The publication of a House Republican memo alleging surveillance violations in the Russia probe has prompted President Trump to declare that he is “totally” vindicated. As many have pointed out, that is not true. While the memo makes a plausible case that a surveillance warrant of campaign volunteer Carter Page was obtained on questionable grounds, it also acknowledges that it was another campaign aide, George Papadopolous, who triggered the opening of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation three months earlier. Whether or not Page should have been monitored in the first place, the status of his surveillance warrant will not be what resolves this investigation.
That said, the memo is not necessarily the disaster for Trump and the Republicans that it is widely considered to be. Many of Trump’s political opponents remain tethered to the eventual emergence of proof that his campaign colluded with the Russian government in order to win the presidency. But the evidentiary basis so far for Russiagate is thin, to say the least. Meanwhile, the relentless pursuit of this narrative above all else has had dangerous consequences.
The Curious Cast
As high-level officials and investigators have repeatedly acknowledged, there is still no evidence so far of coordination between the Trump orbit and the Russian government over the release of stolen e-mails or any other campaign matter. There is only a curious cast of characters that makes for an unlikely conspiracy.
At a London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos reportedly told an Australian diplomat that that the Russian government had damaging information on Hillary Clinton. In his plea document, Papadopoulos says that an obscure professor, Joseph Mifsud, had told him that “the Russians” had obtained “thousands of emails” containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Mifsud has denied making the claim. The Washington Post noted that, had the Trump campaign “undertaken even a cursory vetting of Papadopoulos” before hiring him, “they would have found that much of his already-slim résumé was either exaggerated or false.” But if Papadopoulos is telling the truth about Mifsud, it is quite possible that the professor had similar qualities. By April 2016, the time of Mifsud’s alleged statement, the controversy over Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server was already three years old.
It is possible that Mifsud was using a public talking point to impress his American intermediary for the purpose of career advancement. Indeed, he even pitched himself as a Trump campaign surrogate, proposing to “write op-eds under the guise of a ‘neutral’ observer…and follow Mr. Trump to his rallies as an accredited journalist while receiving briefings from the inside the campaign.”