A GOP Memo’s Defense of the President Was Built on Sand
Posted July 22, 2018 10:13 p.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2018 10:20 p.m. EDT
WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump declassified a memo by House Republicans in February that portrayed the surveillance of a former campaign adviser as scandalous, his motivation was clear: to give congressional allies and conservative commentators another avenue to paint the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian election interference as tainted from the start.
But this past weekend, Trump’s unprecedented decision, which he made over the objections of law enforcement and intelligence officials, had a consequence that revealed his gambit’s shaky foundation. The government released the court documents in which the FBI made its case for conducting the surveillance — records that plainly demonstrated that key elements of Republicans’ claims about the bureau’s actions were misleading or false.
On Sunday Trump nevertheless sought to declare victory. In a series of early-morning tweets, he claimed without evidence that the newly disclosed files “confirm with little doubt that the Department of ‘Justice’ and FBI misled the courts” to win approval to start wiretapping the former adviser, Carter Page, shortly after he had left the campaign amid criticism of his ties to Russia.
“Looking more & more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally being spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary Clinton and the DNC,” Trump wrote on Twitter, referring to the Democratic National Committee.
Trump’s portrayal, which came as the administration is trying to repair the damage from his widely criticized meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, revived the claims put forward in February by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. But in respect after respect, the newly disclosed documents instead corroborated rebuttals by Democrats on the panel who had seen the top-secret materials and accused Republicans of mischaracterizing them to protect the president.
The records again cast an unflattering light on Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the committee’s chairman, who led the attack on the FBI surveillance, though he admitted in February that he had not read the application documents. Nunes has taken repeated steps to try to bolster Trump and undercut the Russia investigation.
In his tweets, Trump left unmentioned the nature of the concerns the FBI raised about Page in the court applications. The documents said that the bureau “believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government,” that he had “established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers,” and that he had been “collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government.”
Page has not been charged with a crime in the nearly two years since the initial wiretap application was filed in October 2016, near the end of the Obama administration. On CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Page dismissed the claims in the documents, saying, “I’ve never been an agent of a foreign power in any — by any stretch of the imagination.”
He also played down a letter he wrote in 2013 in which he described himself as “an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin,” saying he had merely “sat in on some meetings.”
Much of the dispute in February over the surveillance of Page centered on the fact that the FBI’s court application included unverified information it had obtained from Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent who had been hired to research Trump’s ties to Russia by a firm that was in turn being financed by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
The application and several renewals, which continued into the Trump administration, contain many redacted pages, making it impossible to tell how many other sources of information the FBI had. But the uncensored portion does also discuss a prior investigation into a Russian spy ring that tried to recruit Americans as assets in 2013. Page is known to have been one of its targets.
Still, information from Steele — who had provided credible intelligence to the U.S. government in the past — was clearly an important part of the application. The application cited claims he had gathered about purported meetings between Page and two Kremlin-linked Russians during a trip he took to Moscow in July 2016; Page has denied meeting with them, although he later contradicted his claims that he had not met any Russian government officials on that trip.
One central issue was whether the FBI gave the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court sufficient information about the funding of Steele’s research to understand that he had been commissioned to dig up information about Trump’s links to Russia by someone with a political motive, even though he had been a neutral source in the past.
The Republican memo issued in February said the FBI had failed to “disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials.” But Democrats at the time contended that the court had been told that the research had politically motivated origins.
The application contains a page-length explanation that does alert the court that the person who commissioned Steele’s research was “likely looking for information to discredit” Trump’s campaign. It goes on to explain why, notwithstanding Steele’s “reason for conducting the research,” the FBI believed it was credible.
Republicans had also faulted the application for not explicitly identifying Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee by name. But that criticism ignored the fact that law enforcement officials were following a general policy not to name Americans, even referring to Trump only as “Candidate #1” in renewal applications despite noting that he was now the president-elect and then the president.
David Kris, an expert on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act who served in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, dismissed the notion that the intelligence court judges had been misled.
“Now we can see that the footnote disclosing Steele’s possible bias takes up more than a full page in the applications, so there is literally no way the FISA Court could have missed it,” he wrote on the blog Lawfare. “The FBI gave the court enough information to evaluate Steele’s credibility.” Another issue in dispute was Republicans’ suggestion that a September 2016 Yahoo News article about Page’s ties to Russia was cited in the application as corroboration for Steele’s information even though it later emerged that he had been a source for that article. Democrats at the time said that was misleading because the purpose of including the article was instead to tell the court that Page had denied the allegations about his meetings in the July 2016 trip to Moscow.
The application dovetails with the Democrats’ account. The article is described in a section that discusses how the allegations about Page became public, prompting him to deny them but still leave the Trump campaign as it distanced itself from him. That section of the application is titled: “Page’s Denial of Cooperation With the Russian Government.”
The application materials also identify the four judges who approved the wiretap and its extensions; all are appointees of Republican presidents. And while much of the material is redacted, it shows that the number of pages included in each application grew significantly, suggesting that the government was likely adding new information, such as discussing the information it obtained from the wiretap, to justify its request to prolong the surveillance.
Asked whether Nunes wanted to comment on the release of the surveillance materials and the ways they appeared to contradict his February statements, a spokesman for the Intelligence Committee said in an email that he did not.
But Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the top Democrat on the committee, said the documents affirmed that law enforcement officials had acted appropriately in obtaining the wiretap order in the face of “a profound counterintelligence threat” from Russia. He said the materials put the “conspiracy theories to rest,” while criticizing Trump’s decision to declassify their existence during a pending investigation.
“These national security considerations were cast aside by President Trump, whose decision to declassify the Nunes memo — which misrepresented and distorted these applications — over the fervent opposition of the Department of Justice, was nakedly political and self-interested, and designed to interfere with the special counsel’s investigation,” he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rejected Trump’s insinuation that the wiretapping of Page equated to surveillance of the campaign. “I don’t believe that them looking into Carter Page means they were spying on the campaign,” Rubio said on “State of the Union.”
“The only plot is to interfere in the election by the Russians,” he added.