The underwhelming revelations of the Nunes memo

It landed with a thud, but not an echo

A picture of a the Nunes memo
(Image credit: Getty Images)

It's been four days since the release of Rep. Devin Nunes' (R-Calif.) memo alleging that the FBI demonstrated anti-Republican bias in its handling of its surveillance of President Trump's former campaign adviser Carter Page. In the time since the memo's release, we've learned more about the politics and resiliency of our national security than anything else.

Our political system survived this unprecedented use of weaponized information by Congress. It landed with a thud, but not much of an echo. The director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, did not resign, as it was rumored he might. Sources and methods of information were not disclosed, as was feared. The memo was injected into a news machine already determined to either validate it or tear it to shreds, so there was nothing enduring about its contents. A new memo, produced by opposition Democrats, could soon be released. Muddy waters get more muddy.

Within a few days, what might normally have been a recipe for a constitutional crisis washed away. This is a Trump era trend: Events that would normally be considered catastrophic to another administration seem just mildly surprising in this one. We raise our eyebrows. We don't scream. This may be because the velocity of news processing has caught up with the digital age. Or perhaps it boils down to the fact that Trump unleashes so many brickbats into the rituals of the old order that we are kind of immune to being viscerally shocked anymore.

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The memo did not short-circuit the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Indeed, it landed amid reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was focusing on whether President Trump obstructed justice. But the memo doesn't advance the case for firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein; it merely notes that he approved a request for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to surveil Page. A few Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have gone out of their way to make it clear that the memo should have no bearing on an evaluation of Rosenstein's ability to do his job. The president and his close allies, however, say Rosenstein has given Mueller carte blanche to go after matters unrelated to the Russia case, and Trump's cheerleaders in the media had hoped the memo would show that Rosenstein had willfully initiated the fishing expedition that is the source of Trump's anxieties.

But the memo fails here, too. Indeed, in attempting to tar the process by which the Page surveillance renewals were obtained, it had to acknowledge that what sparked the Russia investigation in the first place was a drunken claim by George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser for Trump, that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The memo did not entirely lack substance, but it is impossible to analyze its claims without a whole lot of additional information. It suggested that the FBI and the Justice Department did not reveal that Christopher Steele, the source of a dossier that the FBI was attempting to corroborate, was funded by Democratic opposition research dollars. To the uninitiated, that seems to be a real scandal, right? Shouldn't the FBI mention the potential motivation of a source of information alleging that the target of a FISA order had connections to a foreign government?

Turns out, it did. What the FBI did not have was corroborating evidence of the charges in the Steele dossier — so it's entirely possible that unverified information made it in to the FISA application. This is relevant, even though the FBI trusted Steele, and Steele trusted his informant. And it's the detail the entire memo's credibility hinges on. It also rests an elision: The memo quotes Andrew McCabe, then the deputy director of the FBI, as saying that the Steele dossier's information about Page was "essential" to the FISA application, but it does not say whether, by the time McCabe testified before the House Intelligence Committee, the FBI had corroborated some of Steele's claims. The memo implies, but specifically avoids saying, that without the Steele dossier, there would have been no surveillance on Page. It is possible that McCabe meant to say that information from the Steele memo had to be included in the FISA application in order for it to present a complete picture of what Page was up to.

Finally, there's this: By the time the third application for a surveillance warrant on Page rolled around, it was clear that the Steele dossier had been funded in part by Democrats. The FISA court chose to renew the warrant anyway.

The Nunes memo sparks more questions, more fodder for political tribalism, and more fuel for presidential tweeting. But it is far from being a slam dunk.

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