Five takeaways from the Nunes surveillance memo
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released a controversial memo on Friday alleging that senior officials at the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) abused their powers to spy on members of President Trump’s campaign.
The release of the memo, which was put together by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and declassified by the White House, came despite the fierce objections of Democrats, the FBI and the Justice Department, who described the documents as misleading and a partisan attempt to discredit the various Russia probes.
Here are five takeaways from the memo, which has consumed Washington and sparked a political war between Trump allies and the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies.
Both sides think the memo gives them political ammunition
There is perhaps no better illustration of the deeply polarized political atmosphere than the reactions to the memo’s release.
For those on the right, the memo confirms every suspicion they have had about the U.S. government spying on the Trump campaign and political bias they say has reached the top levels of the DOJ and FBI.
They say the memo proves that the FBI obtained questionable intelligence from partisan sources and shielded their methods from a surveillance court to investigate a candidate and campaign they were eager to see fail.
The memo makes the case that the FBI and DOJ did not inform a surveillance court that Democrats had partly funded an anti-Trump dossier that was used, in part, to obtain a secret surveillance warrant in October 2016 for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The memo goes on to allege that Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier, did so out of animus against Trump and that the FBI had not sufficiently vetted his claims when it obtained warrants to spy on Page.
Democrats are firing back, saying that the memo is full of cherry-picked data points and “misleading allegations” aimed at discrediting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s campaign.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the application for a warrant to spy on Page was the product of scores of independent investigators and that the Nunes memo “fails to provide vital context and information about that process.”
Furthermore, Schiff argued that the FBI had plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Page, regardless of what was in the dossier. He said it would have been a dereliction of duty not to pursue leads into whether Page had improper contacts with Moscow.
To obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant, Justice Department lawyers must show probable cause that the target of the surveillance is acting as an agent of a foreign power.
Page had come under FBI scrutiny in 2013, when a Russian believed to have links to Russian intelligence mentioned him, according to The Washington Post.
The FBI’s Russia investigation started with Papadopoulos
Trump’s allies have long alleged that the Russia probe is politically motivated because it began with the Steele dossier, which was funded in part by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
The Nunes memo states that the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation started in July 2016 and was based on information the FBI had gathered about George Papadopoulos, a former adviser to Trump’s campaign. Papadopoulos has since pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI and is cooperating with Mueller.
The New York Times has previously reported that Papadopoulos bragged to an Australian diplomat that the Russians had damaging information on Clinton before the hack of the DNC became public and emails were released on the internet. The Australian government tipped off the FBI to what Papadopoulos had said, according to the Times.
Still, according to Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, Steele first reached out to the FBI in July 2016 to alert them of his findings. That was around the same time that the FBI’s Russia investigation began.
The origin of the counterintelligence probe does not impact the central claim of the Nunes memo, which is that the FBI and DOJ were not upfront with a surveillance court about how they obtained the intelligence used to justify spying on Page.
But it confirms that the FBI was working with more than what was in the Steele dossier, as Democrats have said their own countermemo will prove. And it’s an indication that Papadopoulos could be a central figure in Mueller’s probe going forward.
The controversy around FBI agent Peter Strzok is only going to grow
The Nunes memo says Peter Strzok — the FBI agent that Republicans have accused of harboring anti-Trump bias — was responsible for launching the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump campaign officials coordinated with Russia.
That revelation is sure to infuriate Republicans and lead to further accusations of political bias at the FBI.
Strzok has been at the center of controversy ever since text messages surfaced between him and FBI lawyer Lisa Page — the two were having an affair — in which they made disparaging remarks about Trump and other political figures.
Strzok interviewed Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with Mueller.
He was also a central figure in the investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified material. Citing Strzok’s texts with Page, Republicans have argued that the FBI gave Clinton a pass and never intended to charge or seriously investigate her.
Strzok had a hand in the memo clearing Clinton of criminal conduct, but also wrote the draft of a letter reopening the Clinton email case just a week before the election. Many Democrats blame Clinton’s loss on that letter, which was sent to Congress by then-FBI Director James Comey.
Still, Strzok’s text messages with Page have created a massive headache for the FBI and have given ammunition to those seeking to question whether he conducted impartial investigations into Trump and Clinton.
Strzok and Page were both on Mueller’s special counsel probe but were reassigned last year.
Memo claims that media was used to push the Trump-Russia narrative
Republicans have long accused the media of uncritically accepting Democratic talking points in an effort to push the idea that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
The Nunes memo claims that Steele, the former British spy, planted several stories on the Trump campaign and Russia while the FBI was paying him. Those same stories were subsequently used by law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant on Carter Page.
The memo claims that in British court filings, Steele admitted to talking to a Yahoo News reporter for a bombshell 2016 story about Page traveling to Moscow to meet with Russian officials. That same story was cited in the FBI’s application to a surveillance court to spy on Page, according to the memo.
Furthermore, the memo alleges that Steele broke FBI protocol by telling the liberal news outlet Mother Jones that he was working for the bureau.
The memo says that Steele was ultimately cut loose by the FBI for lying about his contacts with the media. Two Republican senators have referred Steele to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation over that episode.
The memo names names
Steele is the primary GOP target in the memo, which seeks to cast him as a partisan who compiled the dossier because he was hell-bent on keeping Trump from getting elected.
But the memo also calls out a host of senior FBI and DOJ officials that Republicans have accused of bias.
Comey signed off on three applications to spy on Page, and the memo alleges that he hid key facts from the surveillance court in that process.
FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who has since been forced out of his post, signed one surveillance application. Republicans have sought to highlight donations McCabe’s wife received for a political campaign from a Clinton ally as evidence of bias. A DOJ inspector general report, which has not been released publicly, is said to raise questions about McCabe’s handling of the Clinton investigation.
Signers of the Page surveillance applications at the DOJ include former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who was fired for refusing to defend Trump’s controversial Muslim ban, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Trump on Friday signaled he does not have confidence in Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.
Dana Boente, a top FBI lawyer who at the time was leading the DOJ’s national security division, also signed one of the applications. Boente is viewed as an ally of the president and there have been rumors that he could replace Rosenstein if the president were to fire him.
Former Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr is another key figure in the memo.
Ohr’s wife worked for Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that was behind the Steele dossier. The memo states that Ohr provided Steele’s opposition research to the FBI.
When the FBI interviewed Ohr about his relationship with Steele, he stated that the British spy was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president,” according to the memo.
Updated at 7:06 p.m.