during his presidency.

The substance of the memo itself, though, offers virtually no new information. Its reckless assertions of a widespread conspiracy at the top echelons of the Justice Department to bring down the Trump campaign and President Trump are completely unsubstantiated.

Basically, there is nothing novel or particularly substantive about this shiny political weapon.

The memo starts off claiming to update the Intelligence Committee on “significant facts relating to the Committee’s ongoing investigation into the [DOJ and FBI] and their use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) during the 2016 presidential election cycle.”

That investigation, it should be remembered, was initially meant to be about Russian interference in the presidential election and what role Trump’s campaign might have played in it.

The memo continued:

Our findings, which are detailed below, 1) raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DOJ and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), and 2) represent a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process.

The accusations have to do with the signing of multiple FISA warrant applications for former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page from October 2016 through the summer of last year. The people responsible for signing the various applications are singled out in the memo, seemingly to taint them by connection:

Then-Director James Comey signed three FISA applications in question on behalf of the FBI, and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe signed one. Sally Yates, then-Acting DAG Dana Boente, and DAG Rod Rosenstein each signed one or more FISA applications on behalf of DOJ.

What did these five nefarious law enforcement officials—two of whom remain in the president’s administration, most of whom are Republicans, and four of whom have come under fire from the president—do? They signed off on documents that failed to emphasize that the Steele dossier—under which the initial warrant partially relied—was funded in part by the Democratic National Committee.

“While the FISA application relied on Steele’s past record of credible reporting on other unrelated matters, it ignored or concealed his anti-Trump financial and ideological motivations,” the memo states. “Furthermore, 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.”

This last piece of testimony from McCabe, whose retirement was announced earlier this week and who has been a chief target of the president, appears to be new and might be one of the few meaningful pieces of information. Without knowing how much of the Steele Dossier has been independently verified and without the context of McCabe’s actual quote, though, it’s very difficult to know what this might mean and if it’s being represented accurately. For its part, Trump’s own FBI has said that the memo contains “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy” and requested it not be released.

The Memo goes on:

In the case of Carter Page, the government had at least four independent opportunities before the FISC to accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts. However, our findings indicate that, as described below, material and relevant information was omitted.

Again, the strong implication is that there was an orchestrated attempt by the DOJ and FBI to intentionally mislead a FISC in order to attack the president of the United States for political reasons.

What is the actual substance of those charges?

Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials.

This accusation is not new either. It was reported earlier this week and is only damning if the FBI didn’t have other evidence in their initial FISA warrant application on which to base its surveillance. Its been reported that they did have such information, but that information remains classified—presumably because it’s not politically useful to the president and his allies. It’s also worth noting that FISA renewals of 90 days—of which the memo itself acknowledges there were three—require that federal law enforcement officials demonstrate to a federal judge that the surveillance had gathered new foreign intelligence information.

How else did this plot against Making America Great go down?

The Carter Page FISA application also cited extensively a September 23, 2016, Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff, which focuses on Page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow. This article does not corroborate the Steele dossier because it is derived from information leaked by Steele himself to Yahoo News. The Page FISA application incorrectly assesses that Steele did not directly provide information to Yahoo News.

This seems like one of the most potentially potent arguments in the Memo. If the FBI relied upon a Yahoo News report to back up the Steele Dossier and that Yahoo News report was based on the dossier, then that indeed would be negligent at best. Again, though, there was reportedly other evidence—not included in this Memo—that the DOJ presented to get its initial surveillance warrant. Additionally, CNN has reported that Page had been the subject of investigation after an attempted recruitment by Russian agents—and a previous FISA warrant—in 2014. Ultimately, the Memo doesn’t show how the Yahoo News article was presented in the FISA application. And it’s also possible that the FBI did get this wrong, but without any ulterior motives to harm the president. Again, we don’t know, because the Memo does not show the context.

Finally, the Memo resurfaces two additional talking points that have floated around right-wing media in recent months. First, it points out that Obama associate attorney general Bruce Ohr had met with Steele and says he was politically biased. Second, it notes the already reported anti-Trump text messages of FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from Mueller’s investigation once his texts were discovered.

It’s worth remembering that the House Intelligence Committee—under the direction of Nunes—voted on a party line vote to release this Memo and withhold a Democratic response. Even members of the GOP are beginning to acknowledge the partisanship at work in this entire episode.

Former Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, for one, saw the Memo’s release for what it was: A dangerous partisan ploy to discredit the investigation into Russia’s attack on our election.

If Trump uses this Memo against the people currently investigating him and his campaign’s possible role in that attack—particularly if he uses it to justify a firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe—it would also be an outright assault on the rule of law in this country.