Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) talked openly about how much he was looking forward to becoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In fact, the GOP senator made no secret of how he intended to use his gavel, telling reporters about his questions about Hillary Clinton's emails and Republican conspiracy theories about Carter Page.
Evidently, Graham wasn't kidding. The Senate Judiciary Committee issued a press statement yesterday, alerting reporters to the fact that Graham has now written a letter to Attorney General William Barr, "requesting documents related to potential abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant process."
"... the Committee is concerned that the Woods procedures and a full presentment of material and relevant facts may not have occurred with regard to the applications for FISA warrants for (and the opening of the underlying investigations on) Carter Page and other individuals associated with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump," wrote Graham.He continued, "Accordingly, the Committee will continue to examine this Congress, as this Committee and several other congressional committees did last Congress, potential abuse of the FISA and investigation initiation processes with regard to Carter Page and others associated with the Trump campaign."
Broadly speaking, I think there are a couple of angles to keep in mind in response to a story like this. The first is that Graham, who has considerable power in one of Capitol Hill's most important committee roles, is showing strange judgment.
There is, after all, credible evidence that the sitting president of the United States financed an illegal hush-money scheme, which in a normal political era, might be of interest to the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 2019, however, its chairman is far more interested in conspiracy theories related to Carter Page.
The second angle of interest is the simple fact that conspiracy theories related to Carter Page have always been difficult to take seriously.
For those who may need a refresher, let's circle back to our earlier coverage. Donald Trump’s allies have invested a considerable amount of time and energy into a curious idea: U.S. surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser in 2016, was an outrageous abuse. As regular readers know, the argument has never really made any sense, but it was nevertheless the motivation behind the laughable “Nunes memo,” prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and his team.
In an interview with The Hill last fall, the president made clear that he’s still deeply confused about the entire episode. “They know this is one of the great scandals in the history of our country because basically what they did is, they used Carter Page, who nobody even knew, who I feel very badly for, I think he’s been treated very badly," Trump said. "They used Carter Page as a foil in order to surveil a candidate for the presidency of the United States.”
No, “they” didn’t. Trump’s conspiracy theory is ridiculous, and this is probably the last hill Republicans should be willing to die on.
In case anyone has forgotten the backstory on Page, we’re talking about a man who described himself in writing as an “advisor to the staff of the Kremlin.” Indeed, the same year in which Page talked up his Kremlin ties, he was also targeted by a Russian spy ring, drawing FBI scrutiny.
Six months after the spy ring was broken up – resulting in multiple criminal convictions – Page joined the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser, despite having no apparent qualifications for the job. A few months into his tenure, Page, newly identified by Trump as someone who had the Republican candidate’s ear on matters related to international affairs, traveled to Russia, met with prominent foreign officials, and denounced U.S. sanctions against the Putin government.
It was the sort of thing that was likely to capture the interest of U.S. counter-intelligence officials – and that’s exactly what happened. In fact, Page was suspected as a possible agent of a foreign adversary.
After Trump won the election, Page went back to Moscow for another visit, during which time he again met with leading Russian officials.
Trump and many of his far-right allies look at these details and remain entirely convinced, not only that Page shouldn’t have been watched by the U.S. intelligence community, but also, in the president’s words, that the court-approved surveillance of Page constitutes “one of the great scandals in the history of our country.”
No, seriously. This genuinely bizarre argument is the cornerstone of an entire pro-Trump effort to undermine an ongoing federal investigation into a foreign attack on the United States.
A couple of months ago, the Trump administration released previously secret materials related to Page’s surveillance – the documents were apparently made public to help bolster Republican conspiracy theories – all of which made the right’s claims appear worse, not better.
And yet, here we are, months later, watching the Senate Judiciary Committee scrutinize this "controversy" even further.