The Nunes memo is finally public.
So what does the eponymous memo, named for House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, actually prove about the FBI, the Justice Department and the roles senior officials in both of those organizations played in the 2016 election?
By my reading, precious little.
The memo’s biggest claim is that then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe told the House Intelligence Committee that no FISA warrant would have been issued relating to one-time Trump campaign adviser Carter Page without the so-called Steele dossier – the work of a former British spy named Christopher Steele that was being secretly funded by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The House Intelligence Committee was not made aware of the financing behind the Steele dossier during its investigation.
More about the Nunes memo
That could be a big deal. Except, we don’t know for sure that the timeline of events – and the reporting on who said what when – in the Nunes memo correlates with the objective truth. Why? Because the actual FISA court warrants are classified. And because Democratic sources familiar with the Intelligence Committee testimony suggested Friday that McCabe did not, in fact, say that the FISA warrant would have never been issued if not for the Steele dossier. The sources also said McCabe did disclose to the committee that the Steele dossier was paid for by Clinton and the DNC.
If you are inclined to believe – as President Donald Trump is – that there is a widespread deep state conspiracy within the Justice Department actively working against you, then you see all sorts of wrongdoing here.
“The memorandum raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the Government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement Friday afternoon.
McCabe admitted to reliance on the Steele dossier – portions of which have never been confirmed by the FBI! And he didn’t tell the Intelligence Committee who was paying for the memo! And a bunch of Justice Department officials – including current Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – signed off on one of these FISA warrants!
Trump made his own views on this crystal clear on Friday morning, before the memo was even public.
“I think it’s a disgrace,” he said. “What’s going on in this country, I think it’s a disgrace.” He added, “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that.”
It might be! But, here’s the thing: We – and Trump – have no way of knowing that because, not to beat a dead horse, but a) The FISA warrants in question are still classified and b) We don’t know for sure that what Nunes said McCabe said is the full picture.
What’s difficult about getting to the bottom of what McCabe really said – and what the FISA warrants really looked like – beyond the two facts above is that the entire Nunes memo has transformed into a political football.
The hashtag #releasethememo has been a steady drumbeat for Republicans convinced, like Trump, that something’s rotten in the Justice Department. Democrats have, on the other hand, lined up in unanimous opposition to the release of the memo – suggesting it represents not only a break with the apolitical way in which the Intelligence Committee has operated in the past but also creates a real threat to the country going forward.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, the ranking minority member on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called the release “reckless” and said it “demonstrates an astonishing disregard for the truth.”
But amid all of the partisan sniping, we have the FBI and the Justice Department. And this is where I run intro trouble with the memo – and what it apparently “proves.”
The FBI is run by a man named Christopher Wray. He was Trump’s hand-picked successor after the President fired James Comey. Rosenstein, who is tasked with overseeing the investigation into Russia’s attempted meddling in the 2016 election because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, is, like Wray, a pick of Trump’s Justice Department.
And yet, both men opposed the release of the Nunes memo.
“With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the FBI said in a statement on Wednesday. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Read that again. “Grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
So. The FBI, which is run by a man Trump hand-picked to run it, says the memo commits the sin of omission and, by doing so, doesn’t present a totally accurate picture.
I haven’t heard a good explanation from conservatives for that fact. Is Wray also part of the deep state conspiracy against Trump? If so, why did Trump pick him? If not, why didn’t Trump listen to him?
As I have noted before, there was never really any debate within the White House about whether or not to release the Nunes memo because it validated all of the beliefs that Trump already had and, therefore, must be true.
The memo also appears to give Trump what he believes is the leverage he needs to jettison Rosenstein. Asked Friday morning whether he still had confidence in Rosenstein, Trump responded, “You figure that one out.”
You don’t need an advanced degree in reading between the lines to see what Trump is driving at there.
Which is all well and good. As President, Trump does have the power to fire the deputy attorney general – and the AG too – if he so chooses.
But, to pin those firings – or Trump’s broader conspiracy about the deep state – on the Nunes memo is to do a disservice to the actual facts as we know them. That doesn’t mean Trump won’t do just that – he absolutely will – but a facts-first focus simply does not yield that conclusion.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state Trump’s response to reporters when asked if he still has confidence in Rosenstein.