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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Q&A on the Nunes Memo

Lawmakers have made several claims about a controversial memo from House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes. The memo, written by Republican committee staff and released Feb. 2, raises concerns about a court order for electronic surveillance that the Department of Justice and FBI received in 2016 from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The FBI said in a statement that it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

Let’s go through what we know, and don’t know, about the memo, FBI actions and the relevance to the Russia investigation.

(For more on key events in the Russia investigation, see our timeline.)

What is the memo about?

It’s about a court order issued to the DOJ and FBI on Oct. 21, 2016, and subsequently renewed three times, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct electronic surveillance on Carter Page, who was a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign for about six months in 2016. Page, who owns a consulting firm called Global Energy Capital, is an American businessman who has worked in Russia.

Page left the campaign in late September 2016, after news reports that intelligence officials were looking into possible communications between Page and senior Russian officials that summer.

The memo says it “raise[s] concerns with the legitimacy and legality” of DOJ and FBI actions in obtaining the FISA court approval, due to the use of a controversial dossier as “an essential part” of the FISA application.

Read the full memo here.

What is the origin of this dossier? Did Democrats pay for the dossier?

The dossier was compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer, who was hired by Fusion GPS, a research firm founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters Glenn R. Simpson and Peter Fritsch.

In 2016, a law firm representing Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president and the Democratic National Committee hired Fusion GPS, which subsequently hired Steele. Previously, the conservative Washington Free Beacon hired Fusion GPS to investigate Trump and other Republican primary candidates. It says that “none of the work product that the Free Beacon received appears in the Steele dossier.”

The dossier is a series of memos on supposed contacts between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign, and it alleges the Kremlin has compromising information on Trump. BuzzFeed published the dossier in January 2017, noting that it was “unverified.” Then-FBI Director James Comey briefed outgoing President Barack Obama and then-President-elect Trump on the dossier in early January 2017. Some information in the dossier has been corroborated, according to a CNN story in February 2017 that said unnamed U.S. investigators had confirmed some conversations between foreign nationals had taken place. Also, Carter Page acknowledged in congressional testimony that he met with an associate of the CEO of a Russia state-owned oil company — the dossier had said Page met in “secret” with the CEO. (See below for more on what the dossier said about Page.)

The GOP memo says Steele was a “longtime FBI source” and that the FBI had also paid Steele for information he had compiled for Fusion GPS. The FBI terminated Steele as a source after he disclosed his relationship with the FBI to the media in late October 2016, the memo says.

Fusion GPS’ Simpson contradicted that in his congressional testimony. He said Steele wasn’t paid by the FBI, but was possibly reimbursed for a trip to Rome to meet with FBI officials. He said Steele stopped communicating with the FBI after a New York Times story in late October 2016 said the FBI had investigated Trump campaign contacts with Russians and found no evidence of collusion (starting on page 227).

Update, July 25: The Justice Department released a heavily redacted copy of the FISA applications on July 21, but the issue of whether the FBI compensated Steele for his work on the dossier is still unclear. The original application and renewal applications refer to Steele as “Source #1,” and say that “Source #1 has been compensated [redacted] by the FBI.” That doesn’t settle whether the FBI paid Steele or reimbursed him for travel for his work on the dossier, because the applications also say that Steele had a “history with the FBI.”

The January 2017 renewal application says that “in or about October 2016, the FBI suspended its relationship with Source #1 due to Source #1’s unauthorized disclosure of information to the press.” It says this incident “occurred after Source #1 provided the reporting that is described herein.” The application went on to say that Source #1 had discussed information with the press “against the prior admonishment from the FBI to speak only with the FBI on this matter.” It said, with the names masked, that Steele was frustrated by then-FBI Director James Comey’s disclosure to Congress that new information had been revealed related to the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. 

Did the FISA application disclose that the dossier had been compiled with funding from Democrats?

We can’t definitively answer this question without seeing the FISA application, a classified document that hasn’t been made public. However, Republicans and Democrats now agree that there was some language in the application about political backing to the dossier.

The Republican memo claimed that the original application and renewals do not “disclose or reference the role of the DNC, Clinton campaign, or any party/campaign in funding Steele’s efforts.” But Republicans on the House intelligence committee later acknowledged that a footnote in the application said something about political connections. The memo doesn’t disclose that.

Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who sits on the House intelligence committee, said on ABC’s “This Week” that the court was told “that there was a political actor behind” the dossier.

Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Feb. 4: “They could have easily said it was the DNC and–and Hillary Clinton. That would have been really easy. I read the footnote. I– I know exactly what the footnote says. It took longer to explain it the way they did, than if they just come right out and said, ‘Hillary Clinton for America and DNC paid for it.'”

Gowdy was the only House committee lawmaker permitted to read the FISA applications, according to both Gowdy and Nunes.

Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell, another committee member, said on “Fox News Sunday” on Feb. 4 that “[t]hey did disclose that it was a politically motivated source,” and that “they masked the names of most of the individuals.”

Update, July 25: The Justice Department released a redacted version of the FISA applications on July 21. The original application and renewals only identified Steele as “Source #1.” They said: “Source #1, who now owns a foreign business/financial intelligence firm, was approached by an identified U.S. person, who indicated to Source #1 that a U.S.-based law firm had hired the identified U.S. person to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia (the identified U.S. person and Source #1 have a long-standing business relationship). The identified U.S. person hired Source #1 to conduct this research. The identified U.S. person never advised Source #1 as to the motivation behind the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia. The FBI speculates that the identified U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.”

The applications didn’t say that the funding to the law firm had come from Democrats. They did say that “the identified U.S. person,” which would be Fusion GPS’ Simpson, “was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign.” Then-candidate Trump isn’t named in any of the applications either, but the first renewal – filed in January 2017 – described Candidate #1 as “the President-elect.” Even in the first application, which was filed in October 2016, the FISA court judges would have known that Trump was Candidate #1 if they followed political news. The application stated that Carter Page “is a former foreign policy advisor to a Candidate for U.S. President (Candidate #1).”

The applications went on to say: “Notwithstanding Source #1’s reason for conducting the research into Candidate #1’s ties to Russia, based on Source #1’s previous reporting history with the FBI, whereby Source #1 provided reliable information to the FBI, the FBI believes Source #1’s reporting herein to be credible.”

Was the dossier the main evidence submitted by the FBI to the FISA court? 

This is a point of contention and another question we can’t answer without seeing the full application, or at least the testimony of former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to the House intelligence committee last year.

The GOP memo contends that the dossier “formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application” and that McCabe had testified in December “that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC without the Steele dossier information.” But that has been disputed, and there’s no public transcript of the closed-door testimony.

Democratic Rep. Swalwell told CNN that the memo’s characterization of McCabe’s testimony was wrong. “And our memo if released would shine further light on that,” he said of a memo written by the Democratic staff on the intelligence committee. The White House received the Democratic memo on Feb. 5 and has five days to decide whether it can be declassified.

Democratic Rep. Schiff said on ABC’s “This Week”: “In terms of Andy McCabe, like the memorandum itself, they cherry-pick selectively in what he said. Now, while I can’t go into the specifics of his testimony, I can tell what he said was that you have to look at a FISA application as a cohesive whole. All the parts are important.”

Schiff also said the entire dossier — which contains some salacious and unsubstantiated allegations about Trump — wasn’t included in the FISA application. “And the suggestion that the chairman makes there, and others on the committee have made also, that the entire dossier was included in this, is just plain false,” he said.

As we mentioned, the FBI said it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

The GOP memo says the FISA application also included information on George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy adviser, that had prompted an FBI investigation in July 2016. (In October, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.) And the FISA application referred to a September 2016 Yahoo News article that said intelligence officials were looking into Carter Page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow and whether he had met with senior Russian officials. The article, by reporter Michael Isikoff, was based on “multiple sources who have been briefed on the issue.” Isikoff told CNN that he did speak with Steele, who previously acknowledged speaking with reporters, including one from Yahoo News.

Gowdy said on “Face the Nation” that the application also “included other information [the FBI and DOJ] had on Carter Page.”

We don’t know what other information may have been in the FISA application.

Update, July 25: The redacted FISA applications released by the Justice Department clearly mention some of the information the FBI got from Steele. But we still don’t know whether the dossier was the main part of the FISA applications, because they were heavily redacted.

When did the FBI first become interested in Carter Page?

On “Fox News Sunday,” Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, a member of the intelligence committee, said: “The FBI used that dossier to surveil a private U.S. citizen who had no accusations against him, except for he has associations with the Trump campaign. It’s an absolute abuse of power.”

But the FBI knew of Page long before he joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. The FBI interviewed Page in 2013 after it obtained a recorded conversation between Russian intelligence operatives about an effort to recruit Page, who had met with one of the men, according to court documents published by BuzzFeed last year. The New York Times published more information on the recorded conversation. The FBI “decided that [Page] had not known the man was a spy, and the bureau never accused Mr. Page of wrongdoing,” the Times reported.

What does the dossier say about Page?

The dossier cites several anonymous sources for its information, and indicates that some of the information is second- or third-hand. It says one source claimed Page was an intermediary between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. It alleges Page met with Russian officials during his July 2016 trip to Moscow and that Page was told the Russians had “kompromat,” or compromising information on Hillary Clinton, and that they may have compromising information on Trump as well.

We don’t know what may have been corroborated or rejected by the FBI. Simpson, a co-founder of Fusion GPS, testified to Congress that “you know, when we talk about things in the dossier that are confirmed, this is one of the things that I think really stands out as notable, which is that Chris [Steele] identified Carter Page as someone who had — seemed to be in the middle of the campaign, between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and he later turned out to be an espionage suspect who was, in fact, someone that the FBI had been investigating for years.”

As we said above, Page wasn’t accused of wrongdoing by the FBI after the bureau recorded a conversation in 2013 about Russian spies trying to recruit Page.

Yahoo News’ Isikoff told CNN that whether Page met with the specific officials mentioned in the dossier is “still unknown to me.”

Page, who went to Moscow in 2016 to give a speech at the New Economic School, denied meeting with the named Russian officials. “All the ones that are mentioned in the various articles, I didn’t meet with any of those guys,” Page told the Washington Post in September 2016. “It’s completely false and inconceivable that someone would even accuse me of that.”

However, Page acknowledged in congressional testimony in November that in July 2016 he had met with an associate of Igor Sechin, the CEO of the Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft (starting on page 101). The dossier alleged Page met with Sechin in July 2016 and discussed the possible lifting of Western sanctions against Russia. Asked about any discussions about sanctions with Sechin’s colleague, Andrey Baranov, Page said: “But nothing that this gentleman said to me ever implied or asked for anything related to sanctions. Again, there may have been some general reference … but no kind of negotiations in any format” (see page 110). Page also said he had “brief” conversations with individuals from the Russian government but not an official named in the dossier.

President Trump says the GOP memo “totally vindicates” him in the Russia investigation. Does it?

Several Republicans, and Democrats, have said the GOP memo doesn’t have any impact on the overall investigation into Russian meddling in the election, which began in late July 2016, according to then-FBI Director James Comey.

Trump said on Twitter on Feb. 3: “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe. But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their [sic] was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction.”

But Gowdy, the Republican committee member who viewed the FISA application documents, disagreed that the memo affected the Russia investigation. “I actually don’t think it has any impact on the Russia probe,” he said on Feb. 4 on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

“There is a Russia investigation without a dossier,” Gowdy said. “So to the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice. So there’s going to be a Russia probe, even without a dossier.”

The meeting at Trump Tower is the June 9, 2016, meeting Donald Trump Jr. arranged with what he was told was a “Russian government attorney” offering incriminating information on Hillary Clinton. Cambridge Analytica is a data firm that worked for the Trump campaign and had contacted WikiLeaks about the release of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The firm’s CEO has testified to the House intelligence committee.

According to the Justice Department, Papadopoulos, the Trump foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, met in April 2016 with a professor in London who told Papadopoulos “that he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials” who told him that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton “in the form of ‘thousands of emails.'” The New York Times reported in late December that Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat in London in May 2016 that Russia had dirt on Clinton, and the diplomat later passed that information on to the FBI after WikiLeaks began releasing hacked Democratic National Committee emails. The Times‘ story was based on “[i]nterviews and previously undisclosed documents.”

Two other Republican members of the intelligence committee agreed with Gowdy. Rep. Chris Stewart said on “Fox News Sunday”: “This memo has frankly nothing at all to do with a special counsel.”

And Rep. Will Hurd said on “This Week”: “I want to stress, Bob Mueller should be allowed to turn over every rock, pursue every lead, so that we can have trust in knowing what actually the Russians did or did not do.”

Democratic Rep. Schiff noted that the memo reveals that the FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign began with George Papadopoulos. “And in fact, on the issue of collusion, what the memo indicates is the investigation didn’t begin with Carter Page, it actually began with George Papadopoulos, someone who was a foreign policy adviser for candidate Trump and someone who was meeting secretly with the Russians and talking about the stolen Clinton emails.”