The Nunes Memo is a dud, and that’s exactly why it’s valuable to Trump

8 Feb 2018

'Democracy Dies in Darkness' cries the motto of The Washington Post.


Uttered by Post legend Bob Woodward, architect of Nixon’s demise in his role as an investigative journalist on the Watergate scandal, the motto has been ridiculed, with Stephen Colbert quipping that a rejected option was 'We Took Down Nixon — Who Wants Next?'.


The Nunes memo purports to shed light on this darkness.


Devin Nunes, a Republican member of the House of Representatives for California’s 22nd District, served on President Trump’s transition team, and chairs the House Intelligence Committee. Nunes compiled the memo in January, alleging that the FBI abused its power during the investigation into Trump’s presidential campaign.


The memo describes the methods by which the FBI obtained a warrant for electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a US citizen with strong links to Russia who worked on Trump’s campaign as a foreign policy advisor. The FBI obtained this warrant in 2013, and it was repeatedly renewed by a FISA judge. Nunes states in the memo that his findings “indicated” that the Steele Dossier, a document detailing Trump’s links with Russia, formed the basis for the FBI’s case for renewal.


Nunes makes two central allegations:

  1. The Steele dossier, commonly regarded as being fundamentally accurate while composed partly of rumour and speculation, formed an “essential part” of FISA applications. But the FBI did not tell the FISA court that the dossier had been funded (in part) by the Democratic Party.

  2. The reason why the Department of Justice failed to disclose this information was because the officials involved in signing off the application were themselves biased against Donald Trump. They were allegedly members of a “secret society” that aimed to put Clinton in the Oval Office.


The memo, however, fails to substantiate these allegations. At no point does the memo prove that the Steele dossier is fundamentally inaccurate, nor that there was a “secret society” within the FBI. Most of all, the memo is vague. It rarely goes into specifics, preferring to remain within the realm of plausible deniability, and avoids making direct allegations toward specific individuals.


This, however, is exactly what makes the memo effective.


Left-wing outlets reacted with a shrug, with most describing it as a “dud” or a “nothingburger”. Right-wing media figures, talking heads on Fox, and Congressional Republicans alike all shouted “Vindication!” from the rooftops, pointing to the memo as evidence of FBI bias and partisan action.


Let me be perfectly clear: the memo is, indeed, a dud. It proves very little, and if anything, it provides more fodder for the #Resistance. The memo corroborates that George Papadopoulos was the trigger for the creation of the Russia investigation after drunkenly staggering into a London wine bar and telling a top Australian diplomat that he had obtained damaging information on Clinton from Russian intelligence. 


The memo provides no clear conclusion, so the interpreter is left to assign their own meaning. Activist Democrats have been quick to point to the Papadopoulos revelation as the most important part of the memo, while Trump and Republicans have shouted back that it is the “secret society” that requires further investigation.


The media has reacted in the same vein. The Washington Post contended that 'Devin Nunes tried to discredit the FBI. Instead, he proved it’s onto something'. Fox News, however, alleged the 'FBI memo proves the ‘deep state’ is real – and the press is part of it'. The memo is a goldmine of information to confirm one’s prejudices, and to convince others of those prejudices.


There is, however, another subtle genius of the memo; the inconclusive nature means it largely dodges criticism from the left-wing outlets, but can be moulded by right-wing figures without extensive scrutiny. If the memo made more incendiary allegations, it would be derided by Democrats and the Democratic media. As it stands, the memo has largely fallen out of the liberal news cycle after being simply “dismantled” and dismissed as a “dud”, after which the media moved onto the next Trump tantrum.


Nunes has drawn extensive criticism, and his poll numbers are low. He now faces a tough battle in November to keep not only his California seat, but his reputation. Perhaps his legacy will be a memo which provided the basis for a modern Saturday Night Massacre, spurred on by Fox and Friends and a diet of cheeseburgers and Coke. Perhaps Nunes will be rewarded with a line or two in a history textbook sometime in the future, describing the California Congressman who set out one day to vindicate the President, and accidentally brought the whole thing crashing down.



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