Donald Trump used to have a simple message about the Russia investigation: It isn’t really about Russia; that’s just a Democratic excuse for losing the 2016 election. Trump said he had never cared about Russia. So when investigators found people around him doing suspicious things with Russians—Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, George Papadopoulos—Trump said those interactions had nothing to do with him.
The brushoff strategy was smart. It distanced Trump from Russia, its agenda, and its friends in Trump’s camp. But Trump couldn’t stand it. When the investigation struck his people, he wanted to strike back. In this mission, he had willing warriors: a team of lawyers and Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
The counterattack began in March, when Nunes, secretly aided by the White House, launched an assault on national security officials who had “unmasked” Flynn. The scandal, Nunes argued, wasn’t Flynn’s secret dealings with Russia or the payments he had received. It was U.S. surveillance of him. Trump joined the outcry, urging Flynn to seek legal immunity against the Russia “witch hunt.” Later, after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Trump blasted the bureau for persecuting Flynn.
In July, the FBI came for Manafort. Agents armed with a search warrant raided his home to collect evidence. Trump criticized the raid, and Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, went ballistic. Dowd accused the FBI and special counsel Robert Mueller of deceiving a judge to get the warrant. The president’s lawyer argued that the evidence should be barred from court.
In October, Papadopoulos’ guilty plea was revealed. Trump’s lawyers could have let the “coffee boy” fend for himself. Instead, they defended his contacts with Russia. Papadopoulos might have lied to the FBI, said Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, but the underlying conduct—backstage conversations during the campaign with an intermediary who told Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton—wasn’t “illegal or inappropriate.” A “conversation that someone would have regarding a foreign government, whether it was Great Britain, Russia, or anybody else” is “not an inappropriate activity,” Sekulow argued.
Carter Page has followed a similar arc. Like Papadopoulos, he served in Trump’s campaign as a nominal foreign policy adviser. Page is an overt Putin sympathizer. He’s a minor-league operator—he once called himself “an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin”—but he’s mostly a doofus. Russian agents tried to recruit him in 2013—one explicitly called him an “idiot”—and during the 2016 election, he gave a speech in Moscow in which he accused the United States of hypocrisy for preaching to Russia about democracy, corruption, and inequality. To this day, Page refuses to accept that Russia meddled in the 2016 election.
When Page initially surfaced in the Russia investigation, the Trump camp blew him off as a marginal player who “had no formal role in the campaign.” But in late May, when Fox & Friends depicted Page as a victim of partisan Democrats, Trump leapt to his defense. “So now it is reported that the Democrats, who have excoriated Carter Page about Russia, don’t want him to testify,” Trump tweeted. “He blows away their case against him & now wants to clear his name by showing ‘the false or misleading testimony by James Comey, John Brennan…’ Witch Hunt!”
Nunes, egged on by Trump, kept working to prove that the Russia investigation was corrupt. Last Friday, with Trump’s approval, he released the result: a memo that casts Page as a martyr. The transformation is remarkable. In December 2016, Don McGahn, who was then Trump’s transition lawyer, sent Page a letter telling him to stop calling himself a Trump adviser. “You never met Mr. Trump, nor did you ever ‘advise’ Mr. Trump about anything,” said the letter. “You are thus not an ‘advisor’ to Mr. Trump in any sense of the word.” The Nunes memo pretends this rebuke never happened. It decries the FBI’s persecution of Page, a “volunteer advisor to the Trump presidential campaign.”
In October 2016, the memo reports, the “DOJ and FBI sought and received a FISA probable cause order … authorizing electronic surveillance on Carter Page.” The surveillance was specifically on Page, a peripheral character with a prior history of Russian contacts. But Nunes, in TV appearances promoting the memo, spun this as surveillance of the Trump campaign. “The FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016,” Nunes told Bret Baier on Feb. 2, referring to the initial investigative steps against Russia, which were prompted by Papadopoulos. “And then they got a warrant on someone in the Trump campaign,” Nunes complained, referring to Page. “It’s wrong, and it should never be done.” Three days later, on Fox & Friends, Nunes fumed: “The Democrats and the Hillary campaign paid for dirt that the FBI then used to get a warrant on an American citizen to spy on another campaign.”
According to this revised narrative, Page was so close to Trump that surveillance on Page was tantamount to surveillance on Trump. And the 2016 investigation, heretofore understood as a counterintelligence probe aimed at Russia, is now reframed as an insidious plot to incriminate Page and Trump. “I don’t believe that somebody like Mr. Page should be a target of the FBI,” Nunes told Baier. Other Trump supporters echoed that argument, calling Page “an innocent American” ensnared by a “terrifying” investigation. Trump bills himself as the real victim, tweeting that FISA “may have been used … to so badly surveil and abuse the Trump Campaign by the previous administration.”
Everything about the surveillance of Page fits the original story that he was peripheral to Trump. Page was watched by the FBI long before he joined the campaign. The electronic surveillance of him began and was reauthorized after he had left the campaign. So it would have been easy for Trump and his defenders to say that the surveillance was legitimately about Russia, not about Trump. Instead, they have attacked it. “All this stuff was based on Carter Page,” Donald Trump Jr. complained Monday on Fox News. “And yet [the surveillance] was reauthorized numerous times after Carter Page was not even a part of the campaign anymore.” In another Fox interview, Trump Jr. agreed that the Nunes memo showed the entire Russia investigation is “rotten to the core.”
Exonerating Page is just the beginning. Next, Trump’s allies want to free Flynn, Manafort, and other Russia-connected characters. “Mueller’s investigation is and has been a witch hunt from the very beginning,” Sean Hannity declared hours after the Nunes memo was released. “It’s built on a house of cards, and tonight it is crashing down.” “The special counsel must be disbanded immediately,” said Hannity, and “all charges against Paul Manafort and Gen. Michael Flynn need to be dropped.”
If Trump and his surrogates cared only about him, they wouldn’t say such things. They wouldn’t attack counterintelligence work. They wouldn’t embrace Page, denounce the exposure of Russian contacts, and try to overturn guilty pleas by people supposedly distant from the president. What the Nunes memo shows is that the assault on Mueller and the FBI extends well beyond protecting Trump. It’s an assault on investigating Russia.