House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes appeared on “Fox & Friends” Tuesday, where he provided a potentially explosive hint at what’s driving his demand to see documents related to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Trump-Russia probe. “If the campaign was somehow set up,” he told the hosts, “I think that would be a problem.”
Or an understatement. Mr. Nunes is still getting stiff-armed by the Justice Department over his subpoena, but this week his efforts did force the stunning admission that the FBI had indeed spied on the Trump campaign. This came in the form of a Thursday New York Times apologia in which government “officials” acknowledged that the bureau had used “at least one” human “informant” to spy on both Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. The Times slipped this mind-bending fact into the middle of an otherwise glowing profile of the noble bureau—and dismissed it as no big deal.
But there’s more to be revealed here, and Mr. Nunes’s “set up” comment points in a certain direction. Getting to the conclusion requires thinking more broadly about events beyond the FBI’s actions.
Think of the 2016 Trump-Russia narrative as two parallel strands—one politics, one law enforcement. The political side involves the actions of Fusion GPS, the Hillary Clinton campaign and Obama officials—all of whom were focused on destroying Donald Trump. The law-enforcement strand involves the FBI—and what methods and evidence it used in its Trump investigation. At some point these strands intersected—and one crucial question is how early that happened.
What may well have kicked off both, however, is a key if overlooked moment detailed in the House Intelligence Committee’s recent Russia report. In “late spring” of 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey briefed White House “National Security Council Principals” that the FBI had counterintelligence concerns about the Trump campaign. Carter Page was announced as a campaign adviser on March 21, and Paul Manafort joined the campaign March 29. The briefing likely referenced both men, since both had previously been on the radar of law enforcement. But here’s what matters: With this briefing, Mr. Comey officially notified senior political operators on Team Obama that the bureau had eyes on Donald Trump and Russia. Imagine what might be done in these partisan times with such explosive information.
And what do you know? Sometime in April, the law firm Perkins Coie (on behalf the Clinton campaign) hired Fusion GPS, and Fusion turned its attention to Trump-Russia connections. The job of any good swamp operator is to gin up a fatal October surprise for the opposition candidate. And what could be more devastating than to paint a picture of Trump-Russia collusion that would provoke a full-fledged FBI investigation?
We already know of at least one way Fusion went about that project, with wild success. It hired former British spy Christopher Steele to compile that infamous dossier. In July, Mr. Steele wrote a memo that leveled spectacular conspiracy theories against two particular Trump campaign members—Messrs. Manafort and Page. For an FBI that already had suspicions about the duo, those allegations might prove huge—right? That is, if the FBI were to ever see them. Though, lucky for Mrs. Clinton, July is when the Fusion team decided it was a matter of urgent national security for Mr. Steele to play off his credentials and to take this political opposition research to the FBI.
The question Mr. Nunes’s committee seems to be investigating is what other moments—if any—were engineered in the spring, summer or fall of 2016 to cast suspicion on Team Trump. The conservative press has produced some intriguing stories about a handful of odd invitations and meetings that were arranged for Messrs. Page and Papadopoulos starting in the spring—all emanating from the United Kingdom. On one hand, that country is home to the well-connected Mr. Steele, which could mean the political actors with whom he was working were involved. On the other hand, the Justice Department has admitted it was spying on both men, which could mean government was involved. Or maybe . . . both.
Which brings us to timing. It’s long been known that Mr. Steele went to the FBI in early July to talk about the dossier, and that’s the first known intersection of the strands. But given the oddity and timing of those U.K. interactions concerning Messrs. Page and Papadopoulos, and given the history of some of the people involved in arranging them, some wonder if the two strands were converging earlier than anyone has admitted. The Intelligence Committee subpoena is designed to sort all this out: Who was pulling the strings, and what was the goal? Information? Or entrapment?
Whatever the answer—whether it is straightforward, or whether it involves political chicanery—Congress and the public have a right to know. And a Justice Department willing to leak details of its “top secret” source to friendly media can have no excuse for not sharing with the duly elected members of Congress.