What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t

  • Philip Bump
  • The Washington Post
7:30 a.m. Monday, Feb. 26, 2018 Politics
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
In this March 20, 2017, file photo, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., center, flanked by the committee's ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., left, and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., listens on Capitol Hill in Washington during the committee's hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Two weeks after President Donald Trump blocked its full release, the House Intelligence Committee published on Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, a partially blacked-out version of a classified Democratic memo aiming to counter a GOP narrative that the FBI and Justice Department conspired against Trump as they investigated his ties to Russia.

To hear President Donald Trump tell it, the memo released on Saturday that provides the Democratic counterpoint to the document prepared by staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., earlier this year both bolsters Nunes' case and, somehow, was a total bust for the minority party. But, then, Trump's response to all things related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election - and any points of contact with his campaign — has always been dismissal without nuance. 

Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes's original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI's investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton's campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS. 

Trump saw the Nunes memo as proving that the Russia investigation was biased and unfair because, working backward, it was essentially founded on surveillance that was politically motivated and false. (Nunes argues that his memo was solely part of his oversight duties, though this was the second time in a year that he has risen to Trump's defense on the strength of debatable interpretations of classified material.) 

The Democrats' memo was meant to point out where Nunes' memo missed its goal of proving bias in the Russia investigation. There's not much new in it — but it did reconfirm some reported information, and there are some new components. There is also some promised information that still hasn't surfaced. 

- What we learned 

The investigation into whether Trump's campaign was aiding Russian interference began July 31, 2016. We've known for months that the investigation into interactions between Trump's campaign team and Russia's interference effort began in July. The Democratic memo affixes a specific date: July 31, 2016. 

That counterintelligence investigation began, both sides agree, after a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos was told by a Russia-connected contact that the country had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of emails. Papadopoulos conveyed that to a diplomat from Australia during a meeting in London in May 2016. Once the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee began being released by WikiLeaks and others in June and July, the Australians informed U.S. intelligence officials about what Papadopoulos had said. 

This also means that the investigation began four days after Trump publicly asked Russian hackers during a news conference to release emails stolen from Clinton's private server if they had them. 

By September 2016, the FBI had opened investigations into four members of Trump's campaign team. The Democratic memo says the information compiled by Steele into his infamous "dossier" of 17 raw intelligence reports didn't get to the FBI's counterintelligence team until the middle of September. By that point, we can conclude thanks to a sloppy redaction (noted by former intelligence officer Matt Tait) and an unredacted footnote that Page, Papadopoulos, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn, who would go on to be Trump's national security adviser, were all already under investigation. 

While Steele's research began in June and he reached out to the FBI shortly after beginning it, the Democratic memo argues that it was only after an FBI team was checking into Page that the dossier came to their attention. Why? For one thing, we can assume, Page had visited Russia during July to give a speech. For another, he'd been interviewed by the FBI in 2013 after Russian intelligence agents were observed mentioning him as a potential target for recruitment. 

The initial warrant application for Page and the three renewals of it were approved by Republican-appointed judges. Four judges — two appointed by George W. Bush, one by George H.W. Bush and one by Ronald Reagan — approved the surveillance of Page. The warrant, called a FISA warrant after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, needed to be renewed every 90 days. By the time the first warrant for Page was approved in October 2016, he was no longer serving as an adviser to the Trump campaign (because news reports including allegations from Steele's dossier tied him to senior Russian officials during that July trip to Moscow). 

We learned exactly how Steele's relationship to the Democratic Party and Clinton was described in the initial application. Nunes' memo contended that the Steele dossier's allegations about Page meeting senior officials was the primary driver of the FISA warrant application, and yet Steele's bias in compiling that information wasn't conveyed to the judges. The Democratic memo articulates specifically how that relationship was described. (All identifiers in the quote below have been added by The Washington Post except the identification of "Source #1″.) 

"(Steele) was approached by an identified U.S. Person (apparently Fusion GPS' Glenn Simpson), who indicated to Source #1 (Steele) that a U.S.-based law firm (Perkins Coie, which hired Fusion on behalf of the DNC and the Clinton campaign) had hired the identified U.S. Person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1's (Trump's) ties to Russia. (The identified U.S. Person and Source #1 have a long-standing business relationship.) The identified U.S. person hired Source #1 to conduct this research. The identified U.S. Person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1's ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1's campaign." 

The original FISA application was at least 56 pages long. Tait also noted that a footnote in the Democratic document cites Page 56 of the FISA application - meaning that it was at least that long and probably longer. The quote above concerning the presumptive bias of Simpson appears on the 15th and 16th pages of the application. 

Why is this important?

Because the Nunes memo implied that the evidence from Steele formed the bulk of the rationale for a warrant included in the application. 

Page allegedly lied in his sworn testimony before the House committee. A redacted section of the document alleges that Page lied under oath when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. 

Some of Steele's research was corroborated by the FBI after the initial warrant. In response to the Democrats' response to his memo, Nunes offered a counter-counter-response. Part of that document addresses a statement from the Democrats that the Justice Department "provided additional information obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele's reporting." 

Nunes' memo notes that this was only after the initial FISA warrant. 

Some part of Steele's report was corroborated with additional information before one of the renewals of the warrant, but we don't know what — and it wasn't entirely confirmed. 

Interestingly, that section of the Democratic memo hints that some of the corroborated information involved Arkady Dvorkovich, a Russian deputy prime minister to whom Page admitted speaking briefly in testimony to the Intelligence Committee. In an email to Trump campaign after returning from Moscow, Page wrote that he'd had a "private conversation" with Dvorkovich. 

Analyst Julian Sanchez notes that Dvorkovich's last name isn't paired with an identifier in the Democratic memo, suggesting that he is included in part of the preceding redactions. 

- What we didn't 

How then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe described the importance of the Steele information. Nunes' original memo states that McCabe told the committee that "no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the (Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court) without the Steele dossier information." That's a quote from the Nunes memo, not McCabe. 

Earlier this month, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., who sits on the committee, told CNN's Jake Tapper that Nunes represented McCabe's words incorrectly and that the Democratic memo "would put into focus what exactly (McCabe) said." 

It doesn't — and Nunes's representation of McCabe's words have already been used to undercut the Democratic memo.