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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Fact-checking the disputed Republican memo on the Russia probe

Here’s what the memo says, why it matters, and what’s known about whether it’s accurate

A copy of the formerly top secret classified memo written by House Intelligence Committee Republican staff and declassified for release by US President Donald Trump is seen shortly after it was released by the committee in Washington, February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
A copy of the formerly top secret classified memo written by House Intelligence Committee Republican staff and declassified for release by US President Donald Trump is seen shortly after it was released by the committee in Washington, February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

House Republicans, with approval from the White House, released a controversial memo drawn from classified information that raises questions about how the FBI and Justice Department handled the probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Democrats say the memo, written by GOP staffers on the House Intelligence Committee, is misleading and incomplete, but Republicans voted to release it on a party-line vote. The White House reviewed the document and said it could be released without any redactions.

Here’s what the memo says, why it matters, and what’s known about whether it’s accurate:

The Dossier

The claim:

Republicans assert that officials relied primarily on an unverified dossier prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele to obtain a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser on Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. “Deputy Director McCabe testified before the committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information,” the memo said, referring to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who stepped down from that job earlier this week.

Why it would matter:

Republicans on the House Intelligence panel say the investigation into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia is tainted because it was instigated amid anti-Trump bias in the Justice Department and the FBI during the Obama administration. A key question is what evidence was used to secure warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court resulting in wiretaps on Trump associates, including Page. The dossier is filled with unverified allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia, some of them salacious.

Is it true?

The FISA warrant concerning Page remains classified, but warrant applications are lengthy documents that often run 60 to 80 pages where officials need to show “probable cause” that the target is a foreign power or an agent of one. Obtaining a FISA warrant to spy on a US citizen requires multiple levels of review that on average involves 10 government officials, according to a former U.S. national security official. Democrats on the House Intelligence panel issued a statement Friday saying “the investigation would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture.” Page - who denies wrongdoing and said he welcomes release of the memo - was on the FBI’s radar long before the dossier: In 2013, Russian spies tried to recruit him, according to an FBI criminal complaint filed in 2015.

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Read more:

Republicans release disputed memo, claiming FBI misled a judge over Trump case

FBI has ‘grave concerns’ over release of Russia memo

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Opposition Research

The claim:

The FBI and Justice Department didn’t provide all the facts to the FISA court when applying for the warrant on Page, including who paid for the dossier referenced in the application. Trump’s political opponents, including Hillary Clinton, paid more than $160,000 to the opposition-research firm Fusion GPS, which produced the dossier, the memo notes. “Neither the initial application in October 2016, nor any of the renewals, disclose the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts, even though the political origins of the Steele dossier were then known to senior DOJ and FBI officials,” the memo said.

Why it would matter:

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes has argued that the FBI improperly used political opposition research as the basis to obtain surveillance on a presidential candidate’s team. Some Republicans have suggested that if the Trump investigation was started for political purposes, it calls into question the validity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s continuing probe.

Is it true?

Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn Simpson told Congress that Steele showed it to the FBI because he thought potential crimes were being committed. If the FBI intentionally omitted that information from a warrant, it could anger the FISA court judges, but it’s not clear it would affect the underlying investigation. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee said the GOP description of the warrant application is “not accurate” and contains “serious mischaracterisations” that are laid out in a still-classified Democratic memo. For one thing, the Page warrant was renewed three times, steps that the former U.S. official said would have required the Justice Department to show the FISA court that useful intelligence has been obtained and an extension is needed.

Political Bias

The claim:

The memo contends FBI and Justice Department officials were biased against Trump early on in the Russia investigation, well before Mueller’s appointment in May 2017. Republican lawmakers and Trump have questioned the role played by McCabe because his wife received Democratic funding in an unsuccessful campaign for the Virginia state Senate in 2015. The memo also notes that the wife of another senior Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, “was employed by Fusion GPS to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump.”

Why it would matter:

Questions of bias inside the FBI are already being investigated by the Justice Department’s inspector general, who is examining its handling of the probe into Clinton’s email practices and the actions of some agents on the Trump probe. His findings may be damaging to the agency.

Is it true?

The FBI is traditionally a Republican-friendly institution, and former director James Comey’s handling of the Clinton probe is widely believed to have helped Trump win the White House. When it comes to Mueller, Republican leaders on both sides of Capitol Hill have said repeatedly they have confidence in the special counsel and want the investigation to continue.

Carter Page

The claim:

The Republican memo focuses almost entirely on the FISA warrants for Page, describing him as a "volunteer adviser” in the Trump campaign and suggesting his civil liberties were violated.

Why it would matter:

The dossier compiled by Steele, the former British spy, portrayed Page as an intermediary in the Trump campaign’s “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation between them and the Russian leadership.” White House officials and former Trump campaign aides have dismissed him as someone who walked in the door at Trump Tower and volunteered to help when the insurgent campaign lacked foreign policy advisers. Page made a trip to Russia during the 2016 campaign, but Trump campaign advisers have said they shrugged off his offers to brief the candidate.

Is it true?

Aside from the debate over Page’s role in the FBI’s surveillance efforts, he may prove a footnote in the history of the Russian meddling investigation, although Democrats on the House Intelligence panel said the FBI had “good reason” to be concerned about his activities. Already, Mueller has secured indictments against former Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort and Rick Gates for alleged money-laundering. He’s also won agreements to cooperate from Michael Flynn, Trump’s initial national security adviser, and George Papadopoulos, another of the little-known foreign policy advisers who volunteered for Trump’s campaign.

Rosenstein’s Role

The claim:

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein approved at least one of the FBI’s applications to extend surveillance of Page even though the original request was based on tainted information.

Why it would matter:

Rosenstein, a veteran federal prosecutor, has overseen the Russia investigation since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in March 2017 over Trump’s objections. Rosenstein named Mueller as special counsel that May.

Is it true?

The memo doesn’t allege any wrongdoing by Rosenstein, who is mentioned only twice. Democrats say they doubt Trump would dare to fire Mueller but have speculated the president might seize on the Republican memo to oust Rosenstein in the hope that his successor would rein in the probe. “The White House knows it would face a firestorm if it fired Bob Mueller,” Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence panel, told reporters. “If Rod Rosenstein is fired and someone else takes his place, that is a yes man for the president. Then, they can limit Bob Mueller’s investigation in ways we will never see."

Agents’ Texts

The claim:

The memo says information about Papadopoulos, the other low-level Trump adviser, triggered the opening of the Russia investigation by FBI agent Peter Strzok. The memo says information on Papadopoulos was included in the FISA warrant application despite “no evidence of any cooperation or conspiracy” between Page and Papadopoulos. It also cites Strzok’s role in the Clinton email case.

Why it would matter:

The memo says text messages between Strzok and Lisa Page, an FBI attorney, show a “clear bias against Trump and in favour of Clinton, whom Strzok had also investigated." The memo says texts between Strzok and Page show them “orchestrating leaks to the media” and referring to a meeting with McCabe to discuss an “insurance” policy against Trump’s election.

Is it true?

Some anti-Trump texts exchanged between Strzok and Lisa Page have been publicly released, and their roles are part of the inspector general’s investigation. But the agents also criticised Clinton, and it’s unclear whether their work was swayed by their personal views. Mueller removed Strzok from the Russia inquiry after the texts were discovered, and Page had already left his team. Ironically, by referring to the inquiry into Papadopoulos, the Republican memo confirms that the Russia investigation was already under way before Steele’s dossier made its way to the FBI.