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Was the Trump Campaign Full of Spies or Just Idiots?

Somehow, the strange saga of competing Russia memos has mostly served to make the president's campaign look shadier than ever.

Marcy Wheeler

Over the weekend, Democrats finally released their formal response to the stunt Congressman Devin Nunes pulled by publishing his infamous memo early this month, a document that was supposed to blow up the Trump-Russia investigation. In that original, much-hyped mess, Nunes (or at least his staff) suggested, unconvincingly, that former British spy Christopher Steele sharing his notorious, salacious dossier with the FBI may have tainted Robert Mueller’s entire probe. Not long after, US Senators Chuck Grassley and Lindsey Graham declassified a bizarre criminal referral of Steele they had assembled back in January, alleging that the ex-spook was a liar. Except they only really seemed to show that Steele might have lied to a British court. Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s response pointed out there’s no reason, at least not based on what we actually know, to believe Steele lied to the FBI.



It wasn’t until Saturday, after a delay imposed by President Trump—who suddenly cared about getting the OK from the Justice Department before releasing sensitive information—that Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff’s retort saw the light of day. Naturally, it was followed by an even more bizarre GOP response to the response.

Throughout this whole exercise, the Republicans have only raised and sustained one legitimate point: the FBI probably should have realized Steele was leaking the substance of his dossier to the press sooner. But as Feinstein laid out in that same note a few weeks ago, there’s no reason to believe the FBI ever asked him explicitly whether he had done so.

The Democrats’ rebuttal to the Nunes memo, meanwhile, is interesting for the way it undercuts Republicans’ claims of FBI and Justice Department impropriety. But if you followed this effort to create confusion and doubt during the period when Mueller rolled out three more guilty pleas and indictments of 13 Russians really closely, what the months-long frenzy—and the Schiff memo in particular—has actually done is make the Trump campaign look sketchier than ever.

For example, the Democrats’ memo argues that even before the FBI team conducting a counterintelligence investigation into Russian attempts to influence the Trump campaign obtained reports from the Steele dossier, it had “sub-inquiries” into multiple people linked to Trump (an apparent redaction error makes it seem that the number is “four”). “[T]he FBI would have continued its investigation” against these individuals, the memo says, “even if it had never received information from Steele [or] applied for a FISA warrant against Page.” So the process of arguing about that FISA application for two months has made it look like Trump’s campaign actually had more people the FBI suspected of ties with Russian spies than we knew about previously.

The memo also clearly lays out new evidence that Carter Page, the warrant against whom started this whole memo saga in the first place, remained open to Russian advances between the time in 2013, when he was interviewed in an investigation that led to the identification of three Russian spies, through his tenure as a foreign policy aide on the Trump campaign. Two redacted sections, for example, appear to describe Page activities in 2016 both before and while on the campaign, even beyond a July 2016 trip to Moscow that has attracted so much attention. For example, one long redaction appears between a description of Page joining the campaign in March 2016 and a description of his July 2016 trip, suggesting something happened in between those dates. As the memo states, “The FBI also interviewed Page multiple times about his Russian intelligence contacts, including in March 2016.” That’s the same month the Trump campaign, under pressure to prove it had some foreign policy expertise, named Page as one of its advisors.

The Republican response to the evidence that the Trump campaign named Page a foreign policy advisor around the same time the FBI interviewed him over suspected ties with Russian spies is perhaps the most pathetic thing in here. Among other things, it complains that the Schiff memo doesn’t mention that “a Russian intelligence officer called Page ‘an idiot.’”

So the latest Memoghazi arguments might best be summarized this way: After Democrats convincingly argued Trump made a suspected Russian asset a key foreign policy advisor, Republicans insisted that doesn’t matter because the suspected Russian asset was a moron.

This is supposed to help Trump undercut the Mueller investigation?

Perhaps most important, though, is a detail in the Schiff memo about George Papadopoulos, another Trump foreign policy advisor who pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about possible Russian cultivation of him just after he joined the campaign. The FBI accused Papadopoulos of lying, in part, about whether he learned of dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton before or (as was actually the case) after he joined the campaign. In a discussion of Papadopoulos’s case, the Schiff memo redacts a long sentence apparently about what George Papadopoulos reportedly told the Australian Ambassador to the UK about outreach from Russians and their agents in a drunken meeting in 2016 (which is what actually led the FBI to open the whole Russia probe in the first place).

A subsequent sentence strongly suggests, however, that the redacted line describes Papadopoulos explaining the “Russians could assist” the Trump campaign “by anonymously releasing” something. So does this tweet about the memo from Adam Schiff stating it shows “Russia was prepared to help you.” As the memo notes, Papadopoulos’s plea made it clear the dirt in question was a stash of Hillary Clinton emails. While it has been public since October that Russians told Trump’s team they had the emails, this new detail suggests they told Papadopoulos specifically that they might help the campaign by anonymously leaking them.

This makes the most damning single event unearthed so far as part of the larger Russia investigation—a June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower—even more so. It implies that, less than two months before Donald Trump, Jr. accepted the meeting with a bunch of Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton by eagerly stating, “If it’s what you say I love it,” someone on the campaign may have learned the Russians were seeking to help by anonymously leaking emails.

Turns out the same people trying to minimize Trump’s own ties to suspected Russian spies somehow managed to force out a ton of new evidence about just how serious those ties were.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.