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Does the GOP memo show the FBI spied on the Trump campaign?

The Russia probe got its start with a drunken conversation, an ex-spy, WikiLeaks and a distracted FBI. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Republicans have increasingly claimed that the memo written by GOP staff members of the House Intelligence Committee, which was declassified by President Trump on Feb. 2, shows how the FBI conspired with Democrats to interfere in the election and even spy on the Trump campaign.

Other Republicans have used the memo to suggest the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began with tainted fruit, so it is no longer needed.

A spokesman for Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) noted the tweet was more fully explained by a statement issued by the congressman: “The entire basis of the investigation into possible collusion with the Trump campaign and the Russians, along with the corresponding media coverage, was based on false information spread by political and ideological allies to Hillary Clinton and former President Barack Obama.”

The president has even claimed vindication:

But the actual memo does not back up these claims — and in fact undermines them.

The Facts

Much of the GOP memo is about the FBI obtaining a secret court order to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. The memo alleges that the FBI did not fully disclose to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court that some of the information stemmed from intelligence reports provided by Christopher Steele, a former British spy under contract for a research firm working on behalf of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. The FBI, in a rare unsigned statement, said it has “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the memo.

Here’s the problem with the claim that the memo shows that FBI was spying on the campaign: Carter Page was no longer associated with the campaign when the court order was approved.

Here’s the timeline.

March 16, 2016: In an interview with The Washington Post editorial board, Trump names Page as one of his foreign policy advisers. (In 2013, Page was warned by the FBI that Russian intelligence operatives were trying to recruit him.)

“Well, I hadn’t thought of doing it, but if you want I can give you some of the names … Walid Phares, who you probably know, PhD, adviser to the House of Representatives caucus, and counterterrorism expert; Carter Page, PhD; George Papadopoulos, he’s an energy and oil consultant, excellent guy; the Honorable Joe Schmitz, [former] inspector general at the Department of Defense; [retired] Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg; and I have quite a few more. But that’s a group of some of the people that we are dealing with. We have many other people in different aspects of what we do, but that’s a representative group.”

July 7-8, 2016: Page attracts attention by traveling to Moscow and delivering a speech harshly critical of U.S. policy toward Russia. He emails campaign officials about “incredible insights” from his trip.

Aug. 5, 2016: The Trump campaign begins to back away from Page when The Washington Post reports on the unease in both parties caused by Page’s remarks in Russia. Asked to comment on Page’s public statements and campaign role, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Page was an “informal foreign policy adviser” who “does not speak for Mr. Trump or the campaign.”

Sept. 23, 2016: The Trump campaign denies Page was ever part of the campaign. “Mr. Page is not an adviser and has made no contribution to the campaign,” campaign spokesperson Jason Miller said. “He’s never been part of our campaign. Period.” The statement comes as Yahoo News reports that a U.S. intelligence probe was trying to determine if Page had “opened up private communications with senior Russian officials — including talks about the possible lifting of economic sanctions if the Republican nominee becomes president.”

Sept. 26, 2016: Page himself announces he is taking “a leave of absence” from the campaign, saying the reporting on his remarks has created a “distraction.”

Oct. 21, 2016: Nearly a month after the Trump campaign says Page was never part of the campaign, the FBI seeks and receives a FISA court order to begin surveillance on Page. The order is renewed at least three more times over the next year, meaning that the FBI is able to convince the judges that surveillance continues to provide assistance to investigators. The Wall Street Journal reported that all of the judges who approved the orders were appointed by Republicans.

Feb. 16, 2017: Trump denies he ever met Page. “I don’t think I’ve ever met him,” he told reporters at a news conference. “And he actually said he was a very low-level member of, I think, a committee for a short period of time. I don’t think I ever met him. Now, it’s possible that I walked into a room and he was sitting there, but I don’t think I ever met him. I didn’t talk to him, ever.”

In other words, the surveillance began long after Page had supposedly left the campaign. Trump denies he ever met or spoke to Page. So it’s hard to see how a court order on a former campaign adviser — less than three weeks before the election — would constitute spying on the campaign.

The memo also discloses that the FBI opened a counterintelligence operation in July because of allegations concerning other Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos. But Papadopoulos was never mentioned in the Steele dossier. He came to attention of the FBI because he had told an Australian diplomat that the Russians had obtained thousands of Clinton’s emails. He has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is cooperating with the special counsel.

A spokesman for Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) did not respond to a request for comment.

Update: After this article was published, Todd Winer, a Labrador spokesman, provided the following comment:

“The Nunes Memo makes it clear that federal officials were interested in Carter Page because he was connected to the Trump campaign. Why else would the FISA application contain the findings of the anti-Trump dossier? Why else would the application include the fact that the FBI was already investigating Trump advisor George Papadopoulos? Whether or not Carter Page was on the payroll of the Trump campaign on the date of the FISA order is irrelevant. By virtue of the fact that he had once worked on the campaign, he was connected to the campaign.
“For a year, the Washington Post and other media outlets have specifically mentioned Carter Page as one of the leading figures in the Trump-Russia collusion story. Now that the media narrative is falling apart, all of a sudden you want to argue that Carter Page has nothing to do with Trump. You can’t have it both ways.”

A spokesman for Duncan said: “Had the noncredible DNC funded dossier never been leaked to the media to fuel mass speculation of Russian involvement, and had it not been used as ‘evidence’ to elevate the investigation to the level of requesting FISA warrants, it’s very likely that there would have never been a perceived need for special counsel to be created in the first place.”

Duncan’s spokesman appears to be referring to the Yahoo News article. That article included a claim that later surfaced in the Steele dossier — and which has been vehemently denied by Page: that Page met with Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin associate and former Russian deputy prime minister who is now the executive chairman of Rosneft. Steele has admitted in court documents that he met with Yahoo News at the behest of Fusion GPS, the firm that hired him.

But the special counsel was appointed after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director. Moreover, the impetus for the investigation was not Page, but Papadopoulos. The tip with the Australian government stirred attention because it coincided with the leak of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee by Russian hackers.

Page was interviewed at length by the FBI in March, according to news reports, but that is before Mueller was named special counsel. As far as can be determined, Page is not a major figure in the Mueller probe.

Mueller, meanwhile, has indicted Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and obtained a guilty plea from Michael Flynn, who served briefly as Trump’s national security adviser.

The White House did not respond to a request for an explanation of how the memo vindicated the president.

The Pinocchio Test

The GOP memo provides no evidence that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. Instead, it shows that the court order for surveillance of Page was obtained weeks after Page and the Trump campaign had said Page was no longer part of the campaign. Trump has asserted that he never even met or spoke to Page.

Moreover, the GOP memo confirms that the separate investigation into Russian contacts with the Trump campaign was prompted by information that was not contained in the Steele dossier.

One wonders if Republicans making claims of FBI spying on the Trump campaign have even read the memo. Such statements earn Four Pinocchios.

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Four Pinocchios
"#FISAMemo shows real collusion between Dem operatives & key officials at the FBI & DOJ to spy on the #Trump campaign & interfere in the 2016 election."
in a tweet
Friday, February 2, 2018