Donald Trump's congressional allies have invested a considerable amount of time and energy into a curious idea: U.S. surveillance of Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign, was an outrageous abuse. 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.
Over the weekend, the New York Times published a report on newly available materials that shed new light on the controversy.
The Trump administration disclosed on Saturday a previously top-secret set of documents related to the wiretapping of Carter Page, the onetime Trump campaign adviser who was at the center of highly contentious accusations by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that the F.B.I. had abused its surveillance powers.On Saturday evening, those materials -- an October 2016 application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Mr. Page, along with several renewal applications -- were released to The New York Times and other news organizations that had filed Freedom of Information Act lawsuits to obtain them. Mr. Trump had declassified their existence earlier this year.
The president declassified them in order to help advance the since-discredited Nunes memo.
The fact that the FISA application, even in redacted form, is available to the public at all is an extraordinary development unto itself: U.S. officials have traditionally been reluctant to even mention the existence of documents such as these, much less release them. And yet, for the first time since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was passed 40 years ago, here it is.
The application documents the fact that the FBI considered Page -- by October 2016, a former Trump foreign policy adviser -- someone who'd been "the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government."
The Times' report added, "Visible portions showed that the F.B.I. in stark terms had told the intelligence court that Mr. Page 'has established relationships with Russian government officials, including Russian intelligence officers'; that the bureau believed 'the Russian government's efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with' Mr. Trump's campaign; and that Mr. Page 'has been collaborating and conspiring with the Russian government.'"
Despite GOP claims, there was no abuse: four judges, each appointed by Republican presidents, signed off on the Page surveillance, persuaded that there was probable cause.
So why should you care? A few reasons.
First, the newly available information makes Devin Nunes' partisan antics look quite a bit worse.
Second, the newly released application raises provocative possibilities. The FBI believed Russian efforts were "coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with" Trump's political operation, naturally leading to questions about who those other individuals might be and what they may have done in coordination with Moscow.
And third, the president himself published a series of tweets yesterday and this morning suggesting that the new revelations somehow benefit him, which can charitably be described as delusional. Trump specifically condemned the Justice Department and the FBI -- again -- claiming that they "misled the courts," but there's literally nothing in the materials to support the argument.
Though the party is understandably reluctant to admit it, the fact that so many Republicans embraced Carter Page's plight as a worthwhile cause was always a terrible mistake. As regular readers may recall, we are talking about a man who described himself in writing as an “advisor to the staff of the Kremlin.” Indeed, as we discussed in January, 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.
A wide variety of Republican leaders expressed severe concerns about federal law enforcement in the United States conducting court-approved surveillance of this guy. What's more, these concerns weren't just some random aside – the GOP's assertions were the cornerstone of the entire pro-Trump effort to undermine the federal investigation into the Russia scandal.
They did not choose wisely.