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Friday, July 20, 2018

After far more drama and tension than should have been necessary, the infamous House intelligence committee memo on alleged surveillance abuses by the FBI against President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was released. And it was, predictably, a hilarious and self-defeating flop, but that fact won’t discourage Trump’s most slavish acolytes from claiming the Russia “hoax” has been exposed.

This was actually a bit sad for me. I was holding out an irrational hope that House intelligence chair Rep. Devin Nunes, in the course of his day-to-day duties of abusing the committee’s oversight role to shield the president from political damage, might have accidentally stumbled into some real FBI malfeasance. After all, the government has granted itself vast surveillance powers and shielded itself from public accountability through secrecy and classification, making it extraordinarily difficult to know if and when abuses of those powers occur.

But, alas, the memo was a bust. It didn’t really tell us anything that hadn’t already been leaked or guessed, and it actually undermined a critical point Donald Trump and his defenders hoped the memo would bolster.

Nunes’ document alleges that FBI investigators relied in part on a dossier compiled by ex-MI6 officer Christopher Steele to obtain a FISA warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, and that the government failed to “accurately provide an accounting of the relevant facts” about the dossier when applying for and reauthorizing the warrant. Those “relevant facts” do not have anything to do with the accuracy of the information contained within the dossier, which Nunes’ memo doesn’t address.

Rather, the memo complains that the government did not disclose the “political origins” of the dossier — specifically the fact that Democratic groups helped fund it and that Steele himself showed “clear evidence” of bias against Trump — when presenting its case before a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) judge. The memo doesn’t actually make any allegations, but it strongly implies that Justice Department officials deliberately withheld this information to illicitly obtain and reauthorize surveillance of Page.

None of us has any way of knowing how legally significant these claims of bias would have been, however, because Nunes’ memo doesn’t lay out the government’s case against Page in any detail. Nor does it provide the name of the FISC judge who heard the evidence. In fact, it doesn’t provide any information one would needto gauge the validity of its implications. Instead, the memo strongly suggests that the Steele dossier was the critical component to the case against Page (while it conveniently omits the fact that he was on the radar of counterintelligence officials as far back as 2013).

This is important because Trump and his defenders are heavily invested in the notion that the whole Russia investigation originated from the Steele dossier, which they loudly insist is discredited and total bunk. The memo, however, accidentally disproves that allegation. In a sloppy attempt to gild what is already an unimpressive lily, Nunes’ memo vaguely alleges bias by noting that investigators mentioned a different Trump associate, George Papadopoulos, in its warrant application for Page. “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016,” the memo notes, thus corroborating a New York Times report that the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign’s Russia contacts began with Papadopoulos, not the Steele dossier.

But all of this is immaterial to the people who had already decided what the memo would say before they even saw it. Nunes, with allies in the conservative media, mounted an effective PR campaign around this document while it was still under wraps and advertised it as an earth-shaking and world-historic revelation of anti-Trump corruption and bias at the highest levels of government. Sean Hannity (who is denying reports that he advised Trump to approve the memo’s release) hyped the memo earlier this week by saying “this makes Watergate like stealing a Snickers bar from a drug store.” Former Trump White House official Sebastian Gorka grandiloquently declared that the memo’s revelations would be “100 times bigger” than the abuses that precipitated the American Revolution.

The memo, of course, comes nowhere close to matching that absurd hyperbole; it’s impossible to assert that the memo even points to a minor scandal at this point. So, now, these same Trump lackeys will set about to loudly exaggerating or flat-out lying about the memo’s contents so that it fits their pre-formed conclusion. It’s already happening: right-wing pundits are saying the “devastating” memo undermines special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump. The same people who spent weeks loudly demanding that the memo be released won’t be bothered by what the memo actually says. All they’re interested in his how they can use it to discredit the intensifying federal investigation into the president and his associates.