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Donald Trump Can’t Have His Vindication and His Redactions

President Trump at a White House briefing, April 9, 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

I’m going to offer a modest and respectful dissent from my colleague Andy McCarthy’s assessment of the Carter Page FISA application and renewals. I’d encourage you to read his entire piece, but the core of his argument is that “the Steele dossier, an unverified Clinton-campaign product, was the driving force behind the Trump–Russia investigation” and that — whatever is behind the heavy redactions — those words will not verify the Steele dossier. Thus, according to Andy, “the newly disclosed FISA applications are so shoddy that the judges who approved them ought to be asked some hard questions.” Here’s a key paragraph:

I freely acknowledge that we do not know what the redactions say. But we have been very well informed about what they do not say. They do not verify the allegations in the Steele dossier. I have no doubt that they have a great deal to say about Russia and its nefarious anti-American operations. But the FBI has been taking incoming fire for months about failing to corroborate Steele. No institution in America guards its reputation more zealously than does the FBI. If Steele had been corroborated, rest assured that the bureau would not be suffering in silence.

Andy might be right. No one can question either the extent of his expertise or the care he takes with his commentary, but I think his conclusions are premature. First, as the now-famous “Nunes memo” makes clear, the Trump-Russia investigation began not with the October Carter Page FISA application but rather in “late July 2016” and was initially based on information received about former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos. We also know that the Trump-Russia investigation had ramped up so much by the early fall that the response to the discovery of Anthony Weiner’s laptop was delayed in part because so many internal FBI assets had been allocated away from the “Midyear Exam” (the Clinton investigation) and to “Crossfire Hurricane (the Trump-Russia investigation).

In other words, we don’t yet know the full scope of the FBI’s actions between the opening of the investigation and the Carter Page FISA application. We don’t yet know how the investigation evolved in the weeks and months that followed. We don’t know what was “the driving force” behind each stage of the investigation. But I do think it’s important to remember that while the Carter Page FISA application may have been important to the beginning stages of the investigation, it’s not indispensable to the existence of the investigation itself. As Trey Gowdy has argued, the Russia investigation would exist without the dossier. After all, any number of additional events — including Donald Jr.’s attempted collusion in June 2016 or Roger Stone’s apparent advance knowledge of that WikiLeaks had obtained damaging information — would have triggered expansive inquiries.

Second, while I tend to agree with Andy that we’d likely know if any material part of the Steele dossier had been verified (and thus I’m concerned about whether the FISA applications were legally sufficient), I’m not at all willing to argue that the FISA applications were improperly granted on the basis of the thin record in front of us. There were an immense amount of redactions, and the redactions increased with each successive application. I’m not going to speculate as to what was behind those black blocks, but Trump has the power to lift the veil.

The bottom line is that I don’t think Trump should get his vindication and his redactions. If there’s nothing material there beyond Steele, then transparency won’t harm national security. If there’s materially more to the FISA applications than Steele, then the redactions start to make more sense. The American national-security apparatus has an overclassification problem, and we’ve seen examples of overclassification in the Trump/Russia investigation itself (for example, what was remotely damaging to national security about the Nunes memo that justified the pre-release protest?) The administration should take immediate steps to be more transparent. It should order the re-release the FISA applications with only the most minimal amounts of text blacked-out.

Like I said, Andy may be right about everything. Transparency may result in my colleague being celebrated from coast-to-coast for his remarkable insight. But I’m not there yet. I want to see with my own eyes the core assertions that led four separate Republican-appointed judges to grant (and renew) one of the most politically sensitive FISA applications in American history. And if the Trump administration persists in denying me that view, then I’m going to be less-inclined to believe that the applications are without merit. If there’s no evidence against Page, then there’s no evidence to conceal. Fake news shouldn’t be classified. Let’s read the words on the page, and let the chips fall where they may.

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