As definitive proof of anti-Trump bias among FBI and DOJ leadership, it’s kind of a bust.
The four-page document is missing key background information about what prompted the ongoing federal investigation into Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign. It misstates details like the date of an article about the former British spy who helped compile the so-called “Trump-Russia dossier.” And a good amount of the information included actually undercuts the Republican authors’ own conclusions.
The memo was supposed to reveal that the DOJ and FBI omitted key information in obtaining a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. But without the reams of underlying evidence supporting the warrant’s approval, all it does is tell a pre-judged, partisan story.
Below are TPM’s key takeaways on how the memo doesn’t add up.
It tip-toes around how much the Page warrant relied on Steele dossier
If the Page warrant relied solely on the Steele dossier, it would make Republicans’ allegations of misconduct a little more believable. But read closely and the memo doesn’t say that definitively. And there are other indications that the Justice Department had, and was working with, other information on Page.
The memo describes the dossier as an “essential” part of the warrant, pointing to testimony from former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe — who this week pushed up his retirement day under pressure from conservatives — that said, in the memo’s words, “no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] without the Steele dossier information.”
House Intel Democrats are already accusing Republicans of mischaracterizing his testimony, which Dems now want to release. Even without those allegations, that phrasing is vague enough to lend itself to interpretations other than the warrant relying solely on the dossier.
There are other indications that that was the case.
First is the initial April 2017 report that broke the news that the FBI obtained the warrant, in which U.S. officials said it was based in part on 2013 communications Page had with Russians. Those contacts were detailed in a 2015 court case that revealed that two Russians had been intercepted discussing efforts to recruit Page. The New York Times reported that Page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow also caught the FBI’s attention.
Secondly, the claims about Page make up only a small portion of what’s alleged in the dossier about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. And FISA experts told TPM earlier this week that they would be shocked if the dossier claims alone were enough to convince a judge to approve the warrant. Indeed, NBC News reported that four separate judges ultimately approved of the initial warrant and three applications to renew it.
To renew the warrant, the Justice Department would have likely needed to provide new evidence that the continued surveillance was warranted.
It undercuts the GOP narrative that the dossier prompted Russia probe
Republicans and their media allies have claimed that the federal Russia probe was suspect because Democrats funded Steele’s work on the dossier. Some conservatives have gone so far to suggest that Democrats and the Obama administration were actually the ones colluding with Russian.
That theory took a serious blow late last year when the New York Times reported that Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos’ bragging was what first caught federal investigators’ attention. (Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last year as part of Mueller’s probe, reportedly told an Australian diplomat about his Russian contacts during a night of heavy drinking, a conversation the Australian later relayed to U.S. officials.)
Nunes’ memo backed up that understanding of the series of events by noting that the “Papadopoulos information triggered” the FBI’s counter-intel probe.
Most of Trump’s top FBI and DOJ targets just so happen to crop up in it
As the conservative press have hinted for weeks, the memo names names. Those names just so happen to belong to individuals who Trump has accused of unfairly investigating his campaign or failing to adequately protect him from the investigation.
The memo notes that McCabe and fired FBI director James Comey each signed off on some of the FISA orders approving Page’s surveillance. On the DOJ side, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and fired deputy attorney general Sally Yates approved some of the applications.
Trump has most recently focused his ire on Rosenstein, the last of those officials standing, even reportedly telling allies that the memo could be used as a pretext to fire him. Given his oversight of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Rosenstein also happens to be the only person with the authority to sign off on any charges recommended by the special counsel’s team. That means his ouster would gravely undermine the Mueller probe.
Strzok and Page are not the anti-Trump partisans they’ve been made out to be
The memo attributes the initiation of the Russia probe to two FBI officials who’ve become bogeymen to the right: FBI counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page.
It names Strzok as the person who opened the July 2016 counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign and says unequivocally that the pair “demonstrated a clear bias against Trump and in favor of Clinton.”
The actual story is much more complicated. That Strzok personally initiated the counterintelligence probe has not been reported previously, and the memo’s source for that claim is not clear. The pair did exchange many texts disparaging Trump, which has led conservatives to portray them as part of an anti-Trump cabal at the FBI. But as multiple outlets have documented, they also criticized Obama DOJ officials and expressed doubts about the merits of the entire Russia investigation.
The Wall Street Journal, which dug through approximately 7,000 of their messages, said they found “no evidence of a conspiracy against Mr. Trump.”
Loaded quotes, like Strzok’s comparison of the Trump-Russia investigation to an “insurance policy,” are taken out of context. The Journal has reported that the message was supposed to convey that the FBI couldn’t slow-roll the probe simply because they expected Clinton would win the election.
Strzok was removed from the Mueller investigation in the summer of 2017 as soon as the texts were discovered.
Some omissions of context are obvious
Some key, publicly known facts that would put Republicans’ allegations in context are conspicuously missing, while other details of GOP claims seem to contradict themselves.
For instance, the memo does not mention that Page left the Trump campaign before the FBI sought the FISA warrant to surveil him. Nor does it mention that the research project that prompted Steele’s digging was first financed by Republicans opposed to Trump.
As USA Today’s Steve Reilly pointed out, the memo misleadingly suggests that Steele leaked the revelation of Page’s Moscow trip to the media, when in fact his speech at a conference there was publicly posted and widely reported.
Memo says the FISA application was based on information about Carter Page's July 2016 Moscow trip that was "leaked" by Steele.
Page's speech in Moscow was public domain information. pic.twitter.com/UF1yefCwLS
— Steve Reilly (@BySteveReilly) February 2, 2018
Redstate (ahem, Redstate!) noticed that the memo also very obviously mischaracterizes Comey’s public testimony about the Steele memo, bringing the rest of its claims into question.
Its allegations against DOJ official Bruce Ohr, a target of the right, are confusing: On one hand the memo bashes the Justice Department for highlighting in its FISA applications the anti-Trump bias Ohr recognized in Steele; on the other hand, the memo says Ohr was interviewed about his Steele interactions after the election and thus after the first warrant application. Ohr’s candor about Steele’s Trump sentiments would also seemingly exonerate the DOJ official in the GOP smear campaign against him.
It’s not clear if these sorts of discrepancies are the result of sloppy work by the GOP staff that wrote the memo. But they fit the pattern of inaccuracies and false narrative that Democrats and the FBI had previously warned the memo contained.
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