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Trump Can Only Hope His Lawyers Are Brighter Than Devin Nunes

From the Republican perspective, maybe the worst thing about the dueling Nunes/Schiff memos regarding the FBI’s Russia investigation is what they revealed about the intelligence of the combatants. Following the Fox News-amplified thunder of the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, what strikes me now about the Nunes effort is how breathtakingly dumb it was.

Call me an elitist if it makes you feel better. But if you were being investigated by a prosecutor as experienced and relentless as special counsel Robert Mueller, you definitely wouldn’t want Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) as your lawyer.

By explicitly confirming that the FBI probe of the Trump campaign’s dalliance with Russia began in direct response to staffer George Papadopoulos’s drunken bragging to an Australian diplomat in June 2016, the Nunes memo unintentionally rebutted its own basic argument.

Papadopoulos’s guilty plea confirms the investigators’ judgement.

But no, the so-called “dodgy dossier” compiled by British intelligence agent Christopher Steele didn’t jump-start the FBI  — which never saw his work until September. As Steele, a veteran operative with a sterling reputation in Great Britain, stated all along, some of it was “raw intelligence” that might never be confirmed.

Not that he’s been proven wrong.

Indeed, now that we have Rep. Adam Schiff’s memo rebutting Nunes’s hackwork, it’s clear that many of Steele’s findings were exactly on target. Specifically, Steele reported that International Man of Mystery and former Trump volunteer Carter Page was told during a Moscow trip in July 2016 that the Kremlin had a) collected allegedly compromising information on Hillary Clinton, and b) strongly favored Trump’s election.

Although Page publicly denied meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, he also sent the Trump campaign a memo detailing his “private conversation” with the man. Leaks of stolen Democratic National Committee emails via Wikileaks (remember how Trump “loved” Wikileaks during the campaign?) began three days later.

Given those facts, supplemented by independent FBI sources, why should it matter who financed Steele’s investigation? Or what the four GOP-appointed FISA judges who approved surveillance of Page were told about it?

Evidence is evidence in a court of law.

Because, see, that’s the second big problem with the Nunes memo that Sean Hannity predicted would lead to the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton and half of the “Deep State” operatives of the FBI: its sheer, staggering dishonesty.

Contrary to Nunes and his Fox News enablers, the FBI did not conceal the partisan origins of the Steele dossier from the FISA court. Schiff’s rebuttal directly quotes the warrant application stating that the British investigator had been hired indirectly by a political opponent “looking for information that could be used to discredit [Trump’s] campaign.”

By October 2016, when this hearing took place, Trump had only one serious political opponent. Naming her was as unnecessary there as it is here, and might even have been called prejudicial. Besides, FISA judges had the authority to demand more information had they needed it.

Once again, evidence is evidence in a court of law: The FBI had suspected Carter Page of being a Russian agent since 2013.

Indeed, the Schiff memo perhaps inadvertently reveals (in a footnote) that by September 2016 fully five Trump campaign officials were under FBI scrutiny. As of today three have already pled guilty. Page hasn’t yet been charged with anything, which if I were on Team Trump, might make me nervous. Over the years, he’s probably learned the folly of lying to the FBI.

Political stupidity is one thing. But easily exposed dishonesty is dumber still. To anybody smart enough to take shelter from the rain, the Nunes memo and the choreographed #ReleaseTheMemo campaign lie in ruins. Of course that excludes roughly one-third of American voters, who believe anything Fox News says. But two-thirds don’t, and their suspicions can only have been further aroused.

And then there’s this guy: “The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST,” President Trump tweeted the other day. “Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” Characteristically empty bluster.

Meanwhile. here’s just one of Trump’s many problems: Back about the time Papadopoulos and Page were told that the Kremlin had the goods on Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Jr. received an email from a pal representing a Russian oligarch the Trumps had befriended during the 2013 Moscow Miss Universe contest.

The message proposed a meeting to share “dirt” on Clinton that would be provided as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”

“If it’s what you say it is, I love it,” Don Jr. responded without hesitation.

The meeting took place at Trump Tower on June 16, 2016. Supposedly the senior Trump was kept completely in the dark, presumably because everybody knew he had no interest in dirt about Hillary.

Nevertheless, if I were the president’s lawyer, I’d do everything in my power to prevent his testifying about these matters under oath. 

That Heavily Hyped Memo Is Utterly Underwhelming — But Still It Makes Noise

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.

Danziger: The Trump Pub Quiz

Jeff Danziger’s award-winning drawings, syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group, are published by more than 600 newspapers and websites. He has been a cartoonist for the Rutland Herald, the New York Daily News and the Christian Science Monitor; his work has appeared in newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to Le Monde and Izvestia. Danziger has published ten books of cartoons and a novel about the Vietnam War. He served in Vietnam as a linguist and intelligence officer, earning a Bronze Star and the Air Medal. Born in New York City, he now lives in Manhattan and Vermont. A video of the artist at work can be viewed here.

The Trump Dossier: This “Fake News” Is Real Enough To Investigate

When Donald Trump denounced the latest hints of his collusion with the Kremlin as “FAKE NEWS!” on Twitter, it was hard not to wonder what he meant, exactly. Having barraged us all for years with fake news about a wide variety of important matters such as Barack Obama’s true birthplace, the charitable work of the Clinton Foundation, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the dangers of childhood vaccination, does Trump mean we should believe the Russians conspired to help him win the 2016 election? Or does he mean that unlike all of his favorite fake news stories, we shouldn’t believe this one?

 Whatever Trump may mean when he complains about fake news, the story of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 election is undeniably real. So the president-elect himself finally admitted when, at his press conference, he acknowledged the accuracy of U.S. intelligence assessments of the Kremlin’s culpability in hacking the Democrats. Following a private conversation with James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, he finally stopped trying to deny and obfuscate those nefarious thefts of information by his Russian supporters.

The critical question that remains is how far the Russians went in promoting Trump’s election — and whether Trump and his campaign are implicated in that conspiracy.

Only a series of fully empowered probes by law enforcement and Congressional authorities can uncover the truth, but already there are many investigative trails to follow. Consider this week’s stunning news reports of a 35-page dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer about Trump, his campaign, and the Russians, which provoked his enraged “fake news” tweet.  Mesmerized by the dossier’s references to alleged videotape of a Trump encounter in Russia with prostitutes hired to perform a perverse urination ritual, many journalists dismissed the entire document as mere gossip.

Such dismissals revealed nothing except the ignorance of those who uttered them, none of whom appears to understand the nature and purpose of what spooks call “humint,” or human intelligence (as distinguished from surveillance and other data). The Trump dossier is an intelligence file, not a prosecution memo; its purpose is not to prove a case but to point a direction. And as subsequent coverage in the Guardian and Financial Times indicated, its author Christopher Steele is no mere purveyor of gossip. He is a highly respected and experienced former official of MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, where he oversaw the agency’s work in Russia and Eastern Europe for decades. Nobody who knows anything about Steele doubts his reach into the top ranks of Moscow’s political and business sectors.

 Indeed, much of what Steele’s dossier reports about alleged contacts between the Trump camp and the Kremlin (as well as its various cutouts) matches what US and other intelligence agencies learned last year from their own Russian sources. That was among the reasons why the director of national intelligence and the directors of the CIA, FBI, and NSA believed the dossier worthy of briefing to both Trump and President Obama.

The details also match many troubling facts already known about Trump and his associates. It is clear, for instance, that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort has worked to advance the interests of the Putin regime for well over a decade, and not only in Ukraine. It is also clear that Manafort and his longtime business partner, Washington lobbyist Rick Davis, have cultivated business ties with major Russian oligarchs in Putin’s orbit.

The most notorious of those oligarchs is Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire aluminum magnate of dubious repute who was barred from entering the United States. More than ten years ago, in 2006, Davis was preparing to launch the nascent presidential campaign of the leading Republican candidate — Senator John McCain. As The Nation and other news outlets later reported, Davis and Manafort introduced McCain to Deripaska on a yacht anchored in the port of Montenegro, where the oligarch hosted a “birthday party” for the Arizona senator. If Deripaska and Manafort were attempting to gain a White House foothold, their initiative evaporated when Obama defeated McCain two years later.

 But with that shady episode behind him, McCain probably understands better than most of his colleagues why the Steele dossier – which he personally delivered to the FBI director — demands much more than snarky repartee about “watersports.” Not everything that Steele heard is likely to be true. But if even a fraction proves accurate, the Trump campaign’s Moscow connection will become the biggest political scandal in American history.

IMAGE: A page from the Trump dossier reportedly compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele