What was the fuss all about? The capital of the free world has been consumed with frenzied speculation about a memo compiled by the staff of Congressman Devin Nunes, who serves as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, about the Russia probe. This, we were told by Republicans, would be “worse than Watergate.” Democrats said that its release would constitute a betrayal of the intelligence agencies.
Ho-hum. Anyone who can even wade through the four-page long memo without succumbing to the temptation to take a nap or a snifter of brandy has my highest compliments. It’s a dreary defence of a nut job named Carter Page who served on the Trump campaign, in some form or other, as an adviser. Page, who has been under surveillance since 2013 by American intelligence services following his contacts with members of the Russian SVR, tried to make a go of it in Moscow as a businessman before hooking up with the Trump campaign. Whether this adviser really offered any advice to what was, by any measure, a harum-scarum campaign is an open question.
The Nunes memo, as it is known, breathes fire about the dossier compiled by the now-legendary Christopher Steele. Odds are that it was compiled with the help of the White House, which has refused to deny that it may have worked with Nunes staffers. The gravamen of the memo’s charge is that in requesting further surveillance of Page, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and other deep state officials were engaging in a kind of conspiracy against the Trump campaign. Steele, we are told, was biased against Trump. He was a flawed source of information. The problem here is two-fold. First, the surveillance of Page did not rest on the Steele dossier but began in 2013. Second, the FBI was under no obligation to conduct a forensic examination of Steele’s motives. It relies on everyone from mobsters to parsons to provide information and evidence, which it is free to sift and scrutinise.
For all the huffing and puffing of Democrats about the memo compromising American security, it’s hard to see what they were so agitated about. The anodyne character of the document, which focuses exclusively on Carter Page, means that it really doesn’t do much, if anything, to bolster Trump’s case. If Trump were to go on a legal bender and sack the top tier of the Justice Department, it would cause an immediate constitutional crisis that is unlikely to end well for him. Republican lawmaker Trey Gowdy, who led the Benghazi investigation, wrote on Twitter today, “As I have said repeatedly, I also remain 100 percent confident in Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The contents of this memo do not — in any way — discredit his investigation.” For now, the battle between Republicans and Democrats resembles the interminable trench warfare of World War I. Far from striking a decisive blow, the Nunes memo indicates that the conflict has a long way to go.