The Schiff Obstruction

Readers of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit will recall the philosopher’s withering comments about “the dogmatism of mere assertion” which yields naught but an empty and deceptive feeling: self-certitude.

I thought about Hegel’s comments this morning when looking through the Democrats’ attempted rebuttal of the memo released earlier this month by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee.

It is interesting to compare the two memos, both as rhetorical artifacts and as substantive contributions to the debate over possible “Russian collusion” in the 2016 presidential election. Even a comparison of their physical appearance is revealing. Let’s start there.

The Republicans’ memo, overseen by Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a three-and-a-half-page précis of findings from an ongoing oversight investigation into the behavior of the FBI and Department of Justice during the 2016 election cycle. It is prefaced by a brief letter from presidential counsel Donald McGahn to Congressman Nunes laying out the rationale for declassifying the memo and releasing it to the public. Each page of the memo is marked “UNCLASSIFIED” and the legend “TOP SECRET NOFORN” (for “no foreign nationals”) on each page is struck through with a heavy black stroke. Otherwise it is clean.

The Democrats’ memo, overseen by ranking minority member Adam Schiff, spills on to a tenth page. It is probably only about a half again as long as the Republicans’ memo, however, because—in addition to bearing the “Unclassified” stamps and strike-throughs of the “top secret” advisories—its text is littered with redactions: many passages of the text are blotted out. Were those redactions required by the FBI? By the executive branch? It was not said. Nor was it said why the Democrats did not take the redactions on board and present a clean text. I do not know the answer. My suspicion is that they wanted the blocks of black to stand as mute, non-specific but nonetheless graphically incriminating witnesses to their allegations.

For example, much of the memo deals with Carter Page, the American businessman who briefly served as a volunteer foreign policy advisor for the Trump campaign. In a section of the memo headed “Page’s Connections to Russian Government and Intelligence Officials” we encounter the following: “As DOJ described in detail to the Court, Page had an extensive record as”—as what? We don’t know. The juicy news is submerged beneath a minatory stroke of black.

Similarly, after informing us that a “Russian intelligence officer targeted Page for recruitment”—eyebrow raising, what?—we read that “Page showed”—another black stroke, starving knowledge but inflaming the imagination. What did Page show? Interest? Did he promise to smuggle the nuclear launch codes into Moscow? We don’t know. But we can think the worst.

My favorite of these little party favors comes in a discussion of Page’s alleged activities during the 2016 campaign. Remember: the issue that prompted Devin Nunes to compile and release his memo in the first place was the suspicion that the police power of the state had been mobilized to spy on an American citizen—Carter Page—for partisan ends. Remember: the FBI sought and obtained a warrant (actually, four successive warrants) from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to surveil Page. The first was granted in October 2016, just weeks before the presidential election. That warrant gave the spooks carte-blanche to rifle through Page’s emails, texts, and phone conversations. Given his connection to the Trump campaign, the warrant also amounted to a free back-door pass to the Trump campaign’s communications as well.

According to the Nunes memo, almost the sole basis for the warrant were allegations gleaned from the infamous Steele Dossier, the 17 memos prepared from June to December 2016 by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, for the opposition research firm Fusion GPS. I say “almost” because the FISA application (which has not been made public) apparently also referenced a story from Yahoo News by Michael Isikoff. But that story, by Isikoff’s own admission, depended entirely on information imparted to him by Christopher Steele. “One bare assertion,” as Hegel put it, “cancelling another”?

So what had Carter Page done to warrant the warrant? For starters, according to the Steele Dossier, he had a secret meeting with Igor Sechin, Vladimir Putin’s bosom buddy, and chairman of Rosneft, the giant Russian integrated oil company that commands annual revenues of some $65 billion. According to the Steele Dossier, Sechin offered Page a brokerage commission on 19 percent interest in Rosneft if the sanctions against Russia (imposed because of their absorption of Crimea in 2014) were lifted should Donald Trump become President.

That, I submit, is ridiculous on its face. It would certainly, by a factor of about a zillion, be the biggest payoff in history. Steele (who admitted that he “was desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being president”) gives no source for the allegation beyond an unnamed “Sechin’s associate.” For his part, Carter Page has vigorously denied the allegations and has filed a defamation suit against several entities. Discovery should be fun.

But here’s the thing. A key part of the Democrats’ memo is challenging the assertion that the critical evidence for the FISA warrant was the Steele Dossier, that “salacious and unverified” document (to employ the eloquent phrase of James Comey, the disgraced former Director of the FBI). Here is how the Democrats’ memo deploys its rebuttal. “In subsequent FISA renewals,” the memo says, “DOJ provided additional information obtained through multiple independent sources that corroborated Steele’s reporting.”

Wow. Let’s have it! Whatdya got? Three bullet points—count ’em, three!—the first two of which are entirely blacked out. The third reads: “Page’s [blacked out phrase] in Moscow with [blacked out word or two] senior Russian officials [blacked out line and a half] as well as meetings with Russian officials.”

So in their physical presentation, the two memos are very different. How do they stack up in other ways? The Nunes memo, as I said, had its origin in the alarm Republican lawmakers felt at the spectacle of the coercive (and inquisitive) power of the state deployed against an American citizen to further a rival political campaign. The Democrats’ memo touches briefly on George Papadopoulos, the 30-year-old policy advisor for Trump who was charged last summer with lying to the FBI (that’s a felony unless your name is Clinton).

But the motor of the memo revolves around Carter Page. Did you know that Mr. Page traveled to Russia? Suspscious, no?  It gets worse. He did business in Russia, with Russians! And as if that weren’t bad enough, he delivered a university commencement address in Russia—“an honor,” the Democrats’ memo darkly informs us, “usually reserved for well-known luminaries.” Gosh.

The Democrats’ memo speaks of Carter Page being a “target for recruitment.” On the contrary, he was vetted by a Russian intelligence agent. But of course everyone who is anyone is vetted by Russian intelligence: diplomats, celebrities, prominent businessmen, your Aunt Millie. If the Russians think a mark can help them, they’re there with an offer. But as it happens, the agent who vetted Carter Page concluded that he was an “idiot” not worth bothering with. The Dems’ memo notes that the FBI had been watching Page since 2013. But of course there are many reasons intelligence services might take an interest in people. One reason, which the Dems’ memo neglects, is that person A, who is innocent, might help you get to person B, who is not. The memo does not note that Page actually helped the Bureau build a case against the Russian industrial spy Evgeny Buryakov. Nor does it note that Page has never been charged with a crime. 

The great irony surrounding the “Russia Collusion” soap opera is that, after a white-hot investigation of nearly a year, the only collusion to have emerged implicates the Clinton campaign, not Trump’s. As I noted elsewhere, it was the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee who secretly paid for the Steele dossier—facts that, pace assertions to the contrary by the Democrats, were concealed from the FISA Court when the applications were made.

And where did Mr. Steele get his lurid stories? Why, from a congeries of unnamed Russian “sources close to the Kremlin.” Nota bene: a piece of opposition research, paid for by the Clinton campaign and the DNC, was fed to the FBI, which used it to obtain secret court warrants to spy on people inside the Trump camp. In other words, the Clinton campaign indirectly colluded with Russian sources, first to affect the election and then, when that didn’t work, to undermine the incoming administration.

That’s the real story behind these memo wars. And stay tuned. Devin Nunes has alerted us to the advent soon of Phase Two, regarding the State Department’s role in this melodrama, and even Phase Three, which will bring it into the inner corridors of the Obama administration.

The Democrats screamed bloody murder when they learned that Nunes planned to publish a summary of his investigation’s findings. They said they were all about protecting the integrity of our wonderful intelligence services; they were concerned that “sources and methods” not be revealed. But all that was clearly a blind. What they feared was the exhibition of the truth about the biggest American political scandal in living memory.

There’s a lot we still do not know. But cast your mind back over the last several months: think of the stunning revelations that have appeared one by one: about James “Higher Loyalty” Comey leaking classified information and lying to the FBI; about Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, the amorous anti-Trump FBI agents; about Fusion GPS (co-founded by Glenn Simpson, a former Wall Street Journal reporter) which was conducting anti-Trump research. Later we learned that Fusion GPS had “conducted opposition research” (that’s shop-talk for “conducting a smear campaign to destroy someone”) against Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian lawyer who, as The Washington Post reported, “was tortured and killed in a Russian prison in 2009 after uncovering a $230 million tax theft by 23 Kremlin-linked companies and individuals close to President Vladimir Putin.” We learned about Bruce Ohr, once upon a time Associate Deputy Attorney General (i.e., number 4 in the DOJ), who had undisclosed meetings with Christopher Steele and Glenn Simpson. Then we learned that Bruce Ohr’s wife, Nellie, was employed at Fusion GPS “to assist in the cultivation of opposition research on Trump.” And on it goes.

The Democrats’ memo makes some effort to counter, neutralize, or distract from these realities. But Andy McCarthy—who has just posted at must-read anatomy of the Dems’ memo—is right: “The Schiff Memo Harms Democrats More Than It Helps Them.” As I say, there’s a lot we don’t know. But the Nunes memo presented a number of disturbing revelations. The Dems, on the other hand, are stuck in the “dogmatism of mere assertion.” Their performance in this memo is partly comic, but mostly it’s contemptible, dishonest, and alarming. Fortunately, early returns suggest that the people—outside the precincts of CNN, The New York Times, and other infected redoubts—understand the truth. It bodes well for the republic. For the Democrats, not so much.

[Updated 2/26]

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