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Without Evidence, Trump Claims Vindication From Release of Page Documents

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — President Donald Trump claimed without evidence Sunday that his administration’s release of top-secret documents related to the surveillance of a former campaign aide had confirmed that the Justice Department and the FBI had “misled the courts” in the early stages of the Russia investigation.

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Katie Rogers
Emily Cochrane, New York Times

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — President Donald Trump claimed without evidence Sunday that his administration’s release of top-secret documents related to the surveillance of a former campaign aide had confirmed that the Justice Department and the FBI had “misled the courts” in the early stages of the Russia investigation.

“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.

In a series of early-morning tweets, Trump left unmentioned how the documents laid out in stark detail why the FBI was interested in the former campaign adviser, Carter Page: “The FBI believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.” They also said Page had “established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers,” and had been “collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government.”

Those assessments were included in an October 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Page. The New York Times and other news outlets obtained the application and several renewal documents through Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. The president had declassified their existence last year.

On Sunday morning, Page dismissed the claims in the documents. “I’ve never been an agent of a foreign power in any — by any stretch of the imagination,” Page said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

He played down a letter he wrote in 2013 in which he described himself as “an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin.”

“I sat in on some meetings, but to call me an adviser I think is way over the top,” Page said. “This is really nothing, and just an attempt to distract from the real crimes that are shown in this misleading document.”

Since returning from a widely criticized meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia in Helsinki, Trump has fixated on election interference, but he has been ready to place blame not on the Russians but on the Democrats. On the plane ride home from Finland, Trump asked advisers once again about the Democratic National Committee server that was hacked — he had raised the server issue while standing next to Putin — and why cyberintruders had not penetrated Republican National Committee systems.

Supporters of Trump, including Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, have seized on the fact that the FBI, in making the case to judges that Page might be a Russian agent, used some claims included in a notorious Democratic-funded dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent.

Republicans’ criticism has centered on the fact that the FBI used material from the dossier without telling the court that the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign, by name, had funded the research.

But the application shows that the FBI did tell the court it believed that the person who hired Steele was looking for information to discredit Trump’s campaign, later emphasizing that notwithstanding Steele’s reason for conducting research into Trump’s ties to Russia, it believed his reporting about Page was credible.

The application also shows that the Justice Department’s general practice in surveillance applications was not to specifically name Americans or U.S. organizations. For example, it referred to Trump not by name but as “Candidate #1,” despite noting in renewal applications that this person had since become president.

Trump and some of his supporters nevertheless claimed vindication. In another tweet Sunday, the president quoted a Fox News commentator, Andrew McCarthy, as saying: “I said this could never happen. This is so bad that they should be looking at the judges who signed off on this stuff, not just the people who gave it. It is so bad it screams out at you.”

The materials revealed that the U.S. District Court judges who signed off on the wiretapping of Page were all appointed by Republican presidents.

David Kris, an expert on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act who served in the Bush and Obama administrations, dismissed the notion that those 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.”

In his tweets, Trump focused in part on the many redactions in the documents, seeming to take those as further proof that his campaign had been illegally surveilled.

Steve Vladeck, a professor who specializes in national security law at the University of Texas School of Law, said that the president was zeroing in on what was redacted in the documents rather than the content of the application itself.

“The great irony here is that no one’s actually disputing the core allegation in the application,” Vladeck said in interview, “which is that there was at least probable cause to believe Carter Page was working as an agent of a foreign power.” In his tweets, the president, Vladeck said, also seemed to be shifting the focus of his criticism from the FBI to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Warrant applications, generated at early stages of an investigation, tend to be “one-sided,” Vladeck said, and officials may not be telling the court every single thing they know when filing them.

“He’s focusing on the imperfections of the application, of which there are many because these documents tend not to be perfect,” Vladeck said. “Out of context, these individual imperfections may look a lot more sinister.”

But, he added, the application still contained “a substantial amount of information provided to four different Republican-appointed FISA court judges who established probable cause.”

While Trump did not elaborate Sunday on why he felt that the FISA application had proved his accusations, he had claimed similar vindication in February when he endorsed highly contentious accusations by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI had misused its surveillance powers in the Page case.

A memo issued at the time by Republicans on the committee drew on information in the surveillance documents, though Democrats said the Republicans made distorted claims to protect Trump and try to undermine the Russia inquiry. That memo, like the documents released Saturday, did nothing to clear Trump of either collusion or obstruction, the lines of inquiry being pursued by the special counsel.

In the nearly two years since the initial application was filed, Page, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, has not been charged with any crime. And as Trump and some Republican lawmakers persistently deplore the special counsel’s investigation into Russian election inference as a “witch hunt,” the wiretapping of Page has emerged as an opportunity to sow doubt about the motives of the investigation.

Trump sent his Twitter posts before he returned to Washington after visiting his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey. The president also praised Judicial Watch, the conservative advocacy group known for its relentless legal pursuit of the Clintons, for obtaining the documents. But Trump disregarded the fact that the news organizations, including The Times, had sought release of the documents under several Freedom of Information Act lawsuits.

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