We need to worry about the threat imposed by the Nunes document and Trump’s decision to release it. Politically it is clearly an attempt to discredit the Mueller investigation into Russian collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign. Whether Trump has colluded or not, this ongoing investigation has to continue.
Trump’s statement today (02/02/18) that “what is going on in our government is a disgrace” (in supporting this memo’s attack on the FBI and Justice Department) is unlike Richard Nixon’s attempt to influence the FBI to stop investigating Watergate. It is far more destructive in that it is a public attack on the credibility of the FBI and ultimately the Justice Department. If effective, it will leave lasting damage by weakening the independence of these institutions and the check they provide on illegal use of power. Americans, even Republicans or Populists who now are Republicans who support Trump, need to be very careful in allowing the Department of Justice and the FBI to be emasculated. The damage to our Democracy will be long-lasting.
Here are some facts to be considered about the Nunes memo:
- The connection to the Trump investigation is tenuous. The memo is about a FISA request from the FBI signed off by the Justice Department to continue an ongoing investigation into Carter Page’s contacts with Russians which started in 2013. The particular FISA application and approval to wiretap Carter Page that Nunes objects to occurred in October 2016, after Carter Page was no longer officially associated with the Trump campaign. In other words, Carter Page was a subject of interest for many years prior to being associated with Trump, and the FISA application occurred after Carter Page had left the Trump campaign.
- The memo asserts that the issue at hand is that a “dossier” compiled by Christopher Steele on behalf of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign was an essential part of the evidence used to justify the FISA request. However, Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee indicate that many other documents, which are classified, were part of the evidence presented in the FISA request. The biased account by Nunes does not even acknowledge the existence of these other sources of information. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the Committee notes that, “it is necessary to understand how the investigation began, what other information the FBI had about Russia’s efforts to interfere with our election, and what the FBI knew about Carter Page prior to making application to the court”.
- Democrats would like to present information that discusses the misleading “cherry-picking” done by the Nunes memo. Their information , which for example, provides information about other sources used in the FISA request besides the Steele dossier, is classified so Democrats cannot release it and refute the Nunes memo. This situation is clearly stacked against transparency; this is how an authoritarian state operates. It stacks the deck against transparency and the truth and calls its selective facts, “the truth”.
- Both the Justice Department and the FBI advised the House and the President not to release the Nunes memo due to its misleading nature and the damage it would cause as a result. Trump and Nunes ignored them as well as ignoring the Democratic minority and Republicans such as John McCain and Jeff Flake. This alone is evidence of the partisan and divisive nature of this release.
- Even if the Democrats could release their memo, focusing on the integrity of the FBI and Justice Department is a rabbit hole that is typical of how Trump and now his allies in Congress, divert attention from the Russian investigation itself, and instead change the focus to attacking the FBI and the Justice Department. If successful, their loss of independence will be a loss for all of us as our Democracy is weakened by eroding independence of these institutions.
- Until now the Trump Administration has said until now that Carter Page was not part of the Trump campaign in any significant way. Now Nunes and Trump allies are saying that the FISA requests to surveil Carter Page are evidence of targeting of the Trump Administration. The Trump allies cannot have it both ways; either Carter Page was part of the campaign or he was not.
- Nunes says that the FISA application failed to alert the FISA court that the Steele dossier was paid for by the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Democrats say this characterization is untrue and that the court was aware of the connection. One might ask how the FISA court would not be aware of this connection.
- The FISA court does not take evidence without scrutinizing it. Are the FISA judges inexperienced or stupid? Do they rubber stamp these applications? No, they do not. If there is bias here, the FISA judge is in collusion with the FBI applicants, which is unlikely. What is far more likely is that the judge saw enough evidence to renew the surveillance request.
- The GOP, in releasing this memo, indicated it would be a “bombshell”; as big as anything since Watergate. We can see from its content that it releases little in terms of facts that were not known. It is just the interpretation of the facts that is highly partisan, not the facts themselves.
What is at stake here is more than an ongoing investigation. It is the fabric of our Democracy. If successful, this weakening of the independence of the FBI and Justice Department is one step towards authoritarian government, slowly but surely.