The Republican charge that the FBI misled a secret surveillance court in order to spy on a former Trump campaign operative seemed to unravel on Saturday, when Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee revealed the exact wording that the bureau used when applying for the order in October 2016.
In a memo drafted by the intelligence committee’s Republicans in January and promptly declassified by the White House, the majority claimed that the FBI had misleadingly obscured the origins of a dossier written by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, some of whose research on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was included in the bureau’s application for a warrant to surveil him. “Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior FBI officials,” the Republicans’ memo alleged.
Following its release, Republican lawmakers used it to argue that the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign aided a Russian effort to sway the 2016 election, and the subsequent special-counsel inquiry into the matter, were both tainted from their inception by partisan bias. Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee, has accused the FBI of abusing its surveillance power to “fuel” a counterintelligence investigation during the campaign.
But as the original Republican memo also acknowledged, that inquiry began months before the FBI received the Steele dossier, and the FISA court appears to have been aware that Steele was an anti-Trump source. The court also renewed the FISA warrant on Page three separate times following the FBI’s initial application in October 2016, and, according to the Democrats, former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told the committee in a December interview that the bureau has worked “vigorously” to vet Steele’s reporting.
In a rebuttal memo released Saturday, Democrats included a portion of the Justice Department’s application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which described the political origins of Steele’s research into Trump’s Russia ties in 2016.
The Justice Department told the court in its FISA application that Steele had been “approached” by Fusion GPS’s co-founder, Glenn Simpson, to research Trump’s Russia ties. Fusion GPS was first hired in December 2015 by the conservative owner of the Washington Free Beacon to conduct opposition research on Trump. Perkins Coie, a law firm representing the Democratic National Committee, took over funding for the project in April 2016 after Trump won the Republican nomination. Steele was hired in mid-2016 by Fusion GPS.
An extract from the FISA warrant application, reproduced in the Democratic memo, says that despite their “longstanding business relationship” stemming from their past work on Russia-related issues, Simpson did not tell Steele about “the motivation behind the research” into Trump’s Russia ties. But the application noted that “the FBI speculates that [Simpson] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit [Trump’s] campaign.”
Portions of the Democrats’ memo were redacted by the Justice Department prior to its release, including details about which aspects of Steele’s research on Page the FBI had been able to independently corroborate. But the redactions “were not to the detriment” of the substance of the memo, a Democratic committee source told me, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the classified nature of the material.
Republicans acknowledged earlier this month, following an outcry from Democrats, that the FBI did disclose the dossier’s political origins in a “footnote” on the FISA application. But Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who spearheaded the majority’s memo, told Fox that a “footnote saying something may be political” was “a far cry from letting the American people know that the Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign.”
Republicans stuck with that critique following the Democratic memo’s release, complaining that it ignored the fact that the DNC and the Clinton campaign paid for the Steele dossier—a fact that was not explicitly revealed to the court. Democrats, however, have said the Justice Department was upholding its longstanding practice of not identifying U.S. persons and entities in highly classified intelligence reports.
Trump accused the FBI and DOJ of acting illegally in a series of tweets on Saturday, following the release of the Democratic memo.
“The Democrat memo response on government surveillance abuses is a total political and legal BUST. Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” he wrote. He added later that the investigation into whether his campaign team coordinated with Russia to win the election was “an illegal disgrace.”
Nineteen individuals and entities have been indicted or pleaded guilty in the probe so far—including Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, whose deputy Rick Gates pleaded guilty on Friday to conspiracy against the United States and lying to federal agents. Page, for his part, has been on the FBI’s radar since at least 2013 on suspicion of acting as an agent of the Russian government, and the Democrats’ memo—portions of which appeared poorly redacted— confirmed that at least three other “individuals linked to the Trump campaign” other than Page were under FBI scrutiny by September 2016.
In August of 2013, Page wrote a letter to a book editor claiming he had been serving as “an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin” on “energy issues,” and he was interviewed again by the FBI in March 2016—just before he joined the Trump campaign.
“As we’ve seen many times before with the felonious news leaks of the past year, this new round of misinformation surrounding efforts by Washington to illegally influence the 2016 election inflicts even more damages on the instigating perpetrators from the swamp,” Page said in a statement on Saturday night. “Today’s memo further underscores the critical importance of the immediate disclosure of all my FISA applications and other relevant documents.”