With the release on Friday of a GOP memo about the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections - and the partisan reaction to it - the memo only seemed to add fuel to the fire that has been raging in Congress about the probe, as Republicans accused the FBI of running a biased investigation, while Democrats say the GOP is trying to do all it can to undermine the probe.
"The President is clearly muddying the waters to obfuscate the truth and delegitimize — or soon terminate — the Russia investigation," said Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
"These top people went to a secret court to get a warrant to spy on an American citizen and they used an opposition research document to get that warrant," said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who led other Republicans in demanding more answers from the FBI.
And on Saturday, President Trump chimed in again on the probe:
While the President and the two parties slug it out - let's look at a few items from the GOP memo which seem to require more of an explanation:
1. Why the big FBI focus on Carter Page? For those not familiar with Page, he was a fringe figure in the Trump campaign, an unpaid foreign policy adviser who seemed to have little impact until his July 2016 trip to Moscow, which drew press and intelligence interest. The GOP memo showed the FBI got a FISA warrant for surveillance on October 21, 2016 for Page, but by then, he wasn't doing any work for the Trump Campaign. So, if you argue that surveillance on Page meant surveillance on the Trump Campaign, that just doesn't seem to be the case via Page. And Page seemingly had no role in the Trump Transition either. In testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Page denied ever being in contact with most of the key players in the Trump camp, as well as the President.
2. So why were there extensions for the Page surveillance? When a FISA warrant is granted, it is only for 90 days. And when the renewal comes up, the FBI must show some progress from surveillance, meaning they must have produced some new evidence that merits a continuation of their eavesdropping. The GOP memo reminds us that it's more than just new evidence - "each renewal requires a separate finding of probable cause." The FISA warrant on Page was granted October 21, 2016 - just before the election. According to Republicans, it was renewed several times. Page has played no role in the Trump Administration of any kind. What was Page doing that would have required all of those extensions? In his interview with the House Intelligence Committee, Democrats were interested in his December 2016 trip to Moscow, and whether he had talked about lifting sanctions on certain Russian interests. And it's obvious the FBI was interested in something as well. What that was, is not yet clear.
3. What did Andrew McCabe actually say? The GOP memo states that former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe said the Steele Dossier was critical to getting a FISA surveillance warrant against Carter Page, which has prompted Republicans to say this is the smoking gun evidence of the FBI and Obama Administration using a partisan opposition research product to start an investigation of President Trump and his aides. "Deputy Director McCabe testified before the Committee in December 2017 that no surveillance warrant would have been sought from the FISC (the FISA Court) without the Steele dossier information." That's a pretty blunt declaration by Republicans on the Intelligence Committee. But immediately, there were stories disputing that assertion about McCabe. This seems cut and dry - either he said it, or he didn't. Just give us the Intelligence Committee transcript and we can figure it out pretty quick.
4. Coming soon - a Democratic memo on Trump-Russia. Remember, Democrats put together their own memo on items from the House Intelligence Committee investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections - and that may be released soon as well. "The only responsible way to correct the grave actions House Republicans have taken is to immediately release the Democratic memo," said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who is on that panel. It's not clear if the Democrat's memo is a blow-by-blow rebuttal of the GOP memo, or if it goes into other areas. For that to be made public, the Intelligence Committee would have to vote to approve it, and then get the agreement of President Trump. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) is one GOP lawmaker who is ready for that to happen.
5. Rosenstein becomes a political pinata. You have to figure that Rod Rosenstein - first appointed as a federal prosecutor by George W. Bush, then held over in the same post by Barack Obama - didn't see this level of stomach-churning work coming when he accepted President Trump's nomination to be Deputy Attorney General. Mr. Trump didn't sound too fatherly when asked if still had confidence in Rosenstein. "You figure that one out," the President said with an aggravated look on his face in the Oval Office. Now, we have a conservative group running TV spots against Rosenstein. Most people can't name the Attorney General, let alone the Deputy AG. But that's where we are right now. Remember, Rosenstein is the boss of Robert Mueller. You get rid of Rosenstein, and Mueller could be next.
6. All the while, the Mueller investigation continues. Some days I stand outside the Capitol for a minute and remind myself that the world does not orbit around that building. Think about the Russia investigation that way for a minute. While there's all sorts of charges and counter-charges being leveled by both parties about the memo on Capitol Hill, not far away, former FBI Director Robert Mueller is moving ahead with the Russia investigation. There have already been indictments and a guilty plea. There are a number of sealed cases in federal court here in Washington, D.C. - many wonder if those are related to the Mueller probe. And while there's a lot of GOP fire being thrown at the Special Counsel, that's not true of everyone on the Republican side. There was this on Friday from retiring Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).
Stay tuned. There is a lot more in this investigation that wasn't touched by the GOP memo.