House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) appeared on “Fox and Friends” on Monday morning to discuss the memo his staff produced alleging abuses of the process for seeking warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). During that appearance, Nunes quite effectively acknowledged that a central tenet of the memo was inaccurate and that he himself appears not to understand critical aspects of the Russia investigation.
The central argument of Nunes’s memo is that the FISA warrant process was tainted by partisan politics in 2016, resulting in a warrant being obtained to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page based on information presented by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, whose work was funded by a law firm working for the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party — information withheld from the judge evaluating the warrant.
There are just a few problems with that argument. The first is that Steele had been a source for the FBI in the past, as the memo notes, and it’s not clear whether he knew who was funding his work. The second is that by the time that the warrant for Page was issued, he was no longer part of the Trump campaign. The third is that, as The Washington Post reported Friday, the court was informed of the potential for bias in the information Steele presented.
“Fox and Friends” host Brian Kilmeade asked Nunes about that.
KILMEADE: Out of everything that was thrown at you, one thing people kept saying yesterday is that, well, there was some acknowledgment that this was a political document, meaning the dossier, in a footnote at the bottom of the FISA warrant. What can you tell us about that?
NUNES: . . .[A] footnote saying that something might be political is a far cry from letting the American people know that the Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign. It’s a very dangerous precedent that was set, and what we’re trying to do is just get the American public to understand what happened in this last election and understand we have a responsibility as the House Intelligence Committee to assure the American people that the FISA process is not being abused, and that’s what we did.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance to the memo of the claim that the judge wasn’t aware of the partisan nature of the information Steele had compiled. So, asked to explain that this point was inaccurate, Nunes suggests that the existence of this footnote is less important than the “precedent” of information from a campaign being used to spy on another campaign. That is: That this point was inaccurate in the memo is less important than the broader argument that the memo was making — an assertion undercut by the fact that the memo’s argument is dramatically softened by that inaccurate point.
(We’ll briefly note the irony of Nunes, whose committee has been criticized for not focusing on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, saying that “what we’re trying to do is just get the American public to understand what happened in this last election.”)
On Friday night, in an interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier, Nunes admitted that he personally hadn’t reviewed the FISA warrant at the heart of his memo, instead saying that this task was left to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). (Gowdy declared on Twitter that the memo didn’t discredit the investigation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.) In his Monday interview, Nunes demonstrated a remarkable lack of understanding of one of the unintentionally vital aspects of the memo he released: its admission that New York Times reporting linked the launch of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign to the actions of another campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos.
It was Papadopoulos who was told in early 2016 that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton and relayed that knowledge to an Australian diplomat over drinks. When information stolen from the Democratic National Committee began trickling out, the Australians tipped off the FBI, which launched an investigation.
Here’s how Nunes described Papadopoulos’s role.
KILMEADE: Some say, well, what about Papadopoulos? They started looking at him earlier. What do you say to that?
NUNES: Well, I would say if Papadopoulos was such a major figure, why didn’t you get a warrant on him? If Papadopoulos was such a major figure, you had nothing on him — you know, the guy lied.
As far as we can tell, Papadopoulos never even knew who Trump — never even had met with the president.
And look, getting drunk in London and talking to diplomats saying that you don’t like Hillary Clinton is, really — I think it’s kind of scary that our intelligence agencies would take that and use it against an American citizen.
Again, Papadopoulos didn’t simply say he didn’t like Clinton, he allegedly told a foreign official that he’d been told that the Russians had dirt against Clinton. Yes, as Nunes says, Papadopoulos has in the past lied; he admitted guilt on a charge of lying to the FBI last year. What did he lie about? Among other things, about the time frame for when he learned about the existence of that dirt on Clinton.
Nunes tries to distance Papadopoulos from Trump, despite the adviser’s having been in frequent communication with senior Trump campaign staff during 2016. But the argument Nunes uses to create that distance — that Papadopoulos had never met with the president — is an extremely poor one.
Trump himself once tweeted a picture of himself meeting with Papadopoulos.
Even before the memo was released, we noted that Nunes’s track record of defending Trump was shaky. A former Trump transition team member, he was criticized in early 2017 after having been shown classified documents by the White House which he then used to try to publicly defend Trump’s assertion that Trump Tower had been wiretapped in 2016. That effort was unsuccessful, and Nunes was investigated by the House Ethics Committee for having revealed classified information. (That investigation was dropped in December.)
Nunes’s assertions Monday morning were not dismantled by the hosts of “Fox and Friends.”
“He’s taking the fire,” Kilmeade said approvingly after the interview ended.
Nor were Nunes’s misrepresentations unwelcome to the show’s most important regular viewer.