Last Saturday, the Trump administration released 412 pages of redacted documents related to the wiretapping of Carter Page, a former campaign aide who was targeted by the FBI for possible clandestine activities on behalf of Russian intelligence. While it’s taken time to review the paperwork and decipher some of the government-speak and legalese, at least one conclusion is unavoidable: Boy, President Donald Trump and his compliant yes-men and women in the U.S. House of Representatives and the right-wing media sure did (and in many cases, continue to) misrepresent what caused that surveillance to be approved by authorities.
How “alternative” were the “alternative facts” offered in venues like Rep. Devin Nunes’ infamous memo or President Trump’s tweets? Calling them misleading in their descriptions would be generous. Here are just a few examples of false claims:
- The FBI bamboozled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court about the political roots of the so-called Steele dossier, the opposition research report put together by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele for Fusion GPS. In fact, officials offered a detailed explanation (although not identifying the parties by name beyond such descriptions as “Candidate #1 or Political Party #2) that pointed out, among other things, that the investigator was paid by a political opponent.
- The controversial Steele dossier was the reason why the Trump campaign was being looked at by the FBI in the first place. That’s straight out wrong, too. As the documents point out, investigators began looking at Trump-Russia ties two years ago, not because of Mr. Page or the dossier but because of George Papadopoulos, another Trump campaign aide. Readers may recall Mr. Papadopoulos as the former foreign policy advisor who has already pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. He reportedly told a high-ranking Australian diplomat in London that the Russians had "political dirt" on Hillary Clinton.
- The Steele dossier provided the sole justification for the wiretap. That’s just not true. Admittedly, a great deal of the corroborating material is redacted, but here’s something that isn’t: The judges who approved the warrant were all Republican appointees. And they renewed it three times. Three times!
- The government failed to meet the FISA standard of “veryifying” the information. This is largely a technical debate, but experts say it merely requires the FBI and Justice Department to be sure that the evidence they’ve collected supports the allegations they are making, and nothing in the memo suggests they did not.
Now compare the reality of what we now know of the wiretap applications and the breathless claims of “witch hunt” and “hoax” from the president and the chair of the House intelligence committee and others have been making. “We’ve been totally vindicated,” Mr. Nunes told a Fox News host. On Twitter, Mr. Trump wrote that it was “Looking more & more like the Trump Campaign for President was illegally being spied upon (surveillance) for the political gain of Crooked Hillary Clinton and the DNC.” Facts don’t seem to matter in the witch hunt bubble.
Obviously, the point of these attacks on the FBI is to cast doubt on anything related to the Russia investigation and muddy the waters, sowing confusion whenever possible. How could President Trump be associated with any misconduct when it’s the investigators who are breaking the law? It’s a classic smear campaign, and the best measure of its outrageousness and immorality is that there are Republicans who can’t stomach it, too. Among them is Sen. Marco Rubio who believes the FBI probe was justified and has said so publicly, pointing out that Mr. Page had openly bragged about his ties to Russia. Under such circumstances, was the FBI supposed to ignore it?
And while we’re on the subject of dissing law enforcement, some of those “Freedom Caucus” House Republicans subservient to Mr. Trump have moved on this week to seeking to impeach Rod Rosenstein, a fellow Republican and career prosecutor who also just happens to supervise special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. This is what happens when you spend enough time in a fantasy world of deep state conspiracies; you pursue impeachment against the wrong fellow. With all this intrigue and misdirection, small wonder the public hardly seemed to notice the release of an audio recording of the president of the United States discussing a hush money payoff to a former Playboy model. Straightforward payoffs to paramours just don’t register as serious scandals anymore. President Trump’s caterwauling about a “witch hunt” that has collected 191 criminal charges against more than 30 individuals so far is drowning it all out.