BEFORE the Nunes memo was published, the White House’s biggest cheerleaders said it would be bigger than Watergate. The FBI argued against releasing it, citing “grave concerns” about its accuracy. The stage was set for an extraordinary fight between the president and his party on the one hand and the country’s premier law-enforcement agency on the other. When the long-awaited memo was declassified by the president and published, on February 2nd, mainstream opinion declared it a nothing-burger. So what is it? A giganotosaurus of a scandal, a significant act of institutional norm-busting or nothing really to worry about? Here is Democracy in America’s guide so you can make your own mind up.
First, a recap of the allegation in the memo, which was released by the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, chaired by Devin Nunes. At the end of October 2016, only a few weeks before the presidential election, the Department of Justice (DoJ) and FBI received permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to perform surveillance on a Carter Page. More on him in a bit. It is highly unusual for an American citizen like Mr Page to be subject to such an order. As the court’s name suggests, such warrants are granted when there is a reasonable suspicion that the subject of the warrant is an agent of a foreign power, meaning that they are helping a foreign power or entity commit espionage or terrorism. The memo alleges that the warrant was granted improperly, because the evidence put forward in support of the application came from Christopher Steele, a former MI6 agent who had been paid by Democrats to find dirt on Donald Trump. The memo quotes Mr Steele as saying he was, “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.”
The memo does touch on some raw nerves, pointing out some weaknesses and conflicts of interest that embarrass the FBI and Department of Justice, and provide Trump supporters with evidence for their core belief that there is a “deep state” out to get their president. The memo notes that the same research firm that employed Mr Steele also employed the wife of a senior justice department investigator, Bruce Ohr, who knew Mr Steele. It cites text messages calling Mr Trump an “idiot” and dreading his election win, sent between a senior FBI agent, Peter Strzok, and his then-mistress, an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page.
The FBI says this is a misleading account of what happened. But given the partisan distrust now being hurled at that agency’s leadership, it is a useful thought exercise to imagine that the core charge of the memo is wholly accurate, and weigh its value on that basis. America’s intelligence services have sometimes been known to violate the constitution, which is why the court exists and why elected politicians have a duty to point this out when it happens. This, however, is not one of those occasions. Mr Steele was a credible source (he had been in Moscow for the British secret intelligence service, MI6, and later ran its Russia desk) and had provided the FBI with good intelligence before. He was not politically motivated in the sense that the memo implies, because he is a British citizen and cannot vote. Instead, his motivation seems to have been alarm that Mr Trump and people around him might have been compromised by Russian intelligence. People who know Mr Steele say that towards the end of the election campaign he was not no longer being paid.
The attacks on the FBI and DoJ officials are also misleading. Mr Ohr had no connection to the Russia probe; he specialises in gangs and drug smugglers. And Mr Strzok and Ms Page’s texts have been selectively cited by their enemies. A review, by the Wall Street Journal, of their many thousands of pages of phone messages, revealed that they are patriotic, centrist politically, scornful at many points of Hillary Clinton and above all outraged by Russian meddling in the election.
And here is the thing. Even if taken at face value, the memo still does not prove what Republicans claim, namely that the entire Russia investigation was born out of a Democratic dirty tricks campaign. The memo, drafted by staffers working for the Republican majority against the objections of Democrats on the committee, actually notes in passing that the genesis of the counter-intelligence probe into the Trump campaign was a probe into another campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, who has since pleaded guilty to misleading federal agents about his contacts with Russia. That is a major concession, which suggests—whether inadvertently or not—that there was “a there, there”. To try another thought experiment, imagine a parallel universe in which a left-wing Democratic presidential candidate, say, Senator Bernie Sanders, was suspected of exactly the same contacts with Russia, and imagine what Republicans would be saying now.
There is also a cynicism to claiming anti-Trump bias on the part of FBI leaders urgently investigating his Russian ties in 2016. If FBI agents sincerely believed a presidential candidate might be compromised by a hostile foreign power, dreading his election is not “bias”.
A Democratic counter-memo, which to date the Republicans who control the committee have declined to make public, objects that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was aware that Mr Steele had a possible animus against Mr Trump, and notes that Mr Page had been the target of investigation for years. Democrats also note, with reason, that the memo creates the false impression that evidence supposedly used to corroborate Mr Steele was inaccurate or misleading, when that evidence was not used as corroboration.
Mr Page is a strange figure, whose centrality to this story says quite a bit about how the Trump campaign operated. Because of the unorthodox foreign-policy positions that Mr Trump took on many subjects, including Russia, no top-tier Republican foreign-policy advisers were prepared to work for the Republican nominee. This left a vacuum which people like Mr Page, who would never get anywhere close to influencing a more normal candidate, gladly filled. Both sides benefited from this. Mr Page got to sound important and Mr Trump’s campaign acquired a veneer of expertise which it never really had. Thus Mr Page, an oil and gas consultant with some experience in the former Soviet Union, a man lacking any prior political experience and whose consulting firm consisted of one Carter Page, came to be a foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign.
Republican members are outraged by Mr Page’s treatment by the FBI and DoJ, because it is evidence, they say, that the agencies were determined to target the Trump campaign using Mr Page. Mr Trump’s lawyer, Donald McGahn, the same man who signed-off on the declassification of the Nunes memo, had previously written to Mr Page crossly. “You never met Mr. Trump, nor did you ever ‘advise’ Mr. Trump about anything. You are thus not an ‘adviser’ to Mr. Trump in any sense of the word,” he wrote. So which is it? Were the agencies after an innocent man who had nothing to do with Mr Trump, or conspiring to discredit the man who would become president?
It seems fairly clear that the memo is not really about the thing it seems to be about. What it is really doing is providing public fuel for the burning sense of grievance that the president and his cheerleaders feel about the FBI and about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election led by Robert Mueller. This may be sincere, or it may be born out of alarm at what Mr Mueller may find. We cannot really know that until Mr Mueller has done his work. Likewise, the release of the Nunes memo may prove to be a moment of peak hysteria. Or it may be a prelude to firing Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney-general, or even Mr Mueller. If that were to happen it would be the most serious act of rule-breaking this presidency has seen.
Until this Russia investigation, the House and Senate intelligence committees have been relative havens of bipartisanship, putting aside party differences in the cause of defending the United States. Now the Nunes memo stands as further evidence of a dramatic process of political decay that has been going on for a while and will probably continue. But it is not more than that, yet.