The Chess Pieces Are Moving

Ken AshfordL'Affaire Russe, Republicans, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

New York Times:

A secret, highly contentious Republican memo reveals that Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein approved an application to extend surveillance of a former Trump campaign associate shortly after taking office last spring, according to three people familiar with it.

The renewal shows that the Justice Department under President Trump saw reason to believe that the associate, Carter Page, was acting as a Russian agent. But the reference to Mr. Rosenstein’s actions in the memo — a much-disputed document that paints the investigation into Russian election meddling as tainted from the start — indicates that Republicans may be moving to seize on his role as they seek to undermine the inquiry.

The memo’s primary contention is that F.B.I. and Justice Department officials failed to adequately explain to an intelligence court judge in initially seeking a warrant for surveillance of Mr. Page that they were relying in part on research by an investigator, Christopher Steele, that had been financed by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Democrats who have read the document say Republicans have cherry-picked facts to create a misleading and dangerous narrative. But in their efforts to discredit the inquiry, Republicans could potentially use Mr. Rosenstein’s decision to approve the renewal to suggest that he failed to properly vet a highly sensitive application for a warrant to spy on Mr. Page, who served as a Trump foreign policy adviser until September 2016.

A handful of senior Justice Department officials can approve an application to the secret surveillance court, but in practice that responsibility often falls to the deputy attorney general. No information has publicly emerged that the Justice Department or the F.B.I. did anything improper while seeking the surveillance warrant involving Mr. Page.

The “secret memo” is the memo written by Devin Nunes, which may be released this week. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, whose staff wrote the memo, could vote as early as Monday, using an obscure House rule, to effectively declassify its contents and make it available to the public. Mr. Trump would have five days to try to block their effort, potentially setting up a high-stakes standoff between the president and his Justice Department, which opposes its immediate release. But the White House has made clear to the Justice Department in recent days that it wants the self-serving Republican memo to be made public.

Why does the White House want the memo to become public? To set up a reason for firing Rosenstein. The argument will be that the Justice Department did not inform the FISA court that the Steele Dossier was “paid for” by Democrats.

To obtain the warrant involving Mr. Page, the government needed to show probable cause that he was acting as an agent of Russia. Once investigators get approval from the Justice Department for a warrant, prosecutors take it to a surveillance court judge, who decides whether to approve it. The Steele Dossier, pro-Trump Republicans will argue, lacked veracity and was unconfirmed, and therefore should not have been used to obtain a warrant.

But putting the Republican pieces together, the plan is:

  1. Spend weeks discrediting former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele and insisting that his collection of memos on Trump’s activities inside Russia are a “discredited dossier” made up of entirely partisan attacks. Republicans consider this a done item, though none of them have yet identified just what Steele got wrong. They also repeatedly overlook that the Fusion GPS hired Steele, and the Republicans were the ones who initially hired Fusion.
  2. Insist that in bringing at least one of these memos to the FBI, Steele was associating with partisan, Trump-hating/Clinton-loving elements within the organization who inappropriately accepted Steele’s memo as evidence against Trump. The highlighting of selected text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page is entirely to bolster this effort.
  3. Ultimately proclaim that the use of one of Steele’s memos as a part of the renewal of a FISA warrant against the already under investigation Carter Page, represents a sizable breach of protocol—a “bigger than Watergate” overreach that demonstrates just how far these partisan elements within the FBI and Justice Department were willing to go in order to “get Trump.”

The Nunes memo builds on this plan by planting this seed of an idea: Because he didn’t inform the FISA judge that the warrant was based on what Republicans want to paint as a hyper-partisan, unsupported rumor, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein is also engaged in the plot against Trump.

Which, of course, provides justification for firing Rosenstein. And Mueller.

Fox News is working in lockstep with the Trump administration:

Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, who is close to Mr. Trump and House Republicans, signaled interest in Mr. Rosenstein this month as news of the memo’s existence first circulated, asking on air if Mr. Rosenstein had played a role in extending the surveillance. “I’m very interested about Rod Rosenstein in all of this,” he said.

So is there some sort of Saturday Night Massacre coming? Maybe. The firing of attorneys general and the special counsel, of course, backfired on Nixon. Things are not quite the same this time. The Nunes memo shows there is a massive propaganda apparatus out there — one that reaches deep into the right-wing media and into the Congress that has been pushing the alt-narrative and would back up Trump if he does take drastic steps — that didn’t really exist in Nixon’s time. In Nixon’s times, there were a handful of columnists and congressmen who lightly supported him, but you did not have a Devin Nunes. You did not have a Sean Hannity. And you did not have an alternate universe of conspiracy theories, in which the FBI was painted as the equivalent of the Weather Underground.

It’s hard to see how this will work.  The whole tactic ignores the fact that Page had been a person of interest to U.S. intelligence services long before he joined the Trump campaign. We already know that the original application to the FISA court for surveillance back in the summer of 2016 included this information:

Among other things, the application cited contacts that he had with a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013, officials said. Those contacts had earlier surfaced in a federal espionage case brought by the Justice Department against the intelligence operative and two other Russian agents. In addition, the application said Page had other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed, officials said.

The reason Page distanced himself from the Trump campaign that fall was because intelligence sources had leaked to Michael Isikoff that Page had had a meeting in early July 2016—around the time the surveillance began—with Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin associate, former Russian deputy prime minister and the executive chairman of Rosneft, Russian’s leading oil company.

That meeting, if confirmed, is viewed as especially problematic by U.S. officials because the Treasury Department in August 2014 named Sechin to a list of Russian officials and businessmen sanctioned over Russia’s “illegitimate and unlawful actions in the Ukraine.”

In December, during the Trump transition, Page spoke publicly about having just attended yet another meeting with “an executive from Rosneft.” Even if these meetings and his extensive history of anti-American/pro-Russian comments had nothing to do with his involvement with the campaign or the transition, they would probably still be of interest to our intelligence services, much as they had been back in 2013.