It might not be as embarrassing as Geraldo opening Al Capone’s vaults, but the release of the Nunes memo strikes me as the most anticlimactic event in what was a pretty exciting week in politics otherwise. Somewhere between a bombshell and a nothingburger—but closer to the nothingburger— there lies this memo.
Perhaps the most important substantive detail to emerge from the memo put together by House Intel Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA) is the admission that it was George Papadopoulos—not the Steele dossier—which triggered the investigation. This, however, was an admission against interest.
Otherwise, the memo essentially confirmed—if, that is, everything that’s in there is true, which appears to be a real question—much of what I had assumed: Yes, there was questionable motivations behind the Steele Dossier, which potentially raise questions about whether the FBI should have relied on it (though we don’t know the extent to which it did). But none of that undermines the Mueller investigation.
That’s assuming the memo is based on reliable information. Already, there are signs it’s not. James Comey called it “dishonest and misleading.” Mark Warner—the top Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee—said it was "reckless and demonstrates an astonishing disregard for the truth." Even the conservative RedState.com has authored a post titled: “A Significant Inaccuracy In #TheMemo Calls Its Credibility Into Question.”
Beyond issues of reliability, there are questions that the memo simply leaves unanswered, dangling out there for misinterpretation (whether deliberate or not).
For example, the memo asserts that the Steele dossier was one component used to obtain the warrant to surveil Carter Page. Is that disqualifying though? Should evidence paid for under the guise of political “opposition research” purposes be admissible in a FISA court? This is not black and white. It’s debatable. Just look at it another way: Should presumably accurate and troubling information be excluded solely because it was paid for by political adversaries and/or was compiled by a biased researcher?
The Nunes memo does indicate some examples of conflicts of interest (or, at least, the appearance of impropriety). For example, Department of Justice official Bruce Ohr’s wife worked for Fusion GPS, the company that put together the dossier. What is more, it alleges that this was not disclosed. This is deeply troubling, and certainly grounds for dismissing Ohr. It is not, however, evidence of a “deep state” cabal, or even of a politicized bureaucracy. It’s also information we’ve known about since December.
And this is one of my problems with the memo: It seems extraneous. What is more, even if we were to assume everything in it is 100 percent accurate—a big “if”—and even if we were to then assume the worst about the FBI—it would still be a stretch to suggest it nullifies the Mueller investigation.
And that appears to be the goal here, though it was heartening at least to see some congressional Republicans affirm their support for the investigation after the memo’s release.
The problem is that it’s a false premise. It’s the kind of logic that says if you can prove that Mark Fuhrman is a racist, then you can get a jury to acquit O.J. Simpson. In reality, though, two things are possible: Mark Fuhrman can be a racist and O.J. can be a murderer. We might be facing a similar scenario here.
Something else I don’t like about the presumptive motives that led this memo to be released: Let’s assume that the Steele dossier was a lie and that it was the linchpin for obtaining a FISA warrant (both of these things are in dispute). It would be tantamount to a technicality where the bad guy gets off merely because the police forgot to read him his rights.
Is that really the most inspiring message that Team Trump can muster?
That certainly isn’t a great look for them if it is. Much as today wasn’t a great look for Devin Nunes.