WASHINGTON — The release of the memo mattered less than #releasethememo.
After weeks of buildup, the 3 1/2-page document about alleged FBI abuses during the 2016 presidential campaign made public on Friday was broadly greeted with criticism, including by some Republicans. They said it cherry-picked information, made false assertions and was overly focused on an obscure, low-level Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.
It didn’t live up to the hype.
But the campaign, captured in the hashtag #releasethememo, which was trending on Twitter for days, may have a far more significant impact than the memo’s contents. It was a choreographed effort by House Republicans and top White House officials to push a highly contentious theme — that the FBI and the Justice Department abused their powers to spy on the Trump campaign, and relied on dodgy information from a former British spy paid by Democratic operatives.
What began as an ember more than two weeks ago was fanned into a blaze by conservative media titans, presidential tweets and Republican lawmakers urging people to use social media to pressure Congress to make the memo’s contents public. “I invite everybody to use the hashtag #releasethememo,” Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, said on Fox News during the campaign’s infancy, adding that Americans would be “shocked” when the memo was released.
By Friday, it was obvious that the memo had become part of a proxy fight for the larger battle that the White House is now waging to discredit the Russia investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. By promoting the idea that the Mueller inquiry was born from a corrupt and partisan process, his entire investigation can be tarred as a biased inquisition.
Two hours after the memo’s release, the White House issued a statement saying the document “raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.”
In a Fox News interview Friday, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said his panel was still proceeding with a separate investigation. He hinted that it focused on the State Department’s role in the Russia investigation during the Obama administration.
The barrage that the president and his allies have launched at the FBI is focused on one small part of the mission — surveillance warrants — in an agency of 35,000 people that investigates everything from bank robberies to human trafficking to Wall Street malfeasance. But Trump could have more ammunition in the coming weeks as the Justice Department’s inspector general finishes a report widely expected to be critical of the FBI’s handling of the final months of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
As part of that inquiry, Michael E. Horowitz, the inspector general, has uncovered text messages between two FBI officials working on that case and also the Russia investigation in which they express intense dislike for Trump.
Horowitz is expected to reserve particularly harsh criticism for the two officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Conservative media outlets have already delivered their verdicts on the officials, who are regularly skewered on the popular Fox News program hosted by Sean Hannity.
Hannity recently described the Mueller investigation and decisions in 2016 by James B. Comey, the FBI director at the time, as “one giant incestuous circle of corruption.”
Some Justice Department veterans see Horowitz’s report as another cudgel for those trying to discredit not only the Mueller investigation but also the wider law enforcement community.
“In this political atmosphere, anything critical of the FBI will be used against it,” said Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration.
Still, Republican lawmakers made a curious decision to focus so intensely on the government’s surveillance warrant for Page. Trump’s allies have spent more than a year distancing themselves from Page, and describe him as an insignificant foreign policy adviser who lasted only a few months on the campaign and never met Trump.
His trips to Moscow in 2016 were not connected to the campaign, they said, and campaign officials were unaware of his contacts with Russian intelligence operatives in 2013 when he was hired onto Trump’s foreign policy team during the election year.
The Republican memo, however, paints Page as the target of a political conspiracy that has the larger goal of hurting Trump — effectively binding Page and Trump more closely together in the public’s mind.
The memo also reveals that the surveillance warrant involving Page was renewed on multiple occasions, including during the Trump administration, meaning that top law enforcement officials had convinced the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that there was reason to believe that Page may have been acting as a foreign agent on behalf of the Russians.
“The Republicans have chosen to wrap their arms around Page, and they may come to regret that,” said Jeffrey Smith, a former general counsel for the CIA.
The memo actually undercuts the argument that a dubious warrant involving Page was the beginning of the Russia investigation, as it points out that the investigation began in July 2016 because of information about contacts between Russian intermediaries and another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos.
The New York Times reported in December the inquiry was launched after Papadopoulos, during a night of heavy drinking, had told Australia’s top diplomat in Britain about these contacts, and the diplomat passed the information to the FBI.
How long the campaign by Trump and his associates against the FBI lasts will most likely determine what, if any, long-term damage is done to the bureau. Smith, the former CIA official, believes that the potential for harm is extensive, not least because foreign intelligence partners might be more reluctant to share information with the bureau.
But, he said, there could be significantly more harm if people begin looking for political motives in every action the FBI takes.
“People across the country are going to say, ‘Can I trust the FBI?'” he said.