First Read is your briefing from Meet the Press and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter
WASHINGTON — On Tuesday, we wrote that the state of the American republic — its checks and balances, its institutions, its separation of law enforcement from the White House — has become increasingly fragile. Well, now two days later, we have House Republicans in a public war with the FBI over that controversial memo alleging surveillance abuses, and it’s all made things even more fragile.
- The FBI released a statement Wednesday saying it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy."
- House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes, R-Calif., fired back with this statement: “Having stonewalled Congress’ demands for information for nearly a year, it’s no surprise to see the FBI and DOJ issue spurious objections to allowing the American people to see information related to surveillance abuses at these agencies.”
- Then last night, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., argued that the memo Nunes sent to the Trump White House – which is expected to be released today – was altered materially and substantively from the version the committee voted to pass by a party-line vote on Monday.
- Nunes’ office responded that the changes were mostly cosmetic. "In its increasingly strange attempt to thwart publication of the memo, the Committee Minority is now complaining about minor edits to the memo, including grammatical fixes and two edits requested by the FBI and by the Minority themselves,” a spokesman said, per NBC’s Mike Memoli.
- And finally, Schiff’s office countered that the changes were NOT cosmetic, and that the changes watered down Nunes’ earlier assertions.
We’ve seen a lot covering American politics over the last two decades, but we have never seen THIS — a public fight between House Republicans and an FBI led by a Republican who was appointed by a Republican president. And it’s a fight that a Republican White House has seemed to encourage.
As NBC’s Ken Dilanian has pointed out, it’s not normal for the FBI and Justice Department to publicly object to the release of a document that the White House has said should be released; it’s not normal for the Republican chairman of the House Intel Committee (Nunes) refuse to share a classified document of mutual interest with the Republican chairman of the Senate Intel Committee (Richard Burr); it’s not normal for the agency that was the source of classified material (Justice Department) to be excluded from the formal declassification process; and it’s not normal for anyone in the government to expose secret material that sheds light on surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (when Edward Snowden leaked such material, he was called a traitor).
Remember when the potential mishandling of classified information was the GOP’s top concern in the 2016 presidential election?
The Nunes memo appears to be about surveillance on Carter Page, so here’s his story
Here’s the reason why Nunes and the Trump White House want to release the memo: They believe “it makes the case that F.B.I. and Justice Department officials acted inappropriately when they sought the highly classified warrant in October 2016 on the campaign adviser, Carter Page,” the New York Times writes. As Nunes said yesterday, “[I]t’s clear that top officials used unverified information” — we assume he’s talking about the Steele dossier — “in a court document to fuel a counter-intelligence investigation during an American political campaign.”
In other words, Trump and Nunes apparently want to argue: The FBI used a Democratic-funded dossier to get a wiretap on a Trump campaign official during the 2016 campaign. And therefore, the entire Russia investigation is suspect.
Indeed, the 2016 dossier claims that Page “met with Russians and discussed quid-pro-quo deals relating to sanctions and Russia's interference in the election,” PolitiFact recounts.
But back in 2015, the U.S. government already knew that Page had passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative two years earlier. Buzzfeed: “A former campaign adviser for Donald Trump met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013. The adviser, Carter Page, met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged by the US government alongside two others for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government. The charges, filed in January 2015, came after federal investigators busted a Russian spy ring that was seeking information on US sanctions as well as efforts to develop alternative energy. Page is an energy consultant.”
“A court filing by the US government contains a transcript of a recorded conversation in which Podobnyy speaks with one of the other men busted in the spy ring, Igor Sporyshev, about trying to recruit someone identified as ‘Male-1.’ BuzzFeed News has confirmed that ‘Male-1’ is Page.”
The central question to ask: Was the Steele dossier the only evidence supplied to get surveillance on Carter Page? Or was there other evidence, too?
On Hope Hicks, the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting and that July 2017 Air Force One flight
Meanwhile, here’s a new revelation, via the New York Times, about an entirely separate matter in the Russia probe – that June 2016 meeting that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort had with a Kremlin-connected lawyer. “Aboard Air Force One on a flight home from Europe last July, President Trump and his advisers raced to cobble together a news release about a mysterious meeting at Trump Tower the previous summer between Russians and top Trump campaign officials. Rather than acknowledge the meeting’s intended purpose — to obtain political dirt about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government — the statement instead described the meeting as being about an obscure Russian adoption policy.”
More: “The latest witness to be called for an interview about the episode was Mark Corallo, who served as a spokesman for Mr. Trump’s legal team before resigning in July. Mr. Corallo received an interview request last week from the special counsel and has agreed to the interview, according to three people with knowledge of the request… Mr. Corallo planned to tell investigators that Ms. Hicks said during the call that emails written by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting — in which the younger Mr. Trump said he was eager to receive political dirt about Mrs. Clinton from the Russians — ‘will never get out.’”
In a statement to the New York Times, Hicks’ attorney denied the allegation. “As most reporters know, it’s not my practice to comment in response to questions from the media. But this warrants a response,” her lawyer told the paper. “She never said that. And the idea that Hope Hicks ever suggested that emails or other documents would be concealed or destroyed is completely false.”
Draining the swamp? Trump’s CDC director resigns after revelation she bought stock in a tobacco company
Politico: “President Donald Trump's top public health official resigned Wednesday amid mounting questions about financial conflicts of interest. Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald's resignation comes one day after POLITICO reported that one month into her tenure as CDC director, she bought shares in a tobacco company. Fitzgerald had long championed efforts to cut tobacco use, which is the leading cause of preventable death.”
Midterm odds and ends
Finally, here are some quick headlines from developments in the 2018 midterm races: The Kansas City Star uncovers leaked audio of Missouri Republican Senate candidate Josh Hawley giving this explanation for the causes of sex trafficking: “The sexual revolution has led to exploitation of women on a scale that we would never have imagined, never have imagined”… The U.S. Justice Department dropped all charges against Sen. Bob Menendez… In a “Groundhog Day” themed ad, Dean Heller pokes fun at Danny Tarkanian’s record of losing races in the state… Rep. Bob Brady, the boss of Philadelphia Democrats, isn’t running for reelection in Pennsylvania… And Trey Gowdy won’t run again. What’s behind the decision? POLITICO writes that he just got fed up with Washington.