The White House on Jan. 20, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

Opinion: What ‘the memo’ tells us (and doesn’t tell us) about FBI and Trump

We now have “the memo.” Click here to read it, not that I expect it to change a single person’s mind about anything. 

The biggest claims in the document -- which was created by Rep. Devin Nunes, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, and released Friday after President Trump declassified the information within it -- basically boil down to this: The Justice Department used the infamous dossier compiled by British spy Christopher Steele as an “essential part” of its October 2016 application to conduct surveillance of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, as well as subsequent renewals of that application, even though the FBI had not yet verified the dossier was truthful and eventually found it was “minimally corroborated.” It did this without disclosing that Steele had been paid by the Democratic National Committee and had even told a high-ranking Justice official in September 2016 that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” The memo also states that Andrew McCabe, the recently departed deputy director of the FBI, told the committee in December 2017 that “no surveillance warrant would have been sought” if not for the information in the Steele dossier.

Drilling down, there are a few obvious questions still unanswered here. First, what does “essential part” mean in relation to the surveillance application? It could mean the information in the dossier was materially important to the application -- in which case this is a big deal, since that information turned out in large part to be unverifiable. But could it not also mean the dossier was cited as a reason for starting a broader investigation that, while not verifying what the dossier asserted, uncovered other reasons to spy on Page? The memo does not tell us.

The latter possibility could also explain why the warrant “would not have been sought” but for the Steele dossier, as the memo states. The original tip in a criminal case (or in news reporting, for that matter) need not prove true if it leads the investigator to find other information or evidence that is true. As for the question of Steele’s motive, I’m not a lawyer but it seems courts often dismiss claims of bias by the tipster for the simple reason that, in many if not most cases, someone with enough information to provide a tip is bound to have an interest in the situation (for more, read this).

None of this necessarily means the warrant was based on the information in the dossier. It could just mean the dossier sparked the inquiry that eventually led to the warrant application. We don’t know which is the case from this memo alone.

The next question is whether it’s a bigger deal that the Justice officials working on the investigation were also biased against Trump. By now you’ve probably read about the biases by FBI agent Pete Strzok that led him to be reassigned from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The memo also states that then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, who interviewed Steele and recorded the Briton’s biases against Trump, had his own conflict which was not presented in the warrant application. In fact, Ohr’s wife produced opposition research about Trump funded by the DNC for the same firm, Fusion GPS, that worked with Steele. We don’t know from the memo how those biases might have influenced the investigation; we apparently are just expected to assume they did because biases are bad (except, one guesses, biases in favor of the president that lead congressional chairmen to release memos with classified information).


All of that said, the hysteria and hand-wringing over the memo’s release also seems to have been greatly exaggerated. One would need a keener eye than mine to see what in the memo could possibly trigger the national-security concerns cited as reasons not to release it. Sure, the memo strongly suggests there was at least sloppiness, and perhaps political motivation, at the FBI as it sought a warrant to spy on Page. But I’d hazard a guess that some of the people wailing about this are the same ones who have applauded the release of actually important government secrets in the past -- whether we’re talking about the Pentagon Papers or Edward Snowden.

I’ll err here on the side of more transparency rather than less. If the Democrats have information that they believe would balance out this memo, let’s see that as well.

There’s also the fact that the memo acknowledges the counter-intelligence investigation that Strzok led -- and which ex-FBI Director James Comey repeatedly last year assured Trump was not aimed at the newly inaugurated president -- began before the Page warrant and was in fact triggered by information the FBI learned about campaign adviser (even that seems to be overstating his role) George Papadopoulos. The memo claims there was no link between Page and Papadopoulos; it will be important to see whether the probe led by Mueller, who has already secured a guilty plea from Papadopoulos, comes to the same conclusion. Either way, it seems, despite all the hoopla about the Page warrant and how it came about, the Steele dossier is not the reason there was a counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign. 


Bottom line? We know little more today than we did before the memo was released. Still, I have no objection to its being made public. To reiterate, we will need more information, not less, to sort through this whole sordid affair and whether it is nearly as big or small as partisans on both sides would have us believe.

About the Author

Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield
Kyle Wingfield is the AJC's conservative columnist. He joined the AJC in 2009 after writing for the Wall Street Journal, based in Brussels, and the Associated...