President Trump attacked two of his most hated enemies on Twitter in the past 12 hours: Iran and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
In tweets on Monday morning, Trump encouraged his followers to join him in watching “Fox & Friends” on Fox News and then quoted at length comments made on the show about the FBI’s push in October 2016 to obtain a warrant to track Carter Page, a onetime adviser to the Trump campaign.
Over the weekend, the government released a redacted version of the application for that warrant. Some of what was contained was already well-known, thanks to dueling memos from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and House Democrats earlier this year debating the validity of the document. Releasing the document didn’t change the contours of that debate significantly, except to further undercut Nunes’s assertions about its significance.
This is not how Trump saw it. Seizing upon the inclusion of information from a dossier of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele — working for a firm that had been hired by lawyers for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — Trump argued that the warrant application and, by extension, the Mueller investigation were invalid.
This argument is faulty for three significant reasons. First, Trump misrepresents the validity of the warrant application. Second, that application was not essential to the launch of the broader investigation into Russian interference and any role that members of Trump’s campaign might have played in that effort. And, third, the Mueller investigation has already demonstrated its utility.
In broad strokes, Nunes’s and others’ criticisms of the FBI’s warrant application are that the document relies on that dossier of reports from Steele, which has been “discredited” in their eyes. That reliance, they argue, was a function of partisan bias against Trump, with the application burying any link between Steele and Trump’s political opponents.
What the redacted document shows, though, is that the dossier was not the only evidence included in the application for a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. It also walks through Page’s interactions several years ago with Russians who were eventually charged with being agents of Russian intelligence. Much of that section is redacted; it’s not clear what information the FBI presented to the court that is still classified.
(Incidentally, given the nature of what it does, the FISA court to which the application was submitted is highly secretive. While Trump’s tweets argue that the warrant application was classified to protect the FBI from criticism, such warrants are obviously classified, given the sensitivity of espionage surveillance.)
There are also pages and pages of the document that are still redacted. We have no idea what evidence is presented in those pages that might bolster the FBI’s argument that Page should be tracked by government agents. It’s worth remembering that the part of the warrant application that we can see, the part that makes up most of what we know about the application, is visible because Nunes’s memo already told us what it said. That information was publicized earlier this year, so there’s no point in redacting it now. That most of what we see is information about the Steele dossier is almost certainly a function of Nunes’s efforts, not a reinforcement of them.
It’s also the case that Nunes’s presentation that Steele’s motivations were hidden by the FBI is faulty. The application states that “the FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s [Trump’s] campaign.” It also asserts that Steele (identified as “Source #1″) was never told about the motivation behind the research he was hired to do.
One thing that’s important to remember about the warrant application is that the agency was operating from the information it had in the moment. It had spoken with Page as part of a counterintelligence operation several years before and now had reports from a former spy — someone who had been a valuable source on other investigations, as the application notes — indicating that Page had spoken with Russian government officials about aiding the Trump campaign. Experts on FISA warrant applications can tell us how much detail is required before a warrant is sought, but there was reason for the FBI to believe at the time that Page might be actively working on Russia’s behalf.
It’s also inaccurate to reject the dossier’s information out of hand simply because it comes from the dossier. While Trump is correct that much of it is unverified, it is not the case that the dossier is “Fake.” It was not submitted to the FBI as verified and complete, but, rather, as reports from people with whom Steele had spoken that needed additional investigation. Generally speaking, much of the dossier remains unverified; little has been either proved completely accurate or completely debunked. It gets a lot of attention for its assertion that the Russians had specific negative information with which to blackmail Trump, but that claim itself has not been proved wrong.
The FBI was given information about Page suggesting that, while in Moscow in July 2016, he had met with powerful Russian individuals. Under questioning from the House Intelligence Committee last year, Page admitted that he’d had a previously unreported encounter with a deputy prime minister of Russia. He also admitted to having sent a memo on his return saying that someone with whom he’d spoken “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump” and that he’d received “incredible insights and outreach” from Russian lawmakers and “senior members” of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s team.
By the time the FBI sought the warrant on Page, he was no longer part of Trump’s campaign. On three separate occasions, the FBI sought to renew the warrant to surveil Page; each time, a judge granted that renewal. Each time, the renewal application grew longer, as new information was added to the document.
The entire debate above, though, is precisely the one that Trump and his allies would like to have. Instead of talking about what Mueller’s investigation has found, it’s much safer turf for Trump to debate the validity of one warrant application focused on one adviser, however well that debate is going.
It’s important to note, though, that the Page warrant is tangential to Mueller’s probe. The broader investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s interference effort began in July 2016, after the FBI learned that another adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been told that the Russians had emails that could be used to undercut Clinton’s campaign.
Mueller himself was appointed after Trump’s firing of James B. Comey as FBI director and questions about Trump’s alleged efforts to influence Comey’s handling of investigations into the president’s campaign team. Mueller’s appointment basically moved that July investigation to a more independent position. Neither its existence nor his position seems to derive directly from the Page warrant application any more than the existence of a cake derives directly from food coloring.
Trump would like us to believe that the Mueller investigation is dependent on the Page warrant application because he sees that application as the thing that can most easily be dismissed — therefore allowing him to dismiss the rest of the Mueller probe.
A probe which, to date, has resulted in 187 criminal charges or guilty pleas, identified 32 people as having committed illegal acts, outlined specific ways in which Russia has interfered with the 2016 election both by hacking Trump’s opponents and on social media, and has already earned guilty pleas from two former Trump campaign advisers and his former deputy campaign chairman.
What the Mueller probe hasn’t done is link Trump himself to Russian interference, something that the president insists will never happen. It very well may not. But Trump’s eagerness to dismiss that investigation wends its way backward to bad arguments about how the FBI sought more information about someone who, at the time they targeted him with a warrant, didn’t even work for Trump’s campaign.
There’s a risk to this strategy: What if we learn that Page did have more significant interactions with Russia than we know about and than he claims?