Political allies of the White House have professed shock since the release Friday of the House Intelligence Committee’s memo about FBI surveillance of former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
The memo, President Trump and his defenders claim, shows the FBI and Justice Department abused their surveillance power to spy on Trump’s campaign as part of a failed effort to prevent Trump from winning the 2016 election.
Congressional Republicans charged that the memo written by Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) “shows Americans just how the agency was weaponized by the Obama officials/DNC/HRC to target political adversaries,” that the “leaders of the FBI and DOJ willfully abused their power in order to spy on political opponents” and that “the Obama Administration wrongfully used federal surveillance powers to target members of President Trump’s transition team.” Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) even called the memo “clear and convincing evidence of treason” and stated that he would be writing to the attorney general “seeking criminal prosecution against these traitors to our nation.”
Conservative media have amplified these claims. According to Sean Hannity, the Nunes memo demonstrated that “the FBI misled and personally deceived a federal court … to spy on an opposition campaign during a presidential election.” And Jeanine Pirro said the Nunes memo proves that the FBI and DOJ “swore to facts they knew were lies … in order to surveil a candidate they could not imagine being president.”
If the memo had never been released, disproving these claims would have been difficult. Warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) are secret, and the information needed to refute the allegation of domestic espionage might never have been made public. But thanks to the release of the memo, rebutting the claims of Trump and his supporters is now easy.
The FISA order on Page was issued Oct. 21, 2016. That timing proves that the Page warrant didn’t authorize any surveillance of the Trump campaign — because Page and the Trump campaign had parted ways before the warrant was issued. In fact, the Nunes memo makes it appear that the FBI was trying to avoid surveillance on the Trump campaign, even when doing so undermined the effectiveness of a then-months-old investigation into Russian election interference. Although the FBI had been interested in Page for some time, it was not until after the relationship between Page and the Trump campaign ended that the bureau got the FISA warrant.
We know that Page was on the FBI’s radar by no later than Aug. 27, 2016, because that’s when then-FBI director James B. Comey received a letter from then-Sen. Harry M. Reid requesting that Page, among others, be investigated in the ongoing Russia investigation. Reid had been briefed by then-CIA director John Brennan a few days before on the Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 election, and as part of that briefing had reportedly learned that certain Trump campaign advisers may have been involved in assisting Russia in its efforts.
Two days later, Reid wrote to the FBI to request that they investigate. His letter to Comey specifically identified one of the advisers potentially involved in assisting Russian efforts as “the Trump advisor who has been highly critical of U.S. and European economic sanctions on Russia, and who has conflicts of interest due to investments in Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom” who “recently broke precedent by giving a speech critical of U.S. policy while in Moscow” in July 2016. This description can be only one person: Carter Page.
At the time, Page was still affiliated with the Trump campaign. Over the next two months, however, as more information about Page’s activities in Moscow were reported on, the campaign made public statements that clarified that Page did not speak for Trump, and that his involvement with the campaign had only ever been an informal, unpaid and infrequent arrangement. Statements from senior campaign officials noted that Page had “no role” in the Trump campaign, that Page had “never been a part of [the] campaign, period,” and that, in fact, the Trump campaign was “not aware of any of [Page’s] activities, past or present.”
In a September 2016 interview on CNN, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, unequivocally denied that Page had any ongoing role whatsoever in the Trump campaign, stating: “He’s certainly not part of the campaign that I’m running. [W]e have a number of … fabulous people … as part of our national security or foreign policy team, and he’s not among them in Trump Tower. And I also will say, if he’s [communicating with Russian nationals], he’s certainly not doing it with the permission or the knowledge of the campaign.”
Finally, on Sept. 26, Page announced his resignation from the campaign, and his role as Trump’s unpaid, informal foreign policy adviser came to an end. Which means that by the time the FBI finally obtained a warrant to intercept his communications Oct. 21, Page was not a part of the Trump campaign, he was not authorized to speak on the campaign’s behalf and he was not engaged in campaign-related activities.
All that means that if the Trump campaign was accurately describing Page’s role, there would have been no reason for the FBI to be concerned that, by conducting surveillance on Page, the bureau might accidentally collect ongoing campaign communications, as well. The campaign was clear that no such ongoing communications should exist. If Page was, in fact, communicating with Russian agents, the FBI could conduct surveillance on those communications without risk of catching any Trump campaign emails or calls, because the campaign had been clear that Page had no authority to engage in dealings with Russia on its behalf and had no knowledge of such communications occurring.
So on the question of whether the FBI targeted Trump’s campaign for illegal or improper surveillance, Nunes’s memo didn’t merely overpromise and underdeliver — it actively refuted its own case. Without the disclosures in the memo, the public would probably have never known for sure when the Page FISA order was issued. Now, because of the Nunes memo, the American public can know the truth: The FBI did not use the FISA order on Page to target the Trump campaign.