This week in Trump-Russia news: Here’s what’s wrong with the overhyped Nunes memo
Well, it’s out there.
After a couple weeks of teasing the memo that would supposedly outline abuses of power Republicans said were “worse than Watergate,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) finally released his big report this week — and it didn’t exactly live up to the hype.
The four-page document — which President Donald Trump declassified Friday with the hope that it would undermine the Russia probe — supposedly detailed partisan misconduct by the FBI and Department of Justice.
But it left out critical information, seemingly undermined its own argument and confirmed that the FBI probe began not with a controversial dossier on Trump, but with the loose lips of a campaign aide.
“This is advocacy, and not particularly sophisticated advocacy,” former federal prosecutor Patrick Cotter said Friday. “Not impartial legal analysis.”
Here’s what you need to know about the memo everyone’s talking about — and what impact it could have on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
Nunes alleges FISA abuses against Page
The memo essentially makes five allegations.
To start, House Republicans say that the salacious Steele dossier — which was partly paid for by Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s campaign — “formed an essential part” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application authorities used to investigate Carter Page, a Trump campaign aide.
What’s more, they argue that Christopher Steele — the ex-British spy who compiled the dossier for Fusion GPS — had been terminated as an FBI source over improper contacts with the media and that a Yahoo News story with material leaked by Steele had provided further justification for the FISA warrant.
Steele, the memo says, continued to have contact with high-ranking figures in federal law enforcement after his termination, however, and that he demonstrated “bias” against Trump that was “not reflected in any of the Page FISA applications.”
Nevertheless, according to Nunes, the FISA applications “relied” on the dossier, even though corroboration of the intelligence was just in its “infancy.”
And while the memo acknowledges that the FISA applications had also mentioned George Papadopoulos, whose drunken comments to an Australian official in 2016 triggered the probe into the Trump campaign, the report says that there was “no evidence of cooperation or conspiracy” between Page and his fellow campaign aide.
Critics say there are a number of issues with the memo.
The first, and most obvious, is that it does not seem to present all the information from the FISA applications — which Nunes, himself, says he has not personally read — and is consequently missing critical context. As Cotter said Friday, it’s impossible to determine “whether the FISA court ruling was correct until they review the whole application.”
Second, Steele’s alleged partisanship forms the crux of the memo, with Republicans arguing that the FISA court was not provided information about the political origins of the dossier. But United States officials told the Washington Post Friday that the DOJ did, in fact, inform the court that a “political entity” bankrolled the report — though it did not specify Clinton or the Democrats. Further, the Post disputed the memo’s claim that a Yahoo News story was central to the applications — and that said story was reliant on Steele.
Finally, the memo seems to undermine its own premise — that the Russia probe was the fruit from a poisonous tree. Republicans have been attempting for weeks to cast the federal investigation into Trump as a politically motivated witch hunt, arguing that the president’s “deep state” enemies used the disputed dossier as an excuse to spy on his campaign. As proof of federal law enforcement’s bias, they’ve held up the anti-Trump text messages between two FBI officials that got agent Peter Strzok booted from Mueller’s team. But in stating that the probe began with Papadopoulos, not Page, the memo would seem to contradict that thesis. Further, a Wall Street Journal review Friday of all the texts between Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page “show no evidence of a conspiracy against Mr. Trump” — contrary to the suggestions of the president and his allies.
Trump uses memo to attack his investigators
Nevertheless, Trump immediately began using the memo to attack the FBI and DOJ figures investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia — and the possibility that he attempted to obstruct justice in the probe.
“This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” the president tweeted Saturday morning. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on ... This is an American disgrace!”
The release of the memo has further heightened concerns that Trump may attempt to impede the Russia investigation by terminating deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who was named in Nunes’ report, or Mueller himself.
In a letter to Trump on Friday, Democrats said that doing so would constitute a “constitutional crisis” on par with Richard Nixon’s infamous Saturday Night Massacre.
The White House has said Trump doesn’t have any plans to make such a move, but the president himself didn’t exactly close the door on that possibility in cryptic comments to reporters Friday.
“You figure that one out,” Trump said in response to a question about Rosenstein’s future.
McCabe out as deputy FBI director after Trump criticism
The Nunes memo capped a chaotic week in the Trump-Russia saga, which began with Andrew McCabe — the deputy director of the FBI — announcing that he’d be resigning his post.
McCabe — who served as acting director of the bureau after Trump fired James Comey in May 2017 — was due to retire in the spring.
But he announced on Monday that he’d be stepping down now, bowing to pressure from FBI director Christopher Wray.
McCabe’s ouster comes after months of being a punching bag for Trump, who has repeatedly suggested that his wife’s political career is evidence of the deputy director’s bias against him.
The White House, however, has denied any involvement on the part of the president in forcing McCabe out.
Don Jr. keeps on stepping in it
Like his father, Donald Trump Jr. is a prolific tweeter whose impulsive social media use can get him into trouble.
This week, in a fit of excitement, he implied that McCabe did not resign, but instead was terminated over the memo.
“It was good enough to fire McCabe, no one argues its factually inaccurate, but now days later they want to protect the names of those involved in a scandal that was big enough to fire a senior official a month before retirement?” Trump Jr. wrote.
The characterization raised questions about the circumstances surrounding the departure of the deputy director, whom Trump once asked who he’d voted for.
Trump administration says “no” to Russia sanctions
The Trump administration announced Monday that it will not impose the new sanctions Congress overwhelmingly passed against Russia in 2017, suggesting the legislation itself is “serving as a deterrent.”
The sanctions were passed 517-5.
“There should be outrage in every corner of this country,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said in a tweet.
What’s next for the Russia probe?
Despite the attacks from Trump and his allies, the Mueller probe is continuing on.
Paul Manafort — who was indicted by Mueller in October — had sued the special counsel on Jan. 3, alleging that the probe had “exceeded its legal authority”
But, according to reports Saturday, the DOJ is now arguing that the former Trump campaign chairman’s case should be dismissed and that Mueller’s investigation is justified.
“These claims lack merit,” a Justice Department filing said on Friday. “The special counsel’s investigation and prosecutions are entirely lawful.”
That investigation now seems to be growing increasingly focused on obstruction of justice — specifically, the misleading statement the president helped craft aboard Air Force One last summer about the 2016 meeting his son took with a Kremlin-connected attorney who was believed to have dirt on Clinton.
Hope Hicks, Trump’s communications director, may now be implicated in the episode as a former spokesperson for the president’s legal team reportedly prepares to tell Mueller about her involvement in the Trump team’s response.
Meanwhile, Trump and his allies seem as though they’ll continue to attack the probe — though it’s unclear how far the president will go. For his part, Nunes doesn’t appear to see his work as being done, announcing Friday evening that more memos may be forthcoming.