U.S. politics are in turmoil over “the memo,” a document few have read. Supporters of President Donald Trump say its contents raise questions about the integrity of the criminal investigation into Russia meddling in the 2016 election, which has blossomed into a broader inquiry of Trump and his inner circle. Trump’s critics say the memo is a politically driven effort to undercut the Russia probe. The Federal Bureau of Investigation says the document shouldn’t be released to the public. But it probably will be.
1. What is the memo?
It’s a four-page summary of classified information prepared by a Republican congressman, Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a stalwart defender of Trump. The memo has been described as laying out the case that officials at the FBI and the Justice Department showed a bias against Trump by misleading a surveillance court, in October 2016, to obtain a warrant to spy on an associate of the Trump campaign, Carter Page. The FBI’s interest in Page, who had visited Moscow in July 2016, was one of the threads that led to the appointment of a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to oversee an investigation of the campaign’s ties to Russia.
2. How could the FBI have misled the court?
According to lawmakers who have read the memo, it says the application to spy on Page might not have been approved had the FBI volunteered the full story behind the so-called Steele dossier -- a 35-page document alleging Russia has been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for at least five years and fed his campaign “valuable intelligence” on Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. Trump has dismissed the document as "a complete fraud," and some Republicans have charged that its unverified and sensational allegations -- combined with the fact that Steele’s research was largely financed by Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee -- form a corrupt foundation to the investigation of Trump.
3. What’s in the memo that could be so explosive?
To hear Nunes tell it, the memo contains revelations that touch on the very legitimacy of American democracy. “It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign,” he said in a statement. But the FBI, in a rare public statement, said it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Nunes’ Democratic counterpart atop the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, said the memo “is an effort to circle the wagons around the White House and distract from the Russia probe.”
4. When do we get the memo?
It’s unclear. Using a never-before-used rule, the majority-Republican House Intelligence Committee voted on Jan. 29 to release it publicly after a review by the White House. Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, said on Jan. 31 that the memo would be released “pretty quick, I think, and the whole world can see it.” Exactly who might release it is also unclear. Trump could do it, or the memo could be read into the Congressional Record, the public record of official proceedings. There are also questions about what might happen if the White House redacts sections of the memo. The House Committee might decide to vote again on whether to keep or remove the White House edits; this would add a few more days of suspense.
The Reference Shelf
- QuickTake Q&As on the twists and turns of the Trump-Russia story and whether Trump can fire the special counsel.
- Bloomberg View’s Timothy L. O’Brien says Nunes is interested only in "protecting the president’s interests."
- A Bloomberg View editorial on "partisanship at its worst."
- Nunes has been here before.
- Fusion GPS, which produced Steele’s dossier, stands by its work.
— With assistance by Anne Cronin