Democrats Release Their Response Memo. So, Does It Debunk The Big FBI Conspiracy Theory?

On Saturday, House Democrats finally got their wish: they released a memo, written by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), designed to counter a memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). The Nunes memo claimed that the FBI had, under the authority of James Comey, sought a FISA warrant against former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page — and that the FISA warrant request was based on the much-maligned opposition research dossier compiled by former spy Christopher Steele at the behest of the Clinton campaign. According to Nunes’ memo, the warrant on Page was a corrupt attempt to piece together a Trump-Russia collusion connection — and the FBI stretched their authority too far in an attempt to dirty Trump. The logic of the Nunes memo essentially went like this: the FBI went to the FISA court with a bunch of garbage, which they knew was garbage; they lied about where they got the garbage; the FBI kept pushing that garbage for three FISA warrant renewals.

The Schiff memo makes a series of claims in response to Nunes’ allegations.

1. The Page Warrant Didn’t Start The Investigation. Schiff points out that the Page warrant did not initiate the Trump-Russia collusion investigation; that investigation had already been initiated in July 2016 thanks to the investigation into Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos. Nunes already admitted as much in his memo.

2. The Steele Memo Wasn’t The Sole Basis For The FISA Application. Schiff claims that the FISA warrant wasn’t gathered solely on the basis of the Steele memo — although the Steele memo was used. According to Schiff, “DOJ cited multiple sources to support the case for surveilling Page — but made only narrow use of information from Steele’s sources about Page’s specific activities in 2016, chiefly his suspected July 2016 meetings in Moscow with Russian officials. … In fact, the FBI interviewed Page in March 2016 about his contact with Russian intelligence. …” This may be true, but the “narrow use” was deeply important, since Schiff later acknowledges that Steele’s sources “reported that Page met separately while in Russia with Igor Sechin,” a Putin crony, and that the two discussed kompromat.

3. The Judges Weren’t Democrat Hacks. The FISA warrants were approved by four different federal judges, three appointed by Republicans.

4. This Wasn’t A Wiretap On The Trump Campaign. Page wasn’t working for the Trump campaign at the time of the surveillance.

5. Additional FISA Warrants Didn’t Rely On The Steele Dossier Alone. Most of this section is redacted, so it’s difficult to tell what’s happening here.

6. The DOJ Didn’t Lie About The Steele Dossier. Here, Schiff does something that Nunes didn’t: he lets the application speak for itself. According to the application, the DOJ stated that Steele was “approached by an identified US Person [note from Shapiro: this would be Fusion GPS’ Glenn Simpson], who indicated to Source #1 [Steele] that a US-based law firm had hired the identified US Person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. (The identified US Person and Source #1 have a long-standing business relationship.) The identified US person hired Source #1 to conduct this research. The identified US Person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified US Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.”

The entire question here is whether this description amounts to a lie by omission. In all likelihood, the answer is “no.” The DOJ informed the court that the FBI suspected the Steele dossier was oppo research designed to discredit the Trump campaign.

7. The FBI Stopped Using Steele After It Found Out He Talked To The Media. The FBI used Steele until it found out he had leaked to the media; at that point, they fired him and informed the FISA court.

If these claims are true, the Schiff memo largely debunks the story told by the Nunes memo.

Over at National Review, Andy McCarthy has a long defense of the Nunes memo in light of the Schiff memo. He suggests that the FBI should have told the FISA court that the Russians considered Page an “idiot”; that they should have known the Steele dossier was nonsense because FBI agent Bruce Ohr worked for Fusion GPS and knew Steele didn’t want Trump to become president; that the FBI’s language was misleading, since they knew that Steele was doing oppo research for Hillary; that the Page warrant was intended to discredit Trump, since it allows retroactive gathering of material; that Lisa Page and Peter Strzok’s bias matters, since they worked on the investigative team.

Much of this is speculation in absence of further evidence. There is a perfectly plausible case to be made that the FBI overstepped its boundaries — and that, in all likelihood, they do so rather regularly in the FISA courts. But that is not the same as saying that they had a vicious agenda to target President Trump, and that they lied to the court in order to effectuate that purpose.

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