While watching Super Bowl LII—and watching the Philadelphia Eagles win their first championship and defeat the New England Patriots’ evil empire (I may be a Giants fan, but the Pats are second only to the Dallas Cowboys on my hate list)—I saw a commercial that spoke to me. No, not the thirty seconds of black screen that befuddled a nation. No, not the myriad Tide commercials that made you think they weren’t Tide commercials until they were, and almost made you forget about people eating Tide detergent pods. Almost. Not the NFL commercial that saw Eli Manning and Odell Beckham Jr. dancing like they’ve never danced before. And certainly not the Dodge commercial that leveraged the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to sell RAM Trucks. It was a commercial for CURE Auto Insurance, an auto insurance provider in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. No, not the one where its mascot, an anthropomorphized blue dot, calls Tom Brady and the Patriots dirty cheaters (essentially). The one where that blue dot says that GEICO and their gecko and Progressive Insurance and Flo, the most impossibly adorable insurance sales agent, well, both suck. It was shocking for its brazenness as well as for its use of mild language—CURE could just as well suck, and you or I wouldn’t know it unless we used their product and lived to tell the awful tale.
What stuck with me, though, is that these sentiments—”they both suck”—could well be applied to other contexts. Namely politics. The objections of CURE Auto Insurance to the likes of bigger names in GEICO and Progressive Insurance are not unlike that of independent/third-party objections to the dominance of the Democratic and Republican Parties in today’s political discourse. As with political affiliations outside the Democrat-GOP binary, it is not as if they don’t have skin in the game, so to speak; CURE wants you to believe that their smaller size will allow them to be more attentive to your needs as a consumer in order to bring you in as a customer, as those outside the Democrat-GOP binary would have you believe the two major parties have largely stopped listening to the wants and needs of their constituents and thus deserve your vote because they have your best interests in mind. In both senses, then, the aggrieved third party is selling something.
To the extent GEICO or Progressive is derelict in its customer service duties I cannot say or wouldn’t begin to speculate; according to J.D. Power’s 2017 survey, Amica Mutual reigns supreme in overall auto claims satisfaction with 5 of 5 stars (J.D. Power trophies?), while GEICO manages a 4/5 rating, and Progressive, a so-so 3/5. In the world of voter satisfaction, meanwhile, it should come as no surprise that neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party get high marks from the American public. In a January 2018 poll conducted by NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist, while the Dems and GOP beat out Congress as a whole (8%) in terms of those who expressed “great confidence” in the institution, the 10% garnered by Republicans and the 13% managed by the Democrats fail to inspire in their own right. Moreover, if the fallout from the #ReleaseTheMemo drama has any impact on these figures, it’s only likely to depress them (and me in the process).
So, let’s talk about the Nunes memo, as it has been called. Its namesake, Devin Nunes, and other people who supported its release, insist it is not a political hit job. But come the f**k on—it totally is. Before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about what the four-page memorandum actually says:
- The crux of the fault-finding within the Nunes memo revolves around how the FBI and Department of Justice came to warranting, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a probable cause order and authorizing electronic surveillance of Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser and a person of interest in the special prosecutorial investigation helmed by Robert Mueller for his possible role as an intermediary between associates of Donald Trump and Russian officials, potentially including pro-Trump interference on Russia’s part in the 2016 election. The memo’s contention is that it was not properly disclosed that the so-called Steele dossier, information compiled by former British intelligence officer and FBI source Christopher Steele and which formed a significant part of the basis for the initial FISA application and its three subsequent renewals, was paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to the tune of some $160,000, nor was it disclosed that law firm Perkins Coie and research firm Fusion GPS had facilitated this arrangement.
- Also of apparent issue is Steele’s correspondence with the news media. According to the memo, the FISA application for Page’s surveillance heavily cited a September 2016 article by Michael Isikoff for Yahoo! News, which doesn’t corroborate the Steele dossier because it doesn’t have to—Steele spoke with Yahoo! and other outlets directly—and later spoke to Mother Jones for an October 2016 article by David Corn and revealed his identity. The bone of contention is that an FBI source shouldn’t be revealing his or her identity and compromising his or her usefulness as a source, and at the very least, that Steele should’ve made his media contacts evident for the purposes of the FISA application.
- More on Christopher Steele: according to the Nunes memo and citing a documented account by Bruce Ohr, former Associate Deputy Attorney General of the DOJ, Steele’s involvement was about more than just the money. That dirty, dirty Clinton money. It was about his “desperation” and “passion” for Donald Trump not becoming President that he did his part regarding the dossier.
- So, why is all this an issue? According to the memo, it’s because, as of January 2017 and per former FBI director James Comey’s own words, the Steele dossier was characterized as “salacious and unverified.” Also, did I, Devin Nunes, mention Steele was biased against Trump? Did you get that? Christopher Steele—Donald Trump—MASSIVE BIAS. Just wanted to make sure that was in there.
- Somewhat surprisingly, the Nunes memo additionally mentions, while stating there is no evidence of cooperation between Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, another foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and someone who has already pled guilty to lying to the FBI, that an FBI counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016 by looking at Papadopoulos, not Page. Of course, the memo also goes on to indicate that FBI agent Pete Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page were not only knockin’ boots, but had indicated their severe BIAS! against Donald Trump, and furthermore, that in their texts, orchestrated leaks to the news media and discussed an “insurance” policy against Trump winning the election with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe. McCabe announced his resignation from this post on January 29.
In the wake of the memo’s release, many independent observers commented on just how remarkably, well, unremarkable its contents are. In terms of bombshell revelations, Nunes’ memo is about as earth-shattering as was the Benghazi investigation and Hillary Clinton’s involvement; in other words, much ado about nothing. Additionally, scrutiny of the memo raises its own set of questions about the motivations behind its release. Let’s do our own dive into the arguments raised within its text:
- The Clinton campaign paid for the research that compiled by Christopher Steele. And? So? At worst, this would seem like an issue with the process of securing a warrant for surveillance of Carter Page, but this says nothing of the veracity of Steele’s claims. It’s my understanding that opposition research is a standard part of politics in today’s day and age. At any rate, if the intention was to prevent Trump from winning, it didn’t serve that purpose, so what’s the big deal at this point? The Republican candidate won. Get over it.
- Steele’s interaction with the media and his disclosure of his identity as an FBI source, if anything, seems like an internal matter for the Bureau to handle, not for Devin Nunes to publicly criticize. Again, this would seem to be an issue of process, and highlighting Steele’s failure to disclose this aspect only serves as a blatant attempt by Nunes and others to undermine the FBI’s credibility.
- Devin, bruh—a lot of people don’t like Donald Trump at this point. Trump’s approval rating may have gone up recently, perhaps thanks in part to his State of the Union speech of which a majority of Americans approve, but it’s still a minority of Americans who give him a thumbs-up at this point. These allusions to anti-Trump bias just look like a cheap way to gin up his supporters for his—and possibly your own—political benefit.
- The memo highlights Comey’s indication that the contents of the dossier were “salacious and unverified.” Not only have some aspects of the Steele dossier since been confirmed (or disconfirmed), however, but other elements are simply still unverified, not demonstrably debunked. The mainstream media may distance itself from its contents, but that may have as much to do with lurid tales of Russian prostitutes and “golden showers” as much as anything, not to mention Buzzfeed’s apparently reckless release of the associated information.
- Last but not least, the notion that an FBI investigation into Russian meddling in American affairs began not with Carter Page, but instead George Papadopoulos, would seem to somewhat undermine the central theme of this memo: that surveillance of Page under FISA was based on faulty intelligence from an unreliable source. If Papadopoulos’ involvement with Russia was sufficient to spark an in-depth look, this works against the notion that Trump’s detractors or even Mueller and his associates have nothing besides the Steele dossier on which to go. Besides, once more, the memo doesn’t suggest the intel on Papadopoulos is false, but merely drags Pete Strzok and his “mistress”—yes, the Nunes memo actually refers to Lisa Page as such—as if to suggest that their affair makes them less than credible. This morality-based character assassination has no bearing on the validity of the case against either Page or Papadopoulos. Talk about salacious.
Donald Trump and his supporters see this as proof that the investigation into his possible ties to Russia, including orchestrating interference in the 2016 election on his behalf, is nothing but a witch hunt. Fake news. Then again, Trump especially would say this. For many discerning onlookers not already blinded by loyalty to Pres. Drumpf, though, the public release of the Nunes memo—which was only made possible because the White House opted to declassify its contents, mind you—is intended primarily to erode confidence in the intelligence community and the Mueller investigation so that it will seem like a natural consequence that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is fired, his successor is named, and that individual can get rid of Robert Mueller. Because Trump and his associates are innocent. And all around him, people are heavily BIASED against him. SO MUCH BIAS. PUTTING THINGS IN ALL CAPS MAKES THEM MORE BELIEVABLE.
Both the Democrats and the bulk of the U.S. intelligence community were highly critical of the use of classified information in this way. Adam Schiff, Democratic member of the House of Representatives for the state of California and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee—or “Little” Adam Schiff, in Trumpist parlance—CC’d on the release of the original memo, for one, asserts that the information included in the memo is cherry-picked in a manner designed to create a narrative that makes the President look like a target of a conspiracy. Not to mention its contents, it should be stressed, do not exonerate Pres. Trump, but merely cast aspersions on the reliability of the FBI, DOJ, and relevant sources.
Even if the revelations within are fairly tepid, meanwhile, the implications of the executive branch and members of the legislative branch of the federal government going after the American intelligence community are such that we of the rank-and-file persuasion should be concerned regardless of our political affiliation. As even some Republicans, including high-profile party members like John McCain, would insist, this interparty and interoffice conflict does Vladimir Putin and Co.’s work for them in sending public confidence in our political institutions downward yet further. This is not to say that FBI agents and DOJ personnel shouldn’t be held accountable for any misdeeds on their part, or should be afforded too little oversight owing to the broad notion that information related to investigations may be “sensitive.” By the same token, when Trump can take wild swings on Twitter at officials under his purview—including heads of agencies installed on his watch—and the media and its consumers can report and digest this all without batting an eye, one may get the sense we’re on shaky footing as a nation indeed.
President Trump’s tiff with Adam Schiff—the Schiff Tiff, if you will—and the resistance Nancy Pelosi showed in a marathon speech on the House floor in an effort to bring attention to the fate of Dreamers after the Senate reached an agreement on the terms of a budget proposal without any assurances that the immigration issue will be taken up in the near future, make for appealing political theater. The hullabaloo about the Nunes memo, meanwhile, paired with the recent vote to reauthorize FISA Section 702, makes leaders on both sides of the political aisle hard to support. On the Republican side of things, I was already predisposed to think less of Paul Ryan, but his defense of the release of the memo as standard operating procedure for Congress is disingenuous and cowardly when numerous GOP House members are either publicly criticizing Devin Nunes or abandoning ship by refusing to run for re-election in the midterms. On the Democratic side, meanwhile, Pelosi and Schiff’s public censure of Donald Trump and his Republican brethren rings hollow when they’re voting alongside their GOP counterparts to extend the surveillance powers of a President they deem to be untrustworthy. For their part, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and minority leader Chuck Schumer should be held accountable for this vote as well, the latter in particular. If 34 senators could say “Nay”—including seven Republicans—he could’ve joined his fellow New York legislator Kirsten Gillibrand in doing so.
This all makes for a disappointing backdrop to the larger conversation about American foreign policy alongside the country’s military and intelligence capabilities. Amid reports that Russian hackers were able to penetrate several state voter rolls in advance of the 2016 election and that the Pentagon has been told by Trump to plan a military parade that could cost us upwards of $20 million—you know, just to show how great we are—we discerning consumers are left to wonder just how devoted Congress, the President, or the media is to safeguarding our best interests. The memo was released, and everybody sucks. If these events aren’t a call for new leadership across the board, I don’t know what is.