If your case is only as strong as your weakest argument, then the Nunes memo is as big a flop as its critics allege.
Whatever you think about the memo or the issues that underlie it, its most ardent proponents — including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) himself — have spent the three days since its release making some rather strained, counterfactual and even historically inaccurate arguments.
Below are a few of them that jumped out.
1. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) to Fox News on Friday night: “I would say that this is far bigger than Russia or Donald Trump, or even the Mueller probe. This is the first time in American history that politics has weaponized the FBI.”
In defense of Gaetz, who is 35 years old, he did not live through any part of J. Edgar Hoover’s nearly five decades in charge of the FBI and its predecessor.
But even before Hoover, what was then called the Bureau of Investigation was founded by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 to assist in Roosevelt’s trust-busting efforts. As the FBI’s own website says today, the bureau “was not yet strong enough to withstand the sometimes corrupting influence of patronage politics on hiring, promotions, and transfers.” By the 1920s, the FBI’s website recalls, it “had a growing reputation for politicized investigations. In 1923, in the midst of the Teapot Dome scandal that rocked the Harding Administration, the nation learned that Department of Justice officials had sent Bureau agents to spy on members of Congress who had opposed its policies.”
Hoover took over the bureau in 1924 on the promise to reform it. That … didn’t exactly happen. And for anybody who needs a refresher, read up on what the Church Committee found in the 1970s.
2. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes to “Fox and Friends” on Monday: “As far as we can tell, Papadopoulos never even knew who — never even had met with the president.”
There is a photo of then-Trump adviser George Papadopoulos at a March 2016 meeting with Trump. It was put out by Trump’s own Twitter account. And according to a New York Times report, Trump even asked Papadopoulos questions.
Trump also told The Washington Post’s editorial board in an interview that Papadopoulos was an “excellent guy.”
3. Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.): “Finally, there needs to be a discussion as to whether the Mueller investigation is truly needed, seeing that the main premise that launched the investigation turned out to not be credible and was both directed and funded by political opponents.”
This argument is directly contradicted by the Nunes memo itself. As The Post’s Karen Tumulty and Rosalind S. Helderman detailed Friday, the memo says, “The Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016 by FBI agent Pete Strzok.” This refers to Papadopoulos telling an Australian diplomat in London that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton — a conversation that was later reported to American authorities — and it happened three months before the FISA application to monitor Carter Page.
In other words, the memo confirms the investigation was launched months before the thing Duncan alleges was the “main premise” for its launch.
4. Nunes to Fox News on Friday: “I don’t believe that somebody like Mr. Page should be a target of the FBI, especially using salacious information paid for by a political campaign like this dossier. …”
To say that the FISA application to monitor Page was faulty and didn’t disclose enough is one thing; to argue that Page didn’t merit being monitored is quite another.
In 2013, for example, the FBI interviewed Page after Russian spies had attempted to recruit him. What’s more, two days after Nunes said this, Time magazine reported that Page had boasted in a 2013 letter that he had served as an informal adviser to the Kremlin.
The dossier included a number of unverified claims, including about Page, but there was plenty of other information out there that clearly made him of-interest to the FBI and U.S. intelligence. He had been on their radar for years, in fact. Nunes seems to be arguing rather strangely that Page is just a guy who was railroaded for no reason, but that ignores lots of publicly known evidence.
5. More Gaetz: “We do know what Andrew McCabe said, and he’s no, you know, talking head for the Republican Party. And Andrew McCabe said, but for this dossier, there never would’ve been a FISA memo. … That is a verifiable fact.”
This may be a verifiable fact, but it hasn’t been verified yet — not hardly. As I wrote Saturday, McCabe’s exact comments to the House Intelligence Committee in December are disputed by Democrats, and the memo didn’t provide a direct quote.
There have been plenty of calls for an exact transcript of what McCabe, who was then the deputy FBI director, said to the committee. Until we see that, though, we’re relying on a partisan document that for some reason opted not to quote him.
6. Nunes on “Fox and Friends”: “If Papadopoulos was such a major figure, why didn’t you get a warrant on him? … Being drunk in London and talking to other diplomats saying you didn’t like Hillary Clinton, I think it’s kinda scary that our intelligence agencies would take that and use that against an American citizen.”
Yet again, Nunes seems to be not just raising concerns about the FISA application, but suggesting a key player — in this case, Papadopoulos — is being railroaded.
Unfortunately, his summary of events is woefully slanted. Papadopoulos’s comments didn’t raise red flags with the Australian diplomat because he said he “didn’t like Hillary Clinton;” they raised red flags because he claimed to have knowledge that the Russians had dirt on Clinton.
That would later be revealed to be more than just idle chatter and the ramblings of an inebriated adviser. Dirt on Clinton was also promised in exchange for Donald Trump Jr. setting up that June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, after all.
Amber Phillips contributed to this report.