With his memo, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) botched for a second time (remember the unmasking scandal) an attempt to discredit the intelligence community to protect President Trump in the Russia investigation. For a second time he resorted to a specious and factually defective non-scandal, hoping to play to the Trump cultists and their state TV channel, Fox News. Nunes is exceedingly terrible at this game. For example:
- He managed to prove the dossier was not the basis of the Russia investigation; George Papadopoulos was.
- He underscored that one couldn’t possibly “spy” on the Trump campaign by getting a FISA warrant, which was kept secret during the campaign, on Carter Page — who already had left the campaign at the time the warrant was sought.
- He did not attempt to tie the FISA warrant to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or to explain how the FISA court approved the warrant and its three extensions (which required a showing of progress in the investigation).
- He misstated former director James B. Comey’s remarks about the dossier.
- According to The Post’s reporting, his suggestion that the political nature of the dossier was withheld from the court — the central allegation in the memo — was false. (“The court that approved surveillance of a former campaign adviser to President Trump was aware that some of the information underpinning the warrant request was paid for by a political entity, although the application did not specifically name the Democratic National Committee or the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the matter. … [I]ts central allegation — that the government failed to disclose a source’s political bias — is baseless, the officials said.”)
- He never tried to prove the dossier was false or that Christopher Steele knew Fusion GPS was paid by the DNC (after it was originally engaged by the conservative Washington Free Beacon).
- He underscored that at four different points, the FISA court thought there was probable cause to conduct surveillance of Page, thereby establishing that a suspected Russian agent had in fact worked on the campaign.
Nunes’s memo was so flimsy that even White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Trump it was a bust. The Post reports that Kelly told Trump that “the document was not as compelling as some of its advocates had promised Trump.” Oops.
The good news for the political health of the country is that a number of Republicans were ready to call out Nunes’s gambit for what it was — a belly flop that inadvertently confirmed Trump’s frenzy to derail the investigation.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) — who spent endless time on the Benghazi investigation — was the only one on the Intelligence Committee to see the underlying intelligence. He gave Nunes’s effort a failing grade. “As I have said repeatedly, I also remain 100 percent confident in Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” he tweeted. “The contents of this memo do not – in any way – discredit his investigation.” Oh.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) released a statement blasting both the House and the president. “The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s,” the memo stated. “The American people deserve to know all of the facts surrounding Russia’s ongoing efforts to subvert our democracy, which is why Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation must proceed unimpeded.” He warned, “Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) had also had enough. “Oversight of the intelligence community, the FISA process, and this investigation are far too important to be tarnished by partisanship,” she said in a written statement.
It was interesting who preferred to keep as far from Nunes’s calamity as possible — Trump loyalist Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), for example, as well as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Meanwhile, ranking Democrat Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and other Intelligence Committee Democrats released a persuasive rebuttal to Nunes’s botched memo and declared they would again demand a vote to release their own memo (referencing classified material) publicly. The statement read, in part:
The authors of the GOP memo would like the country to believe that the investigation began with Christopher Steele and the dossier, and if they can just discredit Mr. Steele, they can make the whole investigation go away regardless of the Russians’ interference in our election or the role of the Trump campaign in that interference. This ignores the inconvenient fact that the investigation did not begin with, or arise from Christopher Steele or the dossier, and that the investigation would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture.
The DOJ appropriately provided the court with a comprehensive explanation of Russia’s election interference, including evidence that Russian agents courted another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos. As we know from Papadopoulos’ guilty plea, Russian agents disclosed to Papadopoulos their possession of stolen Clinton emails and interest in a relationship with the campaign. In claiming that there is ‘no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy between Page and Papadopoulos,’ the Majority deliberately misstates the reason why DOJ specifically explained Russia’s role in courting Papadopoulos and the context in which to evaluate Russian approaches to Page.
The Majority suggests that the FBI failed to alert the court as to Mr. Steele’s potential political motivations or the political motivations of those who hired him, but this is not accurate. The GOP memo also claims that a Yahoo News article was used to corroborate Steele, but this is not at all why the article was referenced. These are but a few of the serious mischaracterizations of the FISA application.
The memo was a disaster not only for the Trump-Nunes strategy but also for the country. A raft of national security experts eviscerated the memo and castigated Nunes for wrecking the oversight process. The Lawfare blog explained: “The bottom line is that there are multiple reasons to expect that Nunes has not given a full and fair account of the FBI’s FISA process and that his memo is as factually deficient as it accuses the Carter Page warrant application of being.” However, even if accurate, the memo doesn’t show much of anything, the Lawfare gurus state. The “facts,” they say, are not “particularly strong, let alone scandalous … because the points recounted (assuming they are true) don’t make out a coherent complaint.”
They conclude, “At the end of the day, the most important aspect of the #memo is probably not its contents but the fact that it was written and released at all. Its preparation and public dissemination represent a profound betrayal of the central premise of the intelligence oversight system.”
The only questions that remain are how long House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is going to let this humiliating spectacle go on and how much damage he will permit to be done to the oversight process so Nunes can flail about trying to protect Trump and ruin public servants’ reputations. Nunes promises further memos, but if they are anything like the first one, the only things they will damage will be Republicans and the intelligence oversight process. Mr. Speaker, haven’t you all done quite enough damage?