On Monday night, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence voted along party lines to make public a memo authored by its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes. (Nunes, if you recall, was forced to recuse himself from the committee’s investigation into Russian election interference after misleading the public about the origin and significance of documents leaked to him by Trump administration officials.)
By the time the vote was called, the memo has achieved an almost mythic status. This was a document so consequential it was practically on the verge of tearing the chamber apart. Republican officials – even supposed moderates like Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) – were feeling pressure from an aggressive right-wing social media campaign, itself being fueled by retweets from hundreds of Russian-linked troll and bot accounts. The artifact was of such grave importance that the president was, even before the vote, seriously contemplating declassification despite vigorous exhortations from his own Justice Department.
The man at the center of the controversy roiling the Capitol, though, remains blissfully ignorant of the details and far removed from the internecine fight. “I haven’t heard from anyone in the U.S. House of Representatives all year, members and staff alike,” Carter Page tells Rolling Stone via email. That might be because no one in D.C. wants anything to do with him: White House counsel went so far as to formally order Page to “immediately cease” from calling himself a Trump adviser over a year ago. Nunes’ office did not respond to an inquiry about whether the congressman was in touch with Page and, if he isn’t, why he is singularly consumed with seeking justice on Page’s behalf.
For his part, the one-time Trump campaign adviser at the center of the #ReleasetheMemo campaign does not seem particularly concerned with the motivations of his champions in Congress or the White House. He’s got other things on his mind, like the one-man war he’s waging to get the original documents Nunes’ memo is based on released – an effort that has, thus far, yielded no results.
“I originally hoped that DOJ and the FBI would’ve released my illegitimate FISA application when I requested it last May, but it’s been eight months since I submitted my Privacy Act/FOIA request letters to them and I haven’t received any of that information yet,” Page says. For now, he’ll settle for the memo. “This short, 4-page summary of the abuses seems to be the next best thing.”
This past fall, Page sued Oath Inc., parent company of Yahoo!, which first reported back in September 2016 he was under investigation for suspicious Russian contacts. Also named in the suit is the Broadcasting Board of Directors, an arm of the U.S. government that oversees Radio Free Europe. (Radio Free Europe reported on Yahoo’s original story the day after it was published.)
In the suit, which Page, who is not a lawyer, filed himself, he claims he has been the target of a “unprecedented, targeted state-sponsored propaganda operation” based on allegations lifted from a document he terms “the Dodgy Dossier,” by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, whom he calls an “opposition political research consultant.” The FISA court, Page argues, issued its warrant on the basis of a “dreadfully illegitimate” application and the testimony of “party loyalists and consultants of Democratic National Committee” alone.
Nunes’ memo, according to reports, echoes the claims in Page’s colorful lawsuit. It’s said to concern the question of whether or not the surveillance warrant approved in the summer of 2016 – on the suspicion that Page was a Russian agent – and renewed last spring, may have improperly approved. At issue, to House Republicans, is the question of whether or not the FBI informed the court that green-lit the warrant that some of the evidence against Page stemmed from a dossier they call politically motivated. FBI officials who have spoken to the press have disputed the idea that they would present any evidence in court without independently verifying it themselves.
On Wednesday – one day after Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, targeted by Trump, announced he would be stepping down – the bureau took the unusual step of publicly urging the president not to declassify Nunes’ memo. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said in a statement.
But the obvious question, which no Republicans seem to be asking, is: if the FBI has reasonable evidence to believe Page is a Russian asset – and it apparently has enough to get surveillance warrants approved not once, but twice – and if the Department of Justice is convinced that releasing that evidence would expose the sources and methods used to acquire it then isn’t this campaign exactly what the Kremlin would want? Forget the fact that #ReleasetheMemo appears to be being signal boosted online by thousands of Russian troll and bot accounts, the memo’s release achieves two well-known Kremlin goals: It sows political division (a objective of Russian trolls during the election) and could, if the FBI’s fears are founded, ultimately lead to the exposure of sources and methods Americans are using to spy on Russians.
Caveats, of course, abound: One could start by arguing that Page is so clearly hapless there is no way he could be a Russian agent – even the actual Russian spies who tried to recruit him in 2013 and whom he passed documents to, were caught on FBI surveillance calling him too much of an “idiot” to be useful. One might further argue that surveillance warrants have been granted on even more tenuous (or political) grounds in the past, and that these types of warrants are designed to make it far too easy for law enforcement to renew. It’s also worth noting that employees at Twitter have raised doubts about the accuracy of Hamilton 68, the tool that purports to track Russian-linked accounts. All of those things may be true.
But it’s also true that if the Republican campaign to #ReleasetheMemo benefited Russia, purposefully or not, at the expense of the U.S., it wouldn’t be the first Trump directive to do so – it wouldn’t even be the first that day. On Monday, shortly before House Republicans on the Intelligence committee voted to release the memo and open an investigation into the FBI, the Trump White House made a unilateral decision: It would not impose additional Russian sanctions that Congress approved by overwhelming margins last year.
As for Carter Page – who is either the world’s most skilled 3-D chess player, the idiot he’s frequently characterized as, or something in between – he’s just pleased the memo about him may be public shortly.
“I have long hoped that members of both parties follow the wise recommendations of my late boss Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and improve the prospects of the U.S. Intelligence Community by instilling basic levels of transparent accountability,” he writes in an email. “The bold initial steps by Chairman Nunes and the Committee to release the memo were an important stride in that logical direction.”