The formation of a cyclone-like controversy around the release of anonymously sourced allegations ought to be a familiar pattern by now. These storms form around areas of low pressure, vacuums devoid of reliable information. Around these eyes of ignorance, bands of partisan drama spiral outwards.
Hurricane Nunes is the latest weather system to fill the radar screen. It takes its name from Congressman Devin Nunes, a Republican from California and chair of the House Intelligence Committee. Over the first year of the Trump Administration, Nunes has repeatedly made himself a useful arms-length proxy for the White House. Last March he cast some young White House national security staffers who complained about the “unmasking” of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn as being in the mold of Edward Snowden. His other services to the Republican Party include leading the fruitless two-year Benghazi investigation and repeatedly characterizing proponents of environmental regulation and universal health care as communists. In a Monday morning tweet, Trump called him “a man of tremendous courage and grit . . . a Great American hero.”
At the eye of the Nunes Memo is the wreckage left by another storm, the so-called “Steele Dossier,” a thirty-five-page PDF alleging extensive ties between Donald Trump and Russia. The most memorable detail was Trump’s supposed hotel romp with prostitutes in Moscow. In January 2017, when BuzzFeed published the Steele Dossier, the “pee party” stuff seemed bogus. Now, with Stormy Daniels having delivered her compelling testimony as a character witness, it feels more plausible. But we don’t know. The Steele Dossier was a mixture of fact, speculation, hearsay, and (possibly) Kremlin-planted disinformation. What we know for sure is that two of Trump’s close associates—Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn—were mercenary hustlers with ties to the Russian government. We also know that Trump, after some prodding, got rid of both of them.
The Nunes Memo concerns someone who was further down the food chain within the Trump campaign, Carter Page. Page is an investment banker who has done business in Russia, including with Gazprom, the state-owned gas company. In a 2013 letter, he described himself as an “informal advisor to the Kremlin.” That same year, he was the target of a recruitment effort by Russian spies. Page looks to have been in one of the outer rings of the constellation of charlatans and wannabes orbiting around the Trump campaign, which had already begun distancing itself from Page before the election, in September 2016. In a thirty-seven-page letter to the Department of Justice, written last February, Page comes across as a grandiose crank and footnote-happy autodidact, exactly the kind of wild-eyed innocent who might not even know he was being groomed to spy for a foreign power. He is one of the main villains of the Steele Dossier, which has him meeting Putin’s associates on behalf of the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016.
In October 2016, the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved a warrant to surveil Carter Page’s communications. The FBI and Department of Justice got three approvals from the court to continue the surveillance, which confirms the impression of Page being a man worth spying on. The Nunes Memo doesn’t try to dispute Page’s sketchiness. Instead, it tries to embed the court-authorized wiretapping of Page into a broader conspiratorial framework involving the Steele Dossier. And like the Steele Dossier’s opposing framework—one that has Trump picking up the phone each morning to receive the day’s orders directly from Vladimir Putin—the Nunes Memo, while overstated in places and plainly inaccurate in others, is built around a few annoyingly persistent facts.
It appears that the application to spy on Page did not make it clear that some of its information came from opposition research funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That research was undertaken by Fusion GPS, a firm in Washington founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters and led by Glenn Simpson. Simpson is the one who hired Christopher Steele to compile the dossier. Assuming the Nunes Memo isn’t a total fabrication, it appears that the FISC court wasn’t informed that the Clinton campaign had funded the research that provided some of the basis for the surveillance application, although Republican congressman Trey Gowdy has said that the court did know it came from some political entity.
I’ll now make an allegation of my own: The full extent of pre-election contacts between Simpson, Steele, and some of the US media’s most esteemed and trustworthy outlets has not yet been reported. This is due in part to Simpson’s skill at negotiating sweeping promises of anonymity from the many reporters whom he was feeding. Despite the fact that Simpson was a hired gun trafficking in third-party tips, his journalistic experience and longstanding relationships with the Washington press corps were sufficient for many to grant him the privileges of an inside source. And while it is hard to nail down Simpson as having pushed any particular non-dossier anti-Trump story, it’s worth noting that some of the allegations that came out about Trump before the election, such as Manafort’s dirty work in Ukraine (which Simpson had previously reported on at the Journal) proved to have a lot of merit. Others, such as unusual traffic patterns between Trump Organization computer servers and Alfa Bank, look to be specious. My point here is that Simpson (like Nunes) has both more bias and access to more raw information than his readers. It would be just as wrong to dismiss all of the Steele Dossier’s allegations out of hand as it would be to accept them as gospel. The facts necessary to make a final determination simply aren’t available to us. It’s exactly that lack of sourcing, that grain-of-salt ambiguity, that gives power to the Steele Dossier’s allegations, and to those contained in the Nunes Memo as well.
And now the larger Benghazi-like umbrella of Nunes’s latest conspiracy theory comes into focus—the FBI corrupted as a hidden arm of the Democratic Party, part of a larger “deep state” conspiracy to undermine the electorate’s chosen President! The Nunes Memo cherrypicks the best available facts to support this preordained conclusion. Anyone who is tempted to take it seriously should first note this prophylactic warning from the chief White House counsel, Donald McGahn, which precedes the memo: “To be clear, the Memorandum reflects the judgments of its congressional authors.” So even as Trump himself takes to Twitter to announce that this memo “totally vindicates Trump” in the “Russian Witch Hunt,” his own lawyer feels obliged to inform us that we should not mistake the President’s declassification of the memo as an endorsement of its findings. In other words, let the reader beware. Trump could likely have arranged for the declassification of at least some of the underlying intelligence upon which the Nunes Memo is supposedly based. He chose not to.
Social media loves allegations. As compared to facts, allegations are cheap to produce and travel more widely, proliferating through self-reinforcing loops of partisan sentiment. The cost of making them has never been lower. What’s most striking about the Nunes Memo is that the propagation of allegations is now taking place under the pretense of official congressional business, and without apology. Simpson has said that he never intended the dossier to be circulated publicly. BuzzFeed tried to wash its hands as well, claiming that publication should not be interpreted as endorsement. The Republican authors of the Nunes Memo, on the other hand, are trying to style themselves as heroic whistleblowers. They have the power to stamp Top Secret across the pages of their misbegotten semi-factual slam book, as though it contained information that someone thought was worth protecting. As much as Trump’s opponents might want to chalk up a win by pointing out the Nunes Memo’s disjointed and nakedly partisan content, ten days of national conversation have now been consumed by tertiary issues. Should the memo be declassified? Is the #ReleaseTheMemo Twitter campaign authentic, or is it the work of Russian bots? What are the author’s motives and ethics? Are the contents true? Will the Democrats get to release their version?
The important questions are getting buried beneath new uncertainties. The most important question of all is exactly what Russia did during the election. The last official news on this, from the joint intelligence community report, now one year old, gave conclusions without providing much underlying evidence. Trump’s reluctance to add to what we know on such a crucial question—even as he helps publicize the Nunes Memo’s wild theories—suggests that he has something to hide. If we take Trump at his word that the Russia allegations are baseless, and that he is the victim of a “witch hunt,” it’s hard to see why he has done so little to either confirm or refute a damning report from the intelligence apparatus he now leads. Instead, his approach has been to smother it with his own counter-allegations. The strategy seems to be working, at least for now.
Immediately before the election, as shadowy websites pushed out troves of hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, we heard a lot from the left’s Trump-curious anarcho-libertarian wing about how it doesn’t matter where information comes from so long as it’s true. The Steele Dossier and Nunes Memo operate on an even more cynical logic. Neither the source nor the truth seems to matter any more, only the allegation.