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By Frank Bowman

Well, after much angst, the Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee were able to get THE MEMO released.  Here it is, if you haven’t already seen it.

This document was supposed to reveal a scandal bigger than Watergate!  It was supposed to prove that officials in the Justice Department and the FBI criminally abused surveillance laws to undermine the Trump Administration!  It was supposed to expose a deep, nefarious conspiracy against the rule of law itself!

Instead, what we have is a whimpering anticlimax.  A document so devoid of substance and so transparently doctored for partisan effect that, in any other era, it would be instantly and universally branded as a cynical farce and its authors driven out of public life as embarrassments to the republic.

Stripped of the folderol, this is what the memo says:

It asserts that the Justice Department applied for and obtained a FISA surveillance warrant allowing interception of communications with Russians by Carter Page, a former affiliate of the Trump campaign, and that DOJ based its application for the warrant in some (unspecified) part on information derived from a “dossier” of material compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

The GOP letter does not identify which information derived from the dossier was used in the warrant application. Critically, the letter does not describe the rest of the information in the warrant application or describe how information from the dossier relates to the application as a whole.  The letter does not reveal whether, and if so to what extent, information derived from the dossier and included in the warrant was corroborated by other sources. In fact, the letter does not even claim that the information from the dossier used in the warrant application was inaccurate.  Indeed — and incredibly — the letter does not claim that any information in the dossier was inaccurate.

The sole argument of the letter is that the Justice Department should have revealed to the FISA court which issued and renewed the warrant information suggesting political bias on the part of Mr. Steele.  In particular, the letter argues that the application should have disclosed that Mr. Steele’s research effort was — at one point during his work — funded by attorneys working with the Democratic National Committee. (Of course, the GOP letter rather comically omits the fact that Steele’s firm was first engaged by Trump’s Republican opponents.) Similarly, the letter reports that, by the fall of 2016, Mr. Steele had become “passionate” about Mr. Trump not becoming president and implies that this should have been told to the court.  That’s it.  That’s the whole bowl of bananas.  That’s all Nunes and friends have got.

To be as fair as possible to Mr. Nunes, it’s generally a good idea to include in warrant applications some information about the possible biases of one’s sources.  It helps a reviewing court assess the strength of the evidence in support of the application. In a case where the warrant application turns entirely on the credibility of a single witness, that’s especially crucial.  But in Mr. Steele’s case, it’s essential to note that (so far as I know) he is not himself a witness and indeed is not an actual source for any of the information in the dossier.  He is merely the owner of a firm that collected information from other sources. In such a case, far more important than the possible bias of the collector of information is independent corroboration of the facts he collected.  Of course, in that capacity, he could, in theory, falsify or misreport information.  But the GOP letter never claims that he did.

Critically, the GOP letter conspicuously omits any discussion of the degree to which the FBI independently verified the dossier’s information, either in general or as it related to this warrant application. And Mr. Nunes and his GOP fellow travelers have blocked the release of all the information that would be necessary to determine if their reading of this affair is correct,

The bottom line of the GOP letter is this transparently faulty syllogism:

  • Some information derived from the Steele dossier was used in a FISA surveillance warrant for Trump campaign operative Carter Page.
  • The warrant application didn’t specify that Steele’s firm was paid by Democrats (and Republicans) who did not want Donald Trump to be president, or that, after investigating Trump for some months, Steele concluded that he did not want Trump to be president.
  • Therefore, no information originating in the dossier can be believed, the warrant should not have been issued, no one should remember to ask what the surveillance of Page actually uncovered, and we should all dismiss the entire investigation into Trump-Russia collusion as a political witch hunt by traitorous conspirators in the Deep State.

The whole business is yet another example of  the strange, logically inverted, world into which Mr. Trump and his abettors would lead us. In Trump World, the mere fact that one opposes Mr. Trump (or is simply insufficiently slavish in one’s devotion) is conclusive proof that one cannot be believed. Perhaps the most revealing line in the GOP’s letter is its breathless recitation of the fact that, in September 2016, Mr. Steele confessed his “passionate” opposition to a Trump presidency.  The letter’s authors apparently view this sentiment as proof of irrational bias, which if disclosed to the FISA court would have discredited all Mr. Steele’s work.

They have it exactly backwards.  A far more plausible view is that, by September 2016, Mr. Steele had discovered so much about Trump’s Russia connections that the prospect of his occupancy of the White House evoked nothing but horror.  Certainly that’s the way I would have read the statement had I been on the FISA court.  As such, even though it would have been prudent to identify the funding sources for Mr. Steele’s intelligence efforts, the omission of Steele’s personal views about Trump from the FISA warrant application  was, if anything, a laudable exercise of professional restraint.

The bottom line here is that THE LETTER is, as the British say, a damp squib.  Its only consequence lies in the possibility that Mr. Trump will use it as an excuse to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and thereafter Robert Mueller.  Were that to happen, we will cross into uncharted and dangerous ground.