February 3, 2018

The Nothing Memo


The much-hyped Republican memo about abuses in the Russia investigation is a big dud.

By Pat Garofalo / 02.02.2018

The memo House Republicans and the Trump administration have been plugging for weeks now – which would supposedly show how the FBI and the Department of Justice joined in a dreaded “deep state” tag-team to push the 2016 election to Hillary Clinton – was finally released on Friday.

It’s underwhelming, to say the least. Those hyping the memo’s revelations as “worse than Watergate” need to go read a history book.

If the outrage that House Republicans and their lackeys in the conservative media were exhibiting was to be believed, the memo authored by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., was going to reveal some conspiracy, or at the very least serious abuses, regarding surveillance by the nation’s law enforcement agencies, all in an effort to help Democrats. It shows no such thing, at least without getting a look at some of the underlying materials.

You can read the full memo here. If this is the pretext President Donald Trump uses to undermine the investigation into Russian meddling in the election that’s being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it’s weak tea indeed, and everyone who isn’t in the deepest throes of partisan madness should be able to see it.

The Republican allegation pre-release was that surveillance on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was improperly launched because the warrant allowing for it was based on the infamous “Steele dossier,” that unverified packet of information written by former British spy Christopher Steele (which includes the allegation that Trump was compromised by Russia due to his, errrr, cavorting with prostitutes, let’s say). This was always a bit of a strange complaint, since Page was on the radar of American law enforcement as a potential Russian asset for years before the Trump campaign even existed, but be that as it may.

What does the memo say? It claims that the dossier was an “essential” part of the application to surveil Page. Without seeing the application, of course, it’s impossible to know what “essential” means. The memo then claims that the dossier is necessarily suspect because it was funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

But what’s more important is what the memo leaves out. For starters, Nunes conveniently omitted that the initial funders of the dossier were conservatives. And the memo doesn’t address whether or not any of the claims Steele made were true or false, simply that they were politically motivated and Steele spoke to the media on a few occasions. It doesn’t say to what extent the FBI did or did not vet Steele’s allegations, some of which have been corroborated.

Without seeing any of the underlying materials, including the surveillance application itself, it’s simply impossible to judge what role the dossier played in it. But the memo doesn’t even attempt to make the case that the information in the dossier was bad. It simply says that because the dossier was political in nature, it is ipso facto not to be trusted, and therefore something, somewhere is corrupt.

Democrats allege that reading the underlying materials would lead one to the conclusion that even Nunes’ minimally impactful allegations aren’t to be believed, and that the dossier was not as important to the surveillance application as Republicans say. The memo also confirms that the entire Russia investigation was launched in July 2016, thanks to information from an entirely different Trump associate, months before Page was ever surveilled as part of the case. So what Republicans hoped to gain from putting this timeline before the public is entirely unclear.

Even the most explosive claim in the memo – “Deputy [FBI] Director Andrew McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] without the Steele dossier information” – is much less than meets the eye. Maybe the information was corroborated by other sources? The memo does not explicitly make the case that Steele’s information was not verified elsewhere, which Nunes likely would have made if he could.

To sum up, calling the memo a nothingburger is an insult to burgers.

Before the memo’s release, I said that the best course of action would be to release it along with the Democratic response and the underlying intelligence materials, the latter two of which Republicans have been blocking. That’s still the best way to go about things. The freakout many folks on both sides of the aisle had regarding the national security implications of releasing Nunes’ scribbles seem entirely unjustified, too. The more transparency in this case, the better.

I know that there are those in the conservative media who are going to hype this thing to the hilt; in fact, they may have played the decisive role in pushing the memo to be made public, dooming Republicans into releasing information that doesn’t help them thanks to a vicious feedback loop. And Trump himself is going to use the memo to continue claiming that the law enforcement officials whom he himself put in place are all somehow scheming with Democrats to oust him. (Which is weird, since he only hires “the best people.”)

But it seems to me like Republicans would have been better off continuing to hint at the allegations in the memo without releasing it publicly, as bad as that would have been for, you know, the democratic process. Putting it out just revealed their outrage for the faux nonsense that it is.

Originally published by U.S. News & World Report with permission.