IAN: Hi. This is Ian (ph) from the U.K., where we've just had our brand-new U.S. embassy open on the south bank of the River Thames in London. This podcast was recorded at...
TAMARA KEITH, HOST:
4:22 on the 2nd of February.
IAN: Keep up with all of NPR's political coverage on the NPR One app or on your local public radio station. OK, here's the show.
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KEITH: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST, here with another special edition. The much-hyped classified memo, put together by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, is out. President Trump fully declassified it, and in short order, it was posted for all to see - this despite, quote, "grave concerns" from the FBI. The memo alleges, among other things, that top officials at both the FBI and Justice Department used information from a source who they knew was biased against Trump to get a warrant for surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser. And they didn't tell the court.
I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House for NPR.
RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
KEITH: All right. So now we have it. We've read it. Mine has yellow highlighter all over it. Ryan, I attempted to describe what it says, but let's sort of just walk through it. It's only four pages.
LUCAS: It's three and a half, to be generous.
KEITH: It's on four pieces of paper.
LUCAS: It's on four pieces of paper. So...
LUCAS: Basically, the broad outlines of this have been known for a week, two weeks. But to kind of drill down a bit as to what it says more specifically, the allegations in it revolve around a surveillance warrant that was obtained by the FBI against a former Trump foreign policy adviser by the name of Carter Page, a name that has been out in the public for quite some time.
KEITH: And he was former at the time that it was obtained.
LUCAS: Yes. Although when Page exactly left the Trump orbit is difficult to say. I'm not sure that there's an actual concrete date on that. But yes, he's - by that point, he's basically out of the campaign. So as the memo tells it, the FBI and Justice Department relied on the Steele dossier, the Trump Russia dossier, the dossier that was put together by a former British operative by the name of Christopher Steele at the behest of a political research firm that was hired by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. According to the memo, the FBI and Justice Department used that dossier to get approval from the court to conduct surveillance on Page. The memo also says that the FBI didn't tell the court that the Democrats were paying for the dossier. That's a big question in this memo that it raises.
The other thing that it says is that the FBI allegedly left out that the dossier's author, Christopher Steele, disliked Trump, had told FBI or Justice Department officials as much, and that Steele was leaking information to the media that was then used in the FBI's surveillance application before the court.
KEITH: OK. So what Republicans who are in favor of this memo coming out said and what the White House said is that the point of this is to look at this surveillance system and how the warrant was obtained and whether that system, which is largely unseen by the public - whether it is operating the way it should be operating.
LUCAS: Well, and that's - it's a very complicated procedure. And I spoke to a former senior FBI official who used to oversee counterintelligence investigations. I spoke to her today and asked her about the dossier and kind of heard her take on it. And there were a couple of things that stood out. And it stood out for me, and it stood out for her. And it's the question of the warrants that were granted by the court to conduct surveillance on Carter Page. The fact that to get a surveillance warrant under the FISA Court, you have to present a ton of information to the court in order to get approval. It's not like you show up with a piece of paper and say, this is who we want to conduct surveillance on, and the court says, good. You're good to go. 50, 60, 100 pages - I was told that as many as 30 people at the Justice Department and FBI will go through this application before it actually gets presented to a court. This is not one person who just deals with this all on their own.
SNELL: It sounds like it takes a long time.
LUCAS: It takes a long time. It's a very labor-intensive process to get done. Now, the deal with the surveillance on Carter Page - the memo, in a sense, provides justification for the Russia investigation, bolsters the case for the Russia investigation, because it says that the FBI and Justice Department obtained the warrant from the FISA Court repeatedly. These warrants run for 90 days. In the case of Page, they got it renewed three times. In order to get it renewed, you have to prove to the court that you are getting intelligence from the surveillance. You have to prove that it's paying off. So this means that on multiple occasions, the FBI and Justice Department could go to the court and say, this is providing us intelligence in our investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. And the court saw probable cause to continue this surveillance.
KEITH: Let me throw some math in here. You talk about these applications being 50, 100 pages long. The Steele dossier was - what? - like 30 pages long? So there had to be - and the memo, the Republican memo, here is a little wishy-washy on this. There had to be more than the Steele dossier.
LUCAS: We don't know what all was in the application. But what we do know is that the dossier was not the sole part of the application. It was not the sole justification for the application. And the other thing that's important in this memo that undermines kind of the narrative that we've heard from Republicans and ties back into the question of the broader Russia investigation is, the memo says that the FBI's Russia investigation began in late July of 2016 because of information related to George Papadopoulos - not Carter Page, George Papadopoulos.
KEITH: Another foreign policy adviser on the campaign and someone whose name we've heard a lot, like, a few months ago.
LUCAS: Because he's pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his own contacts with Russians.
KEITH: And is cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
KEITH: But the memo really makes it seem like, aside from this little mention of the Papadopoulos thing, it really makes it seem like the Steele dossier is the crux of the whole thing, is the centerpiece of the FISA warrant and all of the renewals.
LUCAS: It does present its case that way. Remember that the FBI has said that there's a lot of omission in here, and that was a lot of the FBI's concerns about releasing the memo. You're right. The memo certainly does present the case that it is the dossier that is the foundational document of the investigation. And actually, it even quotes the former deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. It says that he testified before the committee in December of last year that no surveillance warrant would've been sought from the court without information from the Steele dossier.
KEITH: OK, can I just, like, jump in? Because that really stood out to me also as, like, whoa, that's a thing. And then I thought, gosh, why didn't I see that testimony? And I went and tried to find it, and it's because that testimony was behind closed doors. So then I tried to see if there was a transcript of that testimony because they don't actually quote McCabe's testimony. They just sort of paraphrase it. And there is no transcript that has been released to the public. So, like, we, as readers of this memo, can't verify whether that is an accurate characterization or not. A senior Democratic official with the Intelligence Committee told me that it mischaracterized the testimony. But we don't know - we can't prove that either.
LUCAS: And this is something that's - that holds true in this whole saga of the memo. It puts the FBI in a very difficult position in that it cannot - and I've said this before - it cannot fight back because to counter the accusations in the memo would likely require them to reveal classified information, and that's something that they are loath to do.
SNELL: This is something that I feel like we have talked about so many times here, where it's that conundrum of an elephant in the dark. You don't know what part of the elephant you're touching.
SNELL: I mean, is there ever a time when we will be able to see the whole elephant, or are we just going to have to be OK with the fact that we're only ever going to see bits and pieces of this?
LUCAS: If you're asking about the full Russia investigation, I doubt that we will ever see the full elephant. In terms of the memo and what it is alleging, I think that we may learn more from the Democratic response, which they have voted on in the committee. They wanted to have - Democrats wanted to have released in tandem with the memo that came out today. Republicans shot that down along party-line votes. They say that they will bring it back up for another vote soon so that this can be - so that the Democratic memo, which is purportedly a point-by-point rebuttal of everything that is in the Republican memo - so that it can be released to the public, as well.
KEITH: A different view of the elephant.
LUCAS: A different view of the elephant, but still not the whole elephant.
SNELL: And as we learned today, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, does want to see the Dem memo come out at some point in time. We got a statement from his spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, saying the speaker is in favor of greater transparency. If it is scrubbed to ensure it does not reveal sources and methods of our intelligence gathering, the speaker supports the release of the Democrats' memo.
KEITH: And the White House also put out a statement saying - I'm going to paraphrase here - we hear there's a Democratic memo, and we are open to reviewing it for sources and methods.
SNELL: Yeah. And as we discussed yesterday's pod, if people want to go back and listen to it, typically, these two reports would have come out at the same time, right, Ryan?
LUCAS: Often in cases like this, they would come out at the same time. But this is also - this is very different than a traditional report that comes out from a congressional committee.
KEITH: This is not a typical congressional committee. This is the Intelligence Committee.
LUCAS: This committee, in theory, in the past, has worked largely in a nonpartisan way. It certainly would have bumps from time to time. You'd see some turbulence. But generally the idea would be to set aside partisan concerns to focus on national security and the country's interests. What this Russia investigation has done is largely blow that committee up.
SNELL: It seems like it's totally scrambled political alliances, too. I mean, I'm sitting here swimming in a pile of press releases about this memo, and they - kind of all over the place. Like, I've got this Grassley release in front of me where the headline is "Investigations Should Be About Fact Finding, Not Undermining Political Adversaries."
KEITH: That would be Chuck Grassley...
KEITH: ...From Iowa, who is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Is that right?
KEITH: So yesterday, our own Mara Liasson heard from sources that President Trump had been telling friends that he thought that this memo would undermine Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible involvement of the Trump campaign and also possible obstruction of justice by President Trump or those around him. That is, of course, not the stated purpose of this memo, but it does seem like that has to have been part of the goal of this memo.
LUCAS: It certainly dovetails with a broader campaign that we've seen from Republicans over the past couple of months, particularly Republicans in the House, to raise questions about the integrity of the FBI, to raise questions about alleged political bias on the special counsel's team, and we've seen them really push that line for the past couple of months. And folks in the conservative media, pundits on Fox News and other outlets, have certainly picked that up and run with it.
SNELL: So if the goal, as we have heard through Mara's reporting, is to discredit the investigators, how does that fit into the investigation? I mean, is that something that they will take into account, that there was an effort to discredit it? Does that matter?
LUCAS: First, to step back quickly and say why it's important that they - what discrediting the investigation - how that helps the president, any conclusions that the special counsel's team comes to in its investigation would then be up for question. If this is a team full of Hillary Clinton supporters and Democrats, then the president's allegation that this is just a witch hunt, well, that rings true with a lot of people in the American public.
KEITH: When we got this memo and I opened it up and I got my highlighter and I started reading, and then I got to the end, and I was like, hey, wait a second. I feel like I've heard basically everything in here on Fox and conservative media and coming from the president's allies in Congress for weeks now. Like, it didn't feel like there was a huge surprise.
LUCAS: Well, and that's - perhaps (laughter) that speaks to a degree of overhyping among a lot of Republicans on the Hill in the House who were talking about this being an epic scandal and bigger than Watergate. And there were some Republicans who were saying, let's not get too carried away with this. Let's just talk about this in calm, simple terms. But they didn't. This was really ginned up as a massive, massive scandal. And when you look at the 3 1/2 pages in there, it falls a little flat, a little short of a scandal.
KEITH: Though, but maybe not surprisingly, when the president was asked about what he thought of what was in this memo today, he made it pretty clear that he thinks it's troubling.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it's a disgrace what's happening in our country. And when you look at that and you see that and so many other things, what's going on, a lot of people should be ashamed of themselves and much worse than that.
KEITH: Earlier this morning, in sort of what I considered, like, a pregame tweet, President Trump tweeted out, the top leadership and investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized this sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.
SNELL: So basically, if you are a person who is inclined to believe the president, you're probably going to believe the president on this. If you are a person who is inclined to think that Democrats are right about the broader Russia investigation, you're probably going to agree with Democrats on this. Does this actually move the conversation forward?
LUCAS: I don't think so, no. Two points that I want to make about what the president has said today, one in the tweet and then a little bit later in the - at the White House. One, this is - he has consistently gone after the FBI and the Justice Department. And there's the Russia investigation aspect of this, and then there's the potential long-term damage to the institutions of the Justice Department and the FBI. And there's a lot of concern among folks from the DOJ and the FBI about what this is doing to those two institutions and the faith that the American public has in them. This is not a day-by-day thing. This is something that has long-term impact potentially.
The other thing is that he was asked about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. And Rosenstein is the man who is overseeing the Russia investigation. He's supervising it as deputy attorney general because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has had to recuse himself.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Does it make you more likely to fire Rosenstein? Do you still have confidence in him after reading the memo?
TRUMP: You figure that one out.
KEITH: You figure that one out.
LUCAS: Not a ringing endorsement.
KEITH: Yeah. So I - a few months ago, I was the reporter shouting, do you have confidence in Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state? And President Trump responded firmly, quickly, absolutely, I have confidence in him. And guess who is still, at this moment, secretary of state. Rex Tillerson.
Now, when President Trump has been asked about whether he has confidence in Michael Flynn, Steve Bannon, Tom Price - these are all people who are no longer in the administration, and in every case, he gave sort of a wishy-washy, like, you'll have to see kind of answer, an answer that is much more like what he said about Rod Rosenstein than what he said about Rex Tillerson. So I checked in with the White House about this, with a spokesman, Raj Shah. And I was like, what did he mean today? And Raj pointed me back to what Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, has said very recently - quote, "when the president no longer has confidence in someone, you'll know."
KEITH: So I don't know.
LUCAS: That clears it up then, I guess.
KEITH: It really doesn't clear it up. But...
LUCAS: No, it doesn't. Not at all.
KEITH: But it definitely leaves that cliffhanger out there.
LUCAS: Well, and I think it's important to make clear why Rosenstein matters in all of this. And it's because, as I said earlier, he's supervising special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into the Trump campaign and its possible coordination with Russia. And the concern is that the memo and these attacks on the FBI and the Justice Department will be used as a way to push Rosenstein out, to allow the White House to potentially put in somebody in that position who is more amenable to the White House's concerns about the Russia investigation.
SNELL: And at that point, we start watching all of those people who said that if Rosenstein was pushed out or if Mueller was pushed out, that that would be a bright red line for them and that they would view that as a serious infraction by the president.
LUCAS: Right. And that's why it's important to remember that there are basically two parallel worlds that exist right now. You have the criminal Mueller investigation, and then you have the political realm. And the question in the political realm is, what are Republicans going to do if it gets to the point that the president is moving against the special counsel or the Justice Department?
KEITH: Questions that we will not answer today, certainly, because we can only see a tiny, little piece of the elephant.
LUCAS: That is correct.
SNELL: Toenail or tail.
KEITH: Just don't know.
And that is a wrap for tonight. We will be back in your feed soon. Heck, we don't even know how soon at this point. Keep up with our coverage on npr.org, NPR Politics on Facebook and, of course, on your local public radio station. You can also always catch one of us on Up First every weekday morning. And if you're in or around Cleveland, come see us live. We're doing a show at the Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square on February 23, and we would love for you to join us. You can learn more and get tickets at nprpresents.org.
I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House for NPR.
LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.
SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.
KEITH: And thanks for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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