After what we can be sure was not careful consideration, President Trump on Friday approved the release of a memo prepared by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. And, of course, he explained himself in a tweet: "The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago."
That indeed is the conclusion of the four-page memo prepared by Republican staffers under the direction of committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), though the document uses slightly more restrained language. The memo advances the scandalous notion that Democrats were able to bring a former Trump campaign advisor under government surveillance by paying a researcher to gather the dirt used to justify the spying.
But the document doesn't really back up this assertion, despite the seemingly interminable buildup by Republican members of Congress and pro-Trump commentators. Nor does it provide a rationale for the president to abort or interfere with the investigation being supervised by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
As expected, the memo focuses on the FBI's use of information gathered by Christopher Steele, a retired British intelligence agent, in obtaining orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Carter Page, a New York energy consultant and former advisor to the Trump campaign.
According to the memo, the government didn't disclose to the court that Steele's research into alleged ties between Trump and Russia was financed by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, "even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known" to senior Justice Department and FBI officials.
This was important, the memo says, because Steele's information was an "essential part" of the application for a court order to spy on Page. The memo says former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe told the committee last December that no warrant would have been sought from the court without information from the Steele dossier.
But Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, pushed back, saying "it's misleading to suggest that the court had no idea there was a political motivation involved." The memo in general, Schiff said, was a collection of "cherry-picked" facts. Schiff's counterpart on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), said that he had read the documents on which the House memo was based, and "they simply do not support its conclusion." (It would be easier to evaluate these statements if Republicans hadn't refused to release a Democratic response to their memo at the same time — another clue to the essentially partisan nature of the memo.)
Yet even if one takes the Republican memo at face value, it doesn't demonstrate that the surveillance of Page was illegitimate. Even if the government should have been more forthcoming about the funding of Steele's information, the former British spy had been a trusted source for the FBI in the past. And whatever McCabe actually told the committee — his testimony was paraphrased in the memo, not quoted — it's not clear that Steele's contribution was so vital to the application for a court order that a judge wouldn't have authorized surveillance without it.
It's also worth noting that the memo undercuts the idea that the Steele dossier launched the FBI investigation of whether there was collusion between Russia and people associated with the Trump campaign. The memo acknowledges that the counterintelligence investigation was triggered by information about George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign advisor who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the FBI.
Finally, any issues with the surveillance of Page have nothing to do with matters that Mueller is currently thought to be investigating. They include the possibility that Trump obstructed justice when he fired former FBI Director James B. Comey and participated in drafting a false statement about a meeting involving Donald Trump Jr. and Russians claiming to have damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Earlier this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said release of the memo was "a completely separate matter from Bob Mueller's investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to continue." It's not clear Trump agrees. In addition to his tweet Friday criticizing the "top leadership" of the Justice Department, he refused to say whether he still had confidence in the man who hired and supervises Mueller: Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who played a role in continuing the surveillance of Page. "You figure that one out," the president told reporters.
On Friday night a White House spokesman told CNN that "there are no conversations and no considerations about firing Rod Rosenstein." But Trump undercut such reassurances Saturday when he returned to Twitter to declare: "This memo totally vindicates 'Trump' in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. . . . This is an American disgrace!"
Trump reportedly decided to fire Mueller last summer, relenting after his White House counsel threatened to quit. But dismissing Rosenstein also could be a way to strike at the Mueller investigation. On Friday, Democrats in Congress sent a letter warning Trump that firing either Rosenstein or Mueller "could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre," when Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor in 1973. That's a message that Ryan and other responsible Republicans need to echo.
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4:35 p.m.: This editorial was updated to clarify that the surveillance was of a former Trump campaign adviser, not one who was with the campaign at the time.