WASHINGTON ― For weeks, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and their allies have been promising that they have a memo with damning evidence undermining special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and Russian ties to President Donald Trump’s inner circle.
“This is far worse than Watergate. This is an abuse of surveillance and intelligence to win an election,” Fox News host and loyal Trump defender Sean Hannity said Monday, adding that Mueller’s “witch hunt” would be over.
That memo, written by GOP committee staffers, was finally released on Friday. And it has no smoking gun to discredit Mueller or any other top Justice Department officials that Trump wants to get rid of.
Its purpose is to muddy the waters, raise questions in people’s minds and provide a distraction from the fact that at the end of the day, there is still zero evidence that there was a “deep state” plot to elect Hillary Clinton president.
The crux of the memo, pushed out by committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is that law enforcement officials abused their surveillance authority by relying on a controversial “dossier” with unproven claims to spy on Trump campaign official Carter Page.
It says then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe testified they would not have “sought” a surveillance warrant for Page without that dossier.
But the memo never answers the question of whether the dossier was the basis of the FISA court’s decision to grant the warrant. It doesn’t reveal what else was included in the application for a warrant. And at the end of the day, there’s far more to the Russia investigation than the Page surveillance.
Russian operatives tried to recruit Page as a spy in 2013, even before he joined the Trump team. Former FBI Director James Comey has testified that officials began looking into Trump-Russia connections in July 2016, long before the Page warrant in October 2016.
The memo actually confirms a New York Times report that what started the investigation was a slip-up by Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, who admitted to a diplomat that he knew Russia had dirt on Clinton.
In other words, the House GOP memo undercuts conspiracy theories that the probe started because of the dossier. The memo also does nothing to dispute any of the potential collusion between Trump and the Russian government:
It does not dispute the Papadopoulos contacts.
It does not dispute the infamous Trump Tower meeting between Trump’s son and Russian officials to gain opposition research on Clinton.
It does not dispute Trump’s own involvement in crafting an inaccurate statement about that meeting.
It does not dispute that Russians hacked into the emails of the Democratic National Committee and a top Clinton campaign official.
It does not dispute that Trump fired Comey because he was unhappy with his continued pursuit of the Russia investigation.
All of those omissions only serve to highlight the central fact that makes the Republicans’ attack on Mueller, and the law enforcement establishment more broadly, so absurd: The information leaked and released by the FBI and the rest of the so-called “deep state” during the election didn’t undermine Trump — it helped get him elected.
The FBI was investigating both the Trump and Clinton campaigns during the election. But it only revealed its investigation into Clinton. Just 11 days before the election, Comey revealed that he was reopening the investigation into Clinton’s emails, even though she had been already cleared. The announcement cast enough suspicion and changed the conversation in the final stretch that Clinton and the site FiveThirtyEight say it cost her the presidency.
If the “deep state” wanted to hurt Trump, someone could easily have leaked information about the FBI’s investigation into his campaign. No one did.
The information leaked and released by the FBI and the rest of the so-called “deep state” during the election didn’t undermine Trump — it helped get him elected.
Republicans tried to argue that they are releasing the memo because they believe in transparency. But it’s been clear all along that the document is a particularly effective bit of partisan gamesmanship. Republican staffers wrote the thing, after all. The GOP-controlled committee voted against allowing Democrats to release their response memo at the same time. And conveniently, the findings of the memo found their way into the hands of Byron York, a conservative columnist who published a piece about the document just minutes after Trump declassified it ― and before nearly everyone else had seen it.
Some Republicans were urging members of their party to slow down on the memo release, recognizing that it likely didn’t have the smoking gun some lawmakers claimed it did. They didn’t want to cross the FBI, and they worried that by overhyping something so insignificant, they’d look silly or worse.
That handful of Republicans might be missing the bullshit factory for the cow pies. It’s true that the memo shows almost nothing. But Trump supporters can still use it to question Mueller’s investigation ― and cite it when they continue standing behind the president no matter what he does. And that’s the whole point.