A Guide to Why The Memo Is Dumb

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On Friday, Republican congressman Devin Nunes released his infamous Memo, which for weeks he had hyped as a silver bullet in the administration’s persistent claim of pernicious anti-Trump bias in the FBI.

But rather than whooshing through Washington like a righteous hurricane of truth, the memo is a dud which only winds up reinforcing what we already knew: That people in Trump’s orbit were, in fact, under well-warranted surveillance by the intelligence community.


Here are the key points of The Memo, annotated:

This is the memo’s basic premise: that, in 2016, a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant carried out against onetime Trump campaign advisor Carter Page was awarded by a federal judge based on some sketchy justifications by the DOJ and FBI (more on that in a bit).

Page, as you might recall, was a foreign policy adviser to then-candidate Trump who officially left the campaign a full month before the October 21st FISA order was given. In other words, right off the bat we have our first problem: Despite the administration and its allies insisting that the memo was proof of anti-Trump bias, all it actually shows is that Page—long believed to have ties to Russia since well before Trump announced his candidacy—was given a closer look after leaving the Trump campaign.


As the memo states, FISA warrants like these need to be renewed by a judge every 90 days. What’s more, each renewal “requires a separate finding of probable cause.” So each time a judge agrees to extend the surveillance allowed by the warrant they have to be shown evidence that there’s something worth surveilling. No matter what prompted the initial surveillance on Page, then, a judge agreed with the FBI and DOJ that there absolutely was something worth pursuing again and again and again.


Note, too, who signed the various FISA applications: There’s ousted Director James Comey, newly ousted Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, and Deputy-turned-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates—all conspicuous targets of the White House. But then there’s Dana Boente and Rod Rosenstein—two top officials who are still in the uppermost echelons of Trump’s justice department. In fact, Boente was picked to be the general counsel for the FBI just one week ago.


Now we’re getting to the good stuff. And by “good stuff,” I mean...the pee tape—or at least the infamous “Steele dossier” of raw intelligence gathered on then-candidate Trump, which includes a number of salacious personal details about Trump and accuses him and his campaign of financial crimes and misdeeds pertaining to Russia.

Nunes claims here that the dossier was an integral factor of the DOJ/FBI’s surveillance request, but that they never disclosed its potentially partisan Democratic origins—which, to him, render it ineligible for inclusion. The dossier’s actual development is much, much more complicated than that, with its roots in a conservative publication funded by a major GOP donor. In fact, as Andrew Prokop points out at Vox, the memo never explicitly says that the FBI was aware of the Clinton campaign and The Democratic National Committee’s connection to the memo, even as it implies they intentionally concealed that connection.


Even if they did know, of course, Nunes is arguing against the dossier’s origins, rather than denying its contents.


A career spy who’d just uncovered what he believes was dramatically disqualifying and potentially criminal information about a major political party’s candidate for president was “passionate” that he not be elected? Stop the presses!


Now we get to the core of the thing: According to Nunes, then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified that “no surveillance warrant would be been sought... without the Steele dossier information.”

But let’s look what Nunes isn’t saying here: He’s not saying that the dossier itself was presented to the FISA court as evidence for a warrant. Instead, the dossier’s information is what helped prompt the FBI and DOJ to seek the warrant in the first place. That’s a pretty big difference, and absent the actual FISA documents themselves, it is a difference that will remain unresolved.


Complicating matters even more, however, is the fact that two members of Nunes’ House Intelligence Committee have since come out denying McCabe ever said the dossier was the basis of the FISA warrant in the first place.

So, given the memo’s extremely careful wording, and the denials of his committee colleagues, it’s probably safe to assume that the straight line Nunes would like people to draw between the dossier and the warrant are probably a lot less straight than he’d have us believe.


Finally, there’s this juicy tidbit, nestled in the Memo’s closing paragraph: Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos had been under an FBI counterintelligence investigation for months before the DOJ requested a FISA warrant for Carter Page. And not only had Papadopoulos been under investigation, but, we now know, he’s since confessed to lying to the FBI as part of that investigation.


By letting this detail slip, Nunes has inadvertently confirmed that, in fact, the FBI’s initial investigation into the Trump campaign was not prompted by this Carter Page warrant—it started with an investigation into someone who’s already admitted to wrongdoing connected to the case. Had the Page warrant never been issued, in other words, there still would have been an investigation into the Trump campaign.

So, there you have it. The bombshell memo that was supposed to rock Washington to its very core? A bunch of cherry-picked bullshit. Now why not go outside, breathe some fresh air, and try to forget America was dumb enough to get whipped into a frenzy over this nonsense in the first place.

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About the author

Rafi Schwartz

Senior writer. When in doubt he'll have the soup.