by THE EDITORIAL BOARD · February 1, 2018
Last March, Mr. Nunes claimed that he had been given intelligence reports that President Trump and his associates were incidentally swept up in foreign surveillance by American spy agencies during the campaign. Doug Mills/The New York Times
So this is what a partisan witch hunt really looks like.
In a demonstration of unbridled self-interest and bottomless bad faith, the Trump White House and its Republican minions in Congress are on the cusp of releasing a “memo” that purports to document the biggest political scandal since Watergate. To pull it off, they are undermining the credibility of the law enforcement community that Republicans once defended so ardently, on the noble-sounding claim that the American public must know the truth.
Don’t fall for it.
Reports suggest that the three-and-a-half-page document — produced by the staff of Representative Devin Nunes (R-White House), who somehow still leads the House Intelligence Committee despite his own record of shilling for President Trump, and who is supposed to be recused from these matters — has nothing to do with truth or accountability. Rather, it appears to be misleading propaganda from people who are terrified by the Russia investigation and determined to derail it by any means necessary.
Mr. Nunes’s cut-and-paste job ostensibly shows that anti-Trump F.B.I. investigators conspired to trick a federal intelligence court into granting them a warrant to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, because of his Russian connections — in that way corrupting the entire Russia investigation from the start. How did the investigators manage this feat? By relying on a dossier prepared by a former British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, but hiding from the court that Mr. Steele’s work was being funded by Democrats, including Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and thus was hopelessly biased.
There’s so much deception and obfuscation going on here that it’s hard to know where to start.
First, Mr. Nunes and his fellow Republicans have treated the dossier like the holy grail for the Russia investigation, but it didn’t reach the F.B.I. until the inquiry was already underway — prompted in mid-2016 by suspicious contacts between Russians and George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Mr. Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying about those contacts and is now cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation.
Second, the F.B.I. didn’t zero in on Mr. Page for the hell of it. He has been in the government’s sights since 2013, when investigators learned he was being targeted for recruitment by a Russian agent. To obtain a warrant to spy on someone like Mr. Page, an American citizen, investigators must show probable cause that he is working as a foreign intelligence agent. This would require reams of documentary and other evidence gathered over the years, of which the dossier would have been only one part. In addition, the 90-day warrant for Mr. Page has already been extended at least once, which means investigators had to show the intelligence court new information, beyond the dossier, justifying the basis of the original warrant.
Third, even if Mr. Nunes shows that investigators did not tell the court who financed the dossier — which originated as a Republican-backed effort during the primaries — that is hardly a scandal. It’s not clear that the court, in Mr. Page’s case, relied on the dossier at all, but even if it did, courts rarely deny warrants on the grounds that an informant had some bias. They always assume some bias exists, as it frequently does, and then weigh the information in light of that assumption.
Finally, the idea that investigators were out to fool a federal judge shows a profound ignorance of how the intelligence courts actually work, and of the degree of vetting that precedes every warrant application. As one former F.B.I. agent explained, a conspiracy to obtain a warrant based on bad information would have required the involvement of at least a dozen agents and prosecutors, a corrupt or incompetent federal judge and the director of the F.B.I. — all working in concert to undermine Donald Trump.
You could call it all a wild-eyed conspiracy theory, only there’s no real theory behind it. Instead, there’s a mad scramble to set off this latest smoke bomb, despite pleas to not do so from, among other people, Mr. Trump’s handpicked F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray. After Mr. Wray and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, failed to persuade the president’s chief of staff, John Kelly, to withhold the memo, the bureau released a highly unusual statement expressing “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
That Mr. Nunes and the other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are happy to disregard this appeal shows how far down the rabbit hole they’ve gone. Mr. Nunes hasn’t even seen the classified documents underlying his memo, and has refused to show his work even to Republican senators. Is this the behavior of someone concerned with honesty, transparency and good government?
None of this is to say the F.B.I. and the rest of the federal law enforcement apparatus should be immune from criticism or reform. They should be subject to regular oversight and searching scrutiny. But that isn’t why Mr. Nunes is pushing his dishonest memo. As Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday: “It’s not that the government is always right or always wrong about secrecy. It’s that Americans would be right to see this release as proof that selective classification is used more often to deceive them than to protect them.”
It would be nice to treat Mr. Trump, Mr. Nunes and their cohort as the junior high school pranksters they resemble, but what they’re doing — cynically undermining the nation’s trust in law enforcement, fostering an environment of permanent suspicion and subterfuge — is far more dangerous.
The question is whether there are any adults left in the G.O.P. The evidence so far is not encouraging, notwithstanding a sporadic furrowed brow in the Senate. At some level, one hopes, a sense of shame and responsibility to the republic will finally kick in. But that, too, is unlikely. Republicans from the top on down have made it clear, expressly or otherwise, that this is all about winning the political fight directly in front of them, the consequences — and the rest of America — be damned.