House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, whose Republican staffers prepared the controversial document released Friday, promises that it was just the beginning. He boasted that he now plans to train his fire on other targets, "what I call 'Phase Two' of our investigation."
The memo published Friday may have been the most overhyped dud since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s empty vault in 1986. But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, whose Republican staffers prepared the partisan document, promises that it was just the beginning.
He boasted on Friday that he now plans to train his fire on other targets. “We are in the middle of what I call ‘Phase Two’ of our investigation, which involves other departments, specifically the State Department and some of the involvement that they had in this,” the California congressman told Fox News.
“Republicans close to Nunes say there could be as many as five additional memos or reports of ‘wrongdoing,'” Axios reported Sunday night. “A Republican source briefed on Nunes’s investigation” told the site that one of the Democrats he plans to go after next is longtime Bill and Hillary Clinton associate Sid Blumenthal, who has been fending off inquiries from congressional investigators for more than two decades.
Nunes – who stands accused of carrying water for President Donald Trump – told the Weekly Standard on Friday that he doesn’t plan to use the same declassification process to put out future memos, which requires the formal approval of his members. This suggests that the material won’t be particularly sensitive but merely the aggregation of already available information.
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The potency of the future releases depends on the answers to the following six questions:
1. How many more Republican lawmakers distance themselves from Nunes?
The main takeaway from the Sunday shows was the degree to which prominent Republicans, including four members of the House Intelligence Committee, dismissed the idea that the memo exonerated Trump or undermined special counsel Robert Mueller’s work.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, a former CIA officer who sits on the Intelligence committee and represents a district that Hillary Clinton won handily, was asked on ABC’s “This Week” whether he thinks the memo “totally vindicates” Trump, as the president tweeted Saturday.
“I don’t,” Hurd said. “I don’t agree with some of my colleagues … always using the words ‘explosive’ to describe the document. . . . I want to stress: Bob Mueller should be allowed to turn over every rock, pursue every lead so that we can have trust in knowing what actually the Russians did or did not do. . . . I don’t believe this is an attack on Bob Mueller. I don’t believe this is an attack on the men and women in the FBI. I’ve served shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and they are hardworking folks that keep us safe.”
“I actually don’t think it has any impact on the Russia probe,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who helped draft the memo, on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” He added that Trump should not fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said the two are “very separate” issues and Mueller should be allowed to finish his work. “This memo, frankly, has nothing at all to do with the special counsel,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”
Asked if he agrees that Trump’s been “vindicated,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said on CNN: “I think this is a separate issue. In my opinion, what we’re dealing with is a situation within our FISA court and how we process within our government agencies, and I don’t think it really has anything to do with that.”
Nunes was noticeably absent from the Sunday show circuit.
Some of the Republican Party’s most respected elder statesmen see what Nunes is doing as an embarrassment. “The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said in a statement Friday after the release of the memo.
He’d need to spend a little political capital, but Speaker Paul Ryan could muzzle Nunes if he wants to. “The memo was a disaster not only for the Trump-Nunes strategy but also for the country,” conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin argues on The Post’s Right Turn. “The only questions that remain are how long [Ryan] is going to let this humiliating spectacle go on and how much damage he will permit to be done to the oversight process so Nunes can flail about trying to protect Trump and ruin public servants’ reputations.”
2. Will Republicans allow the release of the Democratic rebuttal?
Many who have seen the intelligence say that the GOP memo cherry picked intelligence to paint a misleading and incomplete picture. The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is still pushing to release a 10-page rebuttal to the memo. This was rejected on a party-line vote last week, but Schiff will offer a motion to force another vote on declassifying their response during a committee meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday. If it passes, then it would go to the Justice Department and Trump would have days to block it.
Nunes has claimed that he is willing to release the Democratic memo after it’s scrubbed of classified information. A White House official told CBS on Sunday that their position is: “If [it’s] voted out, we’ll consider it.”
“I believe it is a matter of fundamental fairness that the American people be allowed to see both sides of the argument and make their own judgments,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in an open letter to the president on Sunday. “A refusal to release the Schiff memo . . . will confirm the American people’s worst fears that the release of Chairman Nunes’ memo was only intended to undermine Special Counsel Bob Mueller’s investigation.”
The GOP memo claims that the Justice Department did not disclose key facts about former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in the secret application to carry out surveillance on former Trump adviser Carter Page. Steele wrote the infamous dossier alleging ties between Trump and Russian officials. His research was initially funded by anti-Trump Republicans and later paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Republicans say the application would never have been approved without the information from the dossier and if a judge had known of its partisan origins.
Government officials are adamant that this central allegation in the memo is baseless. “The court that approved surveillance . . . was aware that some of the information underpinning the warrant request was paid for by a political entity, although the application did not specifically name the [DNC or Clinton],” two U.S. officials familiar with the matter told The Post’s Ellen Nakashima on Friday. The Justice Department made “ample disclosure of relevant, material facts” to the court that revealed “the research was being paid for by a political entity,” said one official. “No thinking person who read any of these applications would come to any other conclusion but that” the work was being undertaken “at the behest of people with a partisan aim and that it was being done in opposition to Trump.”
“Only very select parts of what Christopher Steele reported related to Carter Page were included within the application, and some of those things were already subject to corroboration,” said Schiff.
Republicans also claim that then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified before the committee during a private hearing in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISA court without the information in the dossier. But the memo does not directly quote McCabe saying this. It paraphrases him. And Democrats on the committee say that McCabe’s comment has been taken out of context.
So there are also calls for the release of the hearing transcript, or at least that section. “There really doesn’t seem to be any reason to paraphrase what McCabe said but not be able to quote him,” writes The Post’s Aaron Blake. “If the quote comes out and it turns out the paraphrase was misleading, the entire memo will be undermined. If the paraphrase is accurate, it bolsters the GOP’s argument.”
3. Will Republicans continue rallying to the defense of Carter Page?
It’s baffling that the former Trump adviser has become a cause célèbre on the right. Beyond the dossier, the feds seem to have had a litany of legitimate reasons to surveil him.
“Far from demonstrating that the FBI was out to get Trump, the memo suggests that the Trump campaign could have had an active Russian spy working as a foreign policy adviser,” writes former FBI special agent Asha Rangappa, now a senior lecturer at Yale.
“I used to obtain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants, so I’m familiar with the procedures Nunes implies the FBI abused in this case,” she explains in The Post. “To initiate surveillance on [Page] . . . the government would have had to demonstrate that Page was ‘knowingly engaging in clandestine intelligence gathering activities for or on behalf of’ Russia. It takes months and even years to obtain enough relevant evidence for a FISA application, which can include details from physical surveillance, phone and financial records, items recovered from the target’s trash and intelligence obtained from other sources. So the FISA application would probably have outlined the bureau’s efforts going all the way back to 2013, when Page was approached by the FBI, which warned him, based on recordings of Russian intelligence officers, that he was being targeted for recruitment as a Russian spy.
“Nunes’s memo also discloses that the government obtained three renewals of the FISA warrant, which occurred every 90 days after the initial authorization. In order for a judge to allow the surveillance to continue, the government has to demonstrate that the intercepted communications are, in fact, providing foreign intelligence,” she continues. “Even worse for Nunes, he managed to showcase concrete proof that the FBI was looking into Trump’s Russian connections before they heard from [Christopher] Steele. The memo confirms that Australian intelligence was aware of possible ties between George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, and Russian intelligence, and that the Australians were alarmed enough to alert the FBI, which opened an investigation in July 2016.”
Moreover, the surveillance on Page was not authorized until October 2016 – a month after he left the Trump campaign.
Time reported this weekend that Page bragged in a 2013 letter to a publisher that he was an adviser to the Kremlin. Page, who denies wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime, told the magazine that he was offering the Russians “really plain-vanilla stuff.”
4. How forcefully will the national security community push back on future memos?
Former CIA director John Brennan declared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Nunes has “abused the chairmanship.” “It’s just appalling and clearly underscores how partisan Mr. Nunes has been,” said Brennan, who led the agency during the investigation into Russian interference.
He said the FBI was “very forthcoming” to the FISA court about what it knew and added it knew much more than what was in the dossier. He said the FBI had its own sources of information, and that the intelligence community was gathering material “on multiple fronts.”
Trump and House Republicans chose to release the document despite the FBI publicly expressing “grave concerns” and intense private lobbying that this would set a bad precedent.
“Bureau officials say the accusations in the document produced by House Republicans are inaccurate and – more damaging in the long term – corrode the agency’s ability to remain independent and do its job,” The Post’s Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky reported on the front page of Sunday’s newspaper. “One law enforcement official summed it up bluntly: ‘There’s a lot of anger. The irony is it’s a conservative-leaning organization, and it’s being trashed by conservatives. At first it was just perplexing. Now there’s anger, because it’s not going away.'”
Ousted director James Comey reacted this way on Friday, tweeting “That’s it? Dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House intel committee, destroyed trust with Intelligence Community, damaged relationship with FISA court, and inexcusably exposed classified investigation of an American citizen. For what? DOJ & FBI must keep doing their jobs.”
Former FBI special agent Josh Campbell, who worked for Comey, said he has turned in his badge so that he can speak out against the GOP attacks on the bureau. “FBI agents are dogged people who do not care about the direction of political winds,” Campbell wrote in an op-ed for the Times. “But to succeed in their work, they need public backing. Scorched-earth attacks from politicians with partisan goals now threaten that support, raising corrosive doubts about the integrity of the FBI that could last for generations.”
5. Will the attorney general continue to look the other way as the president attacks the Justice Department?
John Ashcroft stood up to George W. Bush when DOJ lawyers concluded that a warrantless surveillance program was unconstitutional.
Sessions has shown that he approaches the job more in the mold of Alberto Gonzales, Ashcroft’s successor, who proved far more pliant to White House pressure (and eventually resigned in disgrace over his role in the firings of U.S. attorneys for political reasons.)
“Sessions has been largely quiet and even yielding as the president leads the most public and prolonged political attack on the department in history, a silence that breaks with a long tradition of attorneys general protecting the institution from such interference,” Katie Benner writes in the New York Times. “Current and former prosecutors say Mr. Sessions’s tepid response reflects efforts to appease Mr. Trump, even at the expense of morale among the department’s employees, and has raised fears that prosecutors cannot depend on protection from political interference.”
“I have great confidence in the men and women of this department. . . . But no department is perfect,” Sessions said in a short statement after the memo was released Friday.
Last month in Virginia, Sessions said during a speech that the “vast majority” of Justice Department employees are patriotic and hard-working. But he welcomed congressional scrutiny.
Here are three notable quotes from DOJ alums in Monday’s Times:
“What is unusual is the F.B.I. and the Justice Department being attacked, the president leading the charge and the attorney general missing in action,” said Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under Bush. “Why isn’t he sticking up for the department?”
“Attorneys general swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not the president,” said Matthew Axelrod, a partner at Linklaters and a former Justice Department official who began as a federal prosecutor under Bush. “Institutions like the DOJ rely on their leaders to be a voice that defends them. It’s critically important to this institution that its leadership have its back.”
“Prosecutors and agents are extremely vulnerable if they’re not properly supported by leadership, especially when it comes to investigations and attacks launched on the political side,” said Daniel Petalas, a former prosecutor in the department’s public integrity section and the United States attorney’s office in Washington.
6. Will Trump try to move against Rosenstein or Mueller?
Touting the memo on Fox News Saturday night, Donald Trump Jr. said: “There is a little bit of sweet revenge in it for me and certainly probably the family in a sense that if they wouldn’t have done this, this stuff would be going on.”
Asked in the Oval Office on Friday if he’s going to fire Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation because Sessions recused himself, the elder Trump told reporters: “You figure that one out.”
In addition to Republicans saying Mueller should be allowed to finish his work, a chorus of Democrats said on the Sunday shows that firing either man would lead to “a constitutional crisis.”
But none of that may be enough to deter Trump if he thinks the special counsel is an existential threat to his presidency and he can get away with it.
The Post’s E.J. Dionne argues in a column that “Nunes is paving Trump’s road to autocracy”:
“In her classic 1951 book, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism,’ the philosopher Hannah Arendt offered two observations that help us understand the assumptions and purposes behind the memo,” he writes. “The totalitarian method of the 1920s and 1930s, she noted, was to ‘dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.’ She also said this: ‘Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.’
“Bear Arendt’s warnings in mind in pondering the Nunes screed whose sole purpose is to discredit an investigation that appears to be getting closer and closer to Trump,” E.J. concludes. “The cynicism of a significant part of the public, particularly Trump’s supporters, leads them to believe that everybody in every institution lies. The Nunes talking points toss out distorted and disconnected facts, not to advance the truth but to cloud it in confusion.”
With Breanne Deppisch and Joanie Greve.