The House Intelligence Committee late Saturday released a memo, drafted by the committee’s minority of Democratic members and seeking to rebut a parallel memo released earlier this month by its Republican majority and chair Devin Nunes. At issue in the dueling memos is the assertion by supporters of President Donald Trump that the ongoing investigation into Russian election interference, and the Trump campaign’s possible collaboration in it, is a politically motivated and flimsy witch hunt.
So what does the Democratic memo do to clarify that question? Quite a lot, including direct quotes from court documents that appear to contradict GOP claims. Here are the key takeaways.
DOJ Did Disclose Christopher Steele’s Political Backing
A huge element of Republican attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice hinges on an application to the secret FISA court for permission to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser. The earlier GOP memo implied that the FISA applications concealed that researcher Christopher Steele was working for a political opponent of Trump when he assembled the infamous “Steele dossier,” one of the sources cited in the DOJ’s FISA request.
The Democratic memo, though, quotes a substantial passage of the DOJ FISA application which clearly does exactly this – although for security reasons, it does not identify American individuals or groups by name. The passage reads in part: “The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person [a Democratic operative who Steele worked for] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s [Trump’s] campaign.”
The Steele Dossier Was One Piece of Evidence Among Many
The Nunes memo (full text here) asserts that Steele’s research was “an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application.” But according to the new Democratic memo, only “narrow use” was made of Steele’s work in the FISA application, which cited “multiple” other causes for surveillance. And the application did not make any use of the “salacious” elements of the document.
The Steele Dossier Did Not Trigger The Russia Investigation
The Steele document, the new memo says, didn’t make it to the FBI until seven weeks after the investigation into Russian meddling began in July 2016.
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The FBI Wasn’t Spying on the Trump Campaign
A major line of attack in efforts to discredit the Justice Department has been some variation on the claim that the Obama administration ordered politically motivated surveillance of the Trump campaign. The Nunes memo misleadingly supported this argument by omitting the fact that Carter Page left the Trump campaign in late September of 2016, weeks before the initial FISA application to surveil him was filed on Oct. 21. The FBI had reasons to monitor Page that had no direct tie with Trump – the agency was aware of multiple attempts by Russian spies to recruit him, including one that was caught on tape in 2013.
Whoever Was Paying Him, Steele Was Credible
Attempts to undermine the Russia investigation have leaned heavily on the fact that Steele was working for Clinton supporters while researching Trump’s activities in Russia. But this attack indulges in a logical error called the genetic fallacy — the mistaken idea that information from a compromised source is necessarily false. The Democratic memo says that Steele’s “multi-year history of credible reporting on Russia,” which was affirmed by senior FBI and DOJ officials, made his work trustworthy regardless of who funded it.
Even following the logic of the Nunes memo, of course, efforts to undermine the investigation as a Democratic plot fall apart. For one, it was reported last October that the project that led to the Steele document was initially funded by the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Then there’s the fact that the investigation into Russian meddling is currently spearheaded by Robert Mueller, a lifelong Republican who headed the FBI under George W. Bush. Mueller, moreover, was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is not only a lifelong Republican, but a Trump appointee.
The FBI Found Evidence Implicating Page
The FISA application was renewed three times, and such renewals require evidence that surveillance is getting results. A heavily redacted section of the Democratic memo says that Page “repeatedly contacted” unnamed actors while under surveillance, towards a purpose that is also redacted. This may be a reference to meetings with Russian officials during a December 2016 trip to Moscow — meetings which Page denied for months.
What remains unclear is whether Page acted as a go-between to convey Russian priorities — and threats — to the Trump campaign. That has been claimed by credible sources, but the Trump team has tried to downplay Page’s role in the campaign, despite recent admissions that he was in touch with the campaign about the December Moscow trip. What may be oddest about the Nunes memo is that, by obscuring the fact that Page was not a Trump staffer by the time he was placed under surveillance, it inadvertently supports the idea that he was coordinating with the Trump team — and, by extension, with Russian officials.