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the presidency

Trump Orders Release of Classified Documents, Then Says Never Mind

What was that about?

In the same week that the Kavanaugh-Blasey dispute drowned out all else, the president launched a sudden offensive, then sounded retreat. On a Monday he ordered the Justice Department to declassify without redaction a slew of documents and e-mails from the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election that the House Intelligence Committee has been clamoring to get for months.

"What I want is, I want total transparency…It's a terrible witch hunt and it's hurt our country…Things that have been found over the last couple of weeks about text messages back and forth are a disgrace to our nation."

On Friday he rescinded his order. What was that episode about?

Devin Nunes (R-Cal.), the House Intelligence Committee chairman, who had been a member of President Trump's transition team, has spent the last two years in a crusade to prove that the FBI, Justice Department, and intelligence agencies have collaborated to bring down the president. The president speaks repeatedly of a "witch hunt". Media on the right speak of a "deep state" conspiracy, a shadow government working to undermine the administration.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has already turned over thousands of pages of documents, but the committee now wants the unredacted release of 21 additional pages of the secret application that the FBI submitted to the FISA court to obtain a warrant for surveillance of Trump's former campaign adviser Carter Page, and all text messages about the Russia investigation from James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page and Bruce Ohr.

Strzok and Page had exchanged extensive anti-Trump e-mail. Strzok, in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, insisted his personal opinions had never contaminated his work at the FBI, a claim backed by the Justice Department's inspector general's report, but it is not untoward for committee members to have their doubts. As for the others, the committee has no demonstrated cause for probing their e-mail in the midst of the Russia investigation.

The committee's Republicans claim they are simply exercising their oversight role. Rosenstein knows they mean to go beyond oversight and want to pry open the department's ongoing investigation by the special counsel. Committee Democrats know the document demand to be a ruse to learn what the investigation has on Trump.

In ordering the release of the unredacted materials, the president would be guilty of a stunning breach of security, potentially exposing human intelligence sources and methods of the FBI and intelligence departments in order to poke into an investigation that concerns himself. It knows no precedent and the risk "is evidently of no consequence to a president who cares nothing about the country and everything about his narrow self-interest", says the intelligence committee's ranking Democrat, Adam Schiff of California. Given the administration’s furor over leakers of classified information, there's no shortage of irony in what would be a leak to top all others.

Before Trump backed down there had already been reports that the FBI and Justice Department would consider the release of documents a red line that must not be crossed and would meet the demand with resignations rather than compliance. Exposing material that the agencies had pledged to keep confidential would tell those in the field that the United States could no longer be trusted. The president rather sheepishly tweeted that "key Allies' [sic] called to ask not to release". Theresa May must have let him have it.

not supposed to investigate?

The House committee, Trump's claims of "witch hunt", and Republicans in general have characterized the FBI's action as spying on the campaign, when in fact the Bureau was doing what we should expect of it. Rather, the FBI could be faulted for being slow off the mark, for not pursuing Russian attempts to break into the Democratic National Committee's servers it had spotted as far back as September 2015. The campaign in 2016 was rife with puzzling Russia contacts, Russians circling the Republican convention, Carter Page meeting with high-level Russians in Moscow, the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele that alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Formerly with MI6, the British intelligence service, Steele was known to the FBI through past dealings and was regarded as knowledgeable and competent. There was ample reason for the FBI to try to get a reading of the many peculiar Russian connections (in comparison, contacts with other nations approached zero).

Page was an obvious start. The bureau sought a FISA warrant for his surveillance because of his suspect contacts with Russians in the past. In 2013 Page had shown up in New York FBI wiretaps of a pair of Russian spies and a Russian banker who were trying to recruit him (the spies were ultimately imprisoned, the banker deported). In the midst of the Trump campaign in 2016, Page went to Moscow where he met with unusually highly-placed contacts. The FBI suspected that Page might have become a foreign agent.

The FBI also asked an occasional informant named Stefan Halper to make contact with three advisers associated with the Trump campaign — Page, George Papadopoulos, and Sam Clovis — to see what could be discovered. When Republicans learned of Halper this May, they tried to portray him as a spy permanently implanted in the campaign. They made it "Spygate".

impugning the fbi

In January, Nunes released a memo in which he set out to prove the FBI was corrupt in seeking the Page warrant, challenging the "legitimacy and legality" of using the Steele dossier to support probable cause. Even though the political origins of the dossier were known to the FBI and Justice Department, the warrant application made no mention of "the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts". True, but no mention of a footnote disclosing Steele’s possible bias that takes up more than a full page in the application. For the FBI, the dossier was the product of a trusted former MI6 operative, so who paid the bill was likely of little import to the them compared to tracking down whether his findings were true.

Moreover, ongoing FISA warrants need to be re-submitted every 90 days. The Carter Page warrant was approved four times by the court spanning a year. During three of those moments the court's judges would have been living in caves for them not to know all about the provenance of the dossier, which was heavily reported by the media from December 2016 onward.

In the memo, Nunes' attempts to discredit Steele made prominent note that he "was suspended and then terminated as an FBI source", not because Steele's research was shoddy, but because of "what the FBI defines as the most serious of violations — an unauthorized disclosure to the media of his relationship with the FBI". Media on the right would ever after reduce that to "fired" without elaboration that Steele was not an FBI employee subject to firing, was under contract with Fusion GPS, the company for which he had produced the dossier, was obliged by them to give media interviews, and as a British subject not bound by FBI policy, was free to do so.

Nunes' memo said the dossier "formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application" and that FBI's Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified to the Committee "that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the [FISA court] without the Steele dossier information". But that quote is Nunes' paraphrase of what McCabe said in closed session, and it was Nunes who decided to was "essential". McCabe bridled at Nunes' distortion:

"We started the investigations without the dossier. We were proceeding with the investigations before we ever received that information. Was the dossier material important to the package? Of course it was. As was every fact included in that package. Was it the majority of what was in the package? Absolutely not."

Absolutely not because the Carter Page FISA application ran to 412 pages. The dossier was only 35 of those. Yet Nunes left his memo's readers to think that there was nothing other than the dossier in the application. He mentioned nothing else.

Conservative media invariably couples "unverified" or "discredited" with "dossier" to plant in the public's mind the notion that it is filled with falsehood. Of course the dossier is unverified. No one has worked on verification other than the secret Mueller probe from which nothing has leaked. What can also be said is that neither has anyone disproven a single item in the dossier.

Nunes' contention that the inclusion of the "unverified" dossier in the FISA warrant application was inexcusable is where he must know he is deliberately deluding the public. The FBI would certainly include the "unverified" dossier in the FISA application because the "I' in FBI stands for "Investigation". It is the FBI showing the FISA court that with all the Russia activity surfacing there was probable cause for a warrant to investigate what of all the allegations and rumors are true. Nunes wants us to think that the FBI should have first somehow verified everything in the dossier and only then seek a warrant to verify it.

what does ohr know?

And now the Intelligence Committee — and the president — are anxious to read Bruce Ohr's mail, not that they have any justification for doing so. That Ohr, a senior Justice Department official where he has spent some three decades, has spent years tracking Russian organized crime is why Trump and his supporters want to see what he knows. He was involved with revoking the visa of the Russian aluminum magnate, Oleg Deripaska in the belief that he sought to launder illicit profits here. An ally of Vladimir Putin, Deripaska was given private briefings by Paul Manafort when he was campaign chairman, raising the alarm for the Justice department that he might have influence in a future Trump White House. This April, Mr. Deripaska was added to the U.S. list of sanctioned Russian oligarchs.

The administration's contrived license to pry? Ohr's wife is a contractor at Fusion GPS, the outfit for which Steele produced his dossier. Republicans want to know why Ohr has met with Steele, even after the FBI discontinued his services. The answer is that Ohr and Steele have known each other for years; they met in 2007. Did we not mention that Ohr works at Justice on Russian organized crime, and that the FBI's discontinuance had nothing to do with the quality of Steele's work and deep knowledge of Russia? The FBI, while constrained by its rules from direct contact with Steele, continued to gain intelligence from Steele via several meetings between Steele and Ohr that extended well into 2017, say congressional officials. Nunes, wants that to seem illegal: "Before and after Steele was terminated as a source, he maintained contact with DOJ via then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr". It is valuable that they continue to know and meet with each other and that the FBI learns what Steele uncovers. But not valuable for Donald Trump, who has Ohr on his list of those to be stripped of their security clearance. It strongly suggests that the president hopes to destroy the Justice Department's institutional knowledge of Russia's crime syndicates.

the corrupted house committee

The intelligence committees of the Senate and House are meant to be apolitical, given that their subject is national security. But in the hands of Nunes, the House committee's investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election became entirely politicized. In March a year ago Nunes was caught out pretending he had alerted the White House to documents he had come upon that proved — although they did nothing of the sort — that former President Obama "wiretapped" Trump Tower during the transition. It became farce when aides admitted that the documents were from the White House itself, slipped to Nunes to sound the alarm for them. He had shown himself to be Trump's protector and had to recuse himself from the Russia probe, but not for long.

Nunes often acted without the knowledge of Democrats on the committee and subverted investigation that might prove damaging to the president. A number of key witnesses were never called to testify, among them former national security adviser Michael Flynn, one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos, who was the first to learn that Moscow had thousands of Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Witnesses before the committee were permitted to refuse to answer questions of their choosing — Steve Bannon and Corey Lewandowski among them — with the question of contempt of Congress never raised. Mike Pence said he would not testify about what he knew about contacts between Russia and members of President Trump's transition team, which Pence headed, because he saw no precedent for such an appearance, leaving unchallenged an absurdity: how could a precedent for anything ever be established if a precedent is a prerequisite?

Nunes shut down the committee's investigation, issuing a 250-page report last April in which the Democrats were given no input. In it, several contacts with Russians — by Donald Jr. and others with the Russian lawyer at Trump Tower, his meeting with with a Russian official at the 2016 National Rifle Association annual meeting, Eric Prince traveling all the way to the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean to meet with a Russian oligarch, numerous "ill-advised" contacts with Wikileaks — all are swept away in the report, saying nothing came of them. Jared Kushner's attempt to set up back-channel communications with the Russians at their embassy is awarded this convenient logic:

"Finding .#35: Possible Russian efforts to set up a 'back channel' with Trump associates after the election suggest the absence of collusion during the campaign, since the communication associated with collusion would have rendered such a 'back channel' unnecessary."

And where is Felix Sater in the report, a convicted felon with links to Russian organized crime whom the committee did interview, who had e-mailed Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, "Buddy, our boy can become president of the U.S.A. and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this"?

The Republican committees' attempt to paint an FBI conspiracy to prevent Trump from becoming president could not be more obvious as a red herring. It was the opposite: The FBI — in the person of James Comey — greatly damaged Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency with its last-minute probe of a new cache of e-mails (that added nothing new, being most likely the other end of e-mails already seen).

But what did the FBI do with whatever negative information it had collected about Trump and his campaign? It did nothing. The Bureau was silent. Some conspiracy.

1 Comment for “Trump Orders Release of Classified Documents, Then Says Never Mind”

  1. John Evans

    When Louis Learner was not indited for destroying memos and evidence relating to the IRS targeting conservative organizations. When Hillary Clinton was not indited for destroying evidence it became obvious that the DOJ had become politicized by the Obama administration. When the CIA covered up the Benghazi debacle they it was obvious that the CIA had been politicized.

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