Memo isn’t ‘treasonous’ or ‘worse than Watergate’

House Speaker Paul Ryan was correct. Nothing in the highly anticipated memo from the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee impugns the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. If President Donald Trump had hoped the memo, released Friday, would discredit the probe into Russian influence of the 2016 election, he’s wrong.

It turns out the story is both smaller and potentially larger than the broader investigation into Trump’s campaign. It’s smaller because it revolves around a relatively minor figure in the Trump-Russia affair, Carter Page, a former volunteer who was not even with the campaign when the Federal Bureau of Investigation asked a secret court to surveil him in the weeks before the election. It’s potentially larger because of what the Republican allegations say about the process for obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants.

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The Republican memo says that the FBI presented an opposition research dossier as evidence to a secret court for warrants to spy on Page beginning in October 2016. The bureau did not tell the court that this dossier was paid for by the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign through cutouts. Senior officials at the bureau and the Justice Department knew all of this, but declined to tell the judge who approved the warrant, according to the memo.

That smells bad. Yet, the information presented by Republicans here is incomplete. There is nothing in their memo that speaks to the rest of the evidence presented to the FISA court for the Page warrant. This is one reason some on the committee say the memo is wrong and would be discredited if the entire FISA application for Page were declassified.

On Monday, the Democrats will ask the committee again to vote to release their memo to the public. It’s likely that some of that information remains highly classified, so it’s quite possible the evidence Democrats say debunks the Republicans’ contentions will never be disclosed to the public.

Nonetheless, the allegation matters because it puts on the public record the full extent of Republicans’ objection to the FBI’s relationship with the former British spy Christopher Steele, who produced the opposition research dossier. Trump claims the entire probe against him and his associates is the product of Democratic Party opposition research. The memo, though indirectly, acknowledges that the FBI’s initial investigation stemmed from a tip by an Australian diplomat who was told by another Trump campaign staff member, George Papadopoulos, that Russians had compiled dirt on Clinton and were willing to share it with the Trump campaign. That information does not appear in the dossier compiled by Steele for the opposition research firm Fusion GPS.

This gets to the central complaint by Trump’s critics. They fear that Trump is looking for excuses to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the special counsel’s investigation, and, by extension, Mueller. They are right to be concerned that the president will and has violated the post-Watergate tradition of keeping federal law enforcement independent from the president and the White House. This is one reason FBI directors traditionally enjoy 10-year terms; it’s also why most of Washington was shocked when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last year, after Comey had confirmed to Congress a continuing FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia in 2016.

But the virtue of independent law enforcement goes both ways. The memo says former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe told the intelligence committee in December that no warrant on Page would have been sought had it not been for the information in that dossier. If that claim withstands scrutiny, it suggests that the warrant to spy on a Republican relied on the findings of opposition research paid for by Democrats. It makes it all the more worrying that the origins of the dossier and financial interests of its author were shielded from the court, as the memo alleges.

Again, that’s the allegation. Democrats, and for that matter the current FBI director, Christopher Wray, say the Republicans omitted important facts, rendering their memo inaccurate and misleading. What’s more, the FISA process requires new information to be presented to the court every 90 days to continue the warrant, as the Page warrant was three times. This suggests that it’s possible the wiretap on Page collected more probable cause, independent of the dossier.

For now, it’s worth calming down. Both parties have overplayed their hand.

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Democratic Senator Cory Booker said this week that the release of this memo was “tantamount to treasonous.” Republican members assured the press last month that the memo exposed crimes “worse than Watergate.”

It’s neither of those things. The good news is that no fair reading of the memo would compel anyone to argue that Mueller’s probe is discredited. Let’s await the rebuttals of the FBI and the Democrats to see whether we can say the same for the surveillance of Page.