Very few people have seen the memo compiled by staffers for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that purportedly outlines how a request from the FBI to surveil a Trump campaign adviser was tainted by politics. That’s going to change soon, apparently. White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade on Wednesday that the memo would be released to the public “pretty quick.” That despite a statement from the FBI shortly after describing the document as having “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The White House’s interest in releasing the memo almost certainly stems from the likelihood that it seems to bolster President Trump’s assertions that he’s been unfairly targeted by investigators. Nunes has long been a close Trump ally and defender. He faced an ethics investigation into his discussions of classified material last year following revelations meant to defend Trump after the president tweeted unfounded speculation about Trump Tower having been wiretapped. Nunes on Monday reportedly refused to say whether he’d been working with the White House on the memo.
Since the memo is still classified until such time as the White House releases it, we’re left to speculate about its contents. We know, though, that it centers on an application from the FBI to conduct surveillance on Carter Page, an energy industry executive. In March 2016, Trump announced that Page was advising his campaign on foreign policy. The memo apparently argues that this application, submitted in secret to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, included information from a dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele on behalf of the firm Fusion GPS — a company that had been hired by an attorney for the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The implication is apparently that partisan information was used to request surveillance of a Trump campaign aide when it shouldn’t have been. This argument — assuming it’s the argument made by the memo! — is contingent on a lot of shaky assumptions, several of which were parsed by Orin Kerr at Lawfare. For example: Steele’s background made him a credible source to the FBI, and judges are used to considering motivation when determining whether to grant a warrant.
Assuming, that is, that it’s fair to consider Steele a biased source. There’s no indication that Steele knew who the client was for whom he was indirectly working. In his testimony before the Senate last year, Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson said that Steele was only told to “see if you can find out what Donald Trump’s been doing on these trips to Russia.”
But the broader question that’s important to answer is if there was other evidence, besides what Steele provided, that might have prompted the FBI to seek a warrant to surveil Page’s activities. After all, if there were 40 pieces of evidence cited, one of which came from Steele, even if Steele’s evidence were somehow inappropriate to include (again, not necessarily a fair assumption) there would still be 39 other reasons that a warrant might be justified.
So what do we know about the Page warrant?
We know that it was issued at some point in the summer of 2016. We don’t know when, exactly, which could be important for assessing the memo.
We do know one element contained in it. The Post first reported on the warrant (known as a FISA warrant, short for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) in April. That report included this bit of information:
Three years before Page became an adviser to the Trump campaign, he came to the attention of FBI counterintelligence agents, who learned that Russian spy suspects had sought to use Page as a source for information.
In that case, one of the Russian suspects, Victor Podobnyy — who was posing as a diplomat and was later charged by federal prosecutors with acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government — was captured on tape in 2013 discussing an effort to get information and documents from Page. … In one secretly recorded conversation, detailed in the complaint, Podobnyy said Page “wrote that he is sorry, he went to Moscow and forgot to check his inbox, but he wants to meet when he gets back. I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am. Plus he writes to me in Russian [to] practice the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money.’’
The FBI interviewed Page in June 2013, and he admitted to providing documents to Podobnyy, though only “basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents.”
We know of other interactions between Page and Russian actors as well.
Page lived in Moscow from 2004 to 2007 while working for Merrill Lynch. In early July 2016, Page traveled back to the city to give a lecture, having been invited shortly after being named to the Trump team in March. Page informed campaign officials of his plans to travel the week before, though he at first denied having done so.
This trip became the subject of several of the reports in Steele’s dossier: Report #94, dated July 19. It claims that Page met with the president of Russian energy firm Rosneft and a Kremlin official named Igor Diveykin. Page denied those meetings after they became public in a Yahoo News report in September 2016.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee last year, Page admitted to a brief interaction with Russian deputy prime minister Arkady Dvorkovich. In a memo sent to the campaign after his return, though, Page wrote that in a “private meeting,” the official had “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump and a desire to work together toward devising better solutions in response to a vast range of current international problems.”
He traveled to Moscow again in December 2016, and again encountered Dvorkovich. But that trip would have come after the period under consideration.
It’s not clear if Steele’s memo on the first trip was turned over to the FBI right away. Page’s trip to Moscow was on July 7. The first Steele report involving him was produced on July 19. The first report Steele had produced at all was on June 20, and it — suggesting possible attempts to blackmail Trump by the Russian government — prompted Steele to raise with Fusion GPS’s Simpson the prospect of informing the FBI about what he’d learned. In his testimony to the Senate, Simpson said that a July 26 memo was produced after Steele had already met with the FBI, so it’s not clear if the July 19 memo was produced before or after that meeting.
Simpson does at one point say that after Steele talked to the FBI, “external developments occurred” over the summer, including that “Carter Page shows up in Moscow and gives a speech.”
“I vaguely recall that these external events prompted us to say I wonder what the FBI did, whoops, haven’t heard from them,” he said. This suggests that the FBI hadn’t been informed about Steele’s Page report, though it’s not clear.
Yahoo News’s September report about Page meeting with the Rosneft official and Diveykin cites only “U.S. intelligence officials” as a source, so it’s unclear if the meetings derived from Steele’s research or if intelligence officials heard the same rumors.
Fusion GPS’s research into Page led Simpson to believe that, as Podobnyy said, Page might be the type to be leveraged by the Kremlin, given his relative youth and interest in making money.
“When we talk about things in the dossier that are confirmed, this is one of the things that I think really stands out as notable, which is that Chris [Steele] identified Carter Page as someone who had — seemed to be in the middle of the campaign, between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin,” Simpson said in his testimony, “and he later turned out to be an espionage suspect who was, in fact, someone that the FBI had been investigating for years.”
Bear in mind that the warrant application — which was found to be robust enough to be renewed by Trump appointee Rod J. Rosenstein in the spring — could have predated the first Steele report. Given the rumors about the memo, that’s unlikely, but at this point we don’t know.
We don’t know what the memo claims. But the evidence at hand suggests that arguments that the FBI’s warrant application was based solely or primarily on politically motivated research from Steele aren’t backed up by what’s already publicly known.