politics

Fact-Checking the Dueling Memos on Alleged Bias in Russia Probe

The feud of the memos

A House panel on Saturday released a Democratic rebuttal to a Republican memo that alleged bias in the handling of the Russia probe by the FBI and Justice Department.

President Donald Trump cleared the Democratic version for release after insisting on redactions requested by the FBI and Justice Department to withhold classified information. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, reached a deal with U.S. officials over the redactions.

The four-page Republican memo, written by GOP staffers under the direction of Chairman Devin Nunes, was released on Feb. 2 after a vote by the House Intelligence Committee. The extensively footnoted 10-page Democratic response, which the panel voted later to release, concluded that the assertions in the GOP memo were misleading or erroneous.

Here’s what the memos say and what it all means:

The Dossier

Republican claim:
The GOP memo asserts that officials relied primarily on an unverified dossier prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele to obtain a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has echoed that conclusion, writing in a separate Jan. 4 memo that the "bulk" of the first warrant, filed on Oct. 21, 2016, was based on Steele’s information.

Democratic claim:
The Democratic memo says the Steele dossier wasn’t part of the FBI’s original decision to open its counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 because the bureau didn’t receive the memo until September. The memo said the dossier was referenced in the FBI’s initial warrant application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court in October 2016, but the FBI “cited multiple sources to support the case for surveilling Page” and made only “narrow use” of the information from Steele’s sources about Page’s activities. It noted that Page had been on the FBI’s radar for many years, and that a Russian intelligence officer targeted him for recruitment, although the date of that contact was redacted. 

What it all means:
The actual lengthy warrant application remains classified, but the hurdles for obtaining a surveillance warrant on U.S. citizens are significant. It requires multiple levels of review that on average involves 10 government officials, according to a former U.S. national security official. The Page warrant was also renewed three times -- in early January 2017, early April 2017 and late June 2017 -- which requires evidence that the surveillance was bearing fruit. 

The Democratic memo notes that the Justice Department provided “additional information obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting” in the renewal applications. The Schiff memo also said the FBI collected “important investigative information and leads” via the surveillance, although the details are redacted.

Opposition Research

Republican claim:
The FBI and Justice Department used research paid for by Trump’s political opponents to obtain the surveillance warrant without telling the FISA court that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats paid more than $160,000 to the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS, which produced the dossier.

Democratic claim:
The Schiff memo says that the FBI “repeatedly informed the court about Steele’s background, credibility and potential bias.” It quoted from a Justice Department footnote in the initial application that said, “The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. Person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.” It is typical for identities of Americans to be masked in FISA applications, which is why Democrats say the application didn’t name Clinton or Democrats as helping to pay for the dossier. The memo also says that neither the FBI nor the Justice Department ended up paying Steele for the dossier, although the FBI had “initially considered compensation.”

What it all means:
Republicans acknowledge the FISA court was informed about the dossier’s political origins, in a footnote to the application. The existence of that footnote was confirmed earlier this month with the release of a declassified version of a January letter to the FBI and Justice Department by Grassley, in which he and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham referred to the dossier.

“The FBI discussed the reliability of this unverified information provided by Mr. Steele in footnotes 8 and 18 of the FISA warrant application,” they wrote. “First, the FBI noted to a vaguely limited extent the political origins of the dossier. In footnote 8 the FBI stated that the dossier information was compiled pursuant to the direction of a law firm who had hired an ‘identified U.S. person’ — now known as Glenn Simpson of Fusion GPS — [redacted].”
What is not known is whether the judge read the footnote -- or whether the political origins of the dossier would have affected the decision in any way.

"This is politics at its highest, at its highest level,” Reince Priebus, Trump’s former chief of staff, said Monday on Fox News. “At the very least people can debate these two memos but one thing no one can debate is that politics played a role.”

Carter Page

Republican claim:
The Republican memo focuses almost entirely on the FISA warrants for Carter Page, describing him as a “volunteer adviser” in the Trump campaign and suggesting his civil liberties were violated.

Democratic claim:
Only a few references in the dossier concerned Page, and the FBI only used select parts of the dossier in the FISA application. In addition, several of the points from the dossier had been corroborated through other investigative avenues. From this point of view, Page -- who had worked in Moscow and was listed by Trump’s campaign as a foreign policy adviser, is a somewhat peripheral figure in the larger investigation. The Schiff memo said, “As committee testimony bears out, the FBI would have continued its investigation, including against [redacted] individuals, even if it had never received information from Steele, never applied for a FISA warrant against Page, or if the FISC had rejected the application.”

What it all means:
Page complains government investigations of him were launched to advance “political interests.” But there is clear evidence that Page was on the government’s radar for many years before the dossier was mentioned in the FISA warrant request, including from Page himself.

Page wrote to then-FBI Director James Comey in September 2016 -- a month before the FISA application -- asking for an end to a reported inquiry into his trip to Russia in July of that year, which he called in that letter a “witchhunt.” He also noted in that same letter that his previous stake in Gazprom, a Russian energy company, had been brought to Comey’s attention.

Rosenstein’s Role

Republican claim:
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee, approved at least one of the FBI’s applications to extend surveillance of Page even though the original request was based on tainted information.

Democratic claim:
Rosenstein’s role was limited, with the Republican memo saying he signed-off on “one or more” of the FISA applications in 2017 to continue the Page surveillance. The Schiff memo notes that other Trump appointees also approved renewals of the surveillance, including Dana Boente when he was acting attorney general. When seeking a renewal of a surveillance order through a FISA process, the government is required to provide the court “a statement of the facts" concerning all previous applications that includes a description of the intelligence received so far and its value to the underlying case. Renewals aren’t automatic: they would have needed to demonstrate that the surveillance was turning up productive information.

What it all means:
Rosenstein directly oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. Trump can’t fire Mueller without Rosenstein’s approval. By including Rosenstein in what Republicans say was a biased, even corrupt, political attack on Trump through the warrant on Page, Democrats claim Trump may be angling for a pretext to get rid of Rosenstein, who said in December there is "no good cause" to fire Mueller.

FBI Agents’ Texts

Republican claim:
The GOP memo says information about George Papadopoulos, another low-level Trump adviser, triggered the opening of the Russia investigation in July 2016 by FBI agent Peter Strzok. Strzok, who had worked on the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server, was dismissed from Mueller’s team for politically-biased text messages he exchanged with another bureau employee. Information on Papadopoulos was included in the FISA warrant application despite “no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy” between Page and Papadopoulos, the GOP memo said.

Democratic claim:
Strzok and the FBI attorney he was texting, Lisa Page, “are irrelevant to the FISA application,” the Schiff memo says. Republicans included these texts in their memo as a way to tar the FISA process as biased. Neither Strzok nor Page (no relation to Carter Page) “were affiants” on the applications. Mueller removed Strzok from his team months before the controversial text messages became public. The texts showed the pair expressing strong anti-Trump opinions, but also criticism of other officials and candidate from both parties, the Schiff memo says.

What it means:
Democrats argue that including mention of Strzok in the Republican memo, including his anti-Trump texting, is designed to bolster a broader perception that the Russia investigation has been a political hatchet job. In the same way, mention of the earlier focus by Strzok on Papadopoulos might also be questioned.

Undercutting that strategy is Papadopoulos’s guilty plea revealed by Mueller in early October: the former Trump aide admitted to lying to federal officials about his contacts with Russian nationals. In addition, Strzok is said to have supported reopening the Clinton investigation late in the 2016 campaign when emails were discovered on disgraced former Representative Anthony Weiner’s laptop. That decision is seen by Clinton supporters as potentially having cost her the election.

Other Examples of Political Bias

Republican claim:
FBI and Justice Department officials were biased against Trump early on in the Russia investigation, well before Mueller’s appointment in May 2017. The GOP memo mentions Bruce Ohr, a former associate deputy attorney general, whose wife “was employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump.”

Democratic claim:
The Republican memo is “misleading” in referring to Ohr. Both memos note that it was Ohr who reported to the FBI after the election on his communications with Steele, including Steele’s bias against Trump. Ohr reported that Steele had told him in September 2016 that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president.” The Democratic memo, which said that Ohr also disclosed his wife’s role to the FBI, notes that Ohr met with the FBI to discuss Steele after the first FISA application had already been granted and said there is no evidence that Ohr was aware of the surveillance on Page.

What it means:
Any fallout from this would be purely political. Trump allies say the evidence of bias shows that the investigation into the president is irretrievably damaged. But even House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, a member of the Intelligence Committee and the prime author of the Republican memo, has made clear that Mueller’s probe must continue unimpeded.

For more on Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, check out the Decrypted podcast:

— With assistance by Steven T. Dennis

(Updates with Priebus quote in 12th paragraph.)
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