WASHINGTON – For the sake of argument, let’s take President Donald Trump and his Fox News cheerleaders at their word that they really believe that the memo Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., released Friday reveals a serious assault on our freedoms by the FBI and the Justice Department.
Nah. Just kidding.
It’s simply not possible, on any level, to take seriously the histrionics from Trump and his true-believer allies over the Nunes memo – except as evidence of how far the GOP has plunged into cynicism and madness.
A bunch of law-and-order, war-on-terrorism, lock-’em-up Republicans suddenly sound like spokesmen for the American Civil Liberties Union, so grave is their concern that our government might in any way trespass upon sacred due process. Imagine how such guardians of the Constitution would protest if, say, that self-same government were to hold suspects in detention for a decade or more without charges or trials. Wait, my bad: I seem to recall Republicans applauding with gusto when Trump, in his State of the Union address, announced that the prison at Guantanamo Bay will remain open.
Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, packed so much half-truth and distortion into four short pages that it’s hard to know where to begin. His hope must have been that everyone would get lost in thick weeds of arcane detail, losing sight of the big picture. Which is not a picture at all.
The point of the memo is to suggest that in October 2016, the FBI and Justice Department – under Barack Obama – improperly obtained a secret warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. We are supposed to believe the warrant was based on information in the “discredited” Christopher Steele dossier about Trump’s connections with Russia. We are also given to understand that pertinent information was improperly withheld from the judge: the fact that Steele’s firm was initially hired by Democrats seeking dirt on Trump. Nunes strongly implies, but doesn’t quite say, that without the dossier, which was misrepresented by prosecutors, there would be no Russia investigation.
Ta-da! “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” the president desperately claimed in a tweet.
Stop laughing, readers.
The problem with Trump’s self-exoneration, of course, is that everything the memo tries to make us believe is false. The dossier was not the only information the court relied on to approve the warrant. Steele is a respected former British intelligence agent, and some of the dossier’s findings, though by no means all, appear to be accurate. The judge wasn’t told that the dossier was funded by the Democrats, merely a partisan “political entity,” but the materials provided by the FBI made it obvious it was an entity opposed to Trump. The memo itself acknowledges – quietly – that the whole probe began with George Papadopoulos, another campaign adviser, months before Page even came into the picture.
Break this gently to Sean Hannity, who might blow his last remaining gasket: Even if the dossier had never been written, Trump and his campaign would still be under investigation.
If you don’t believe me, take it from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., whose partisan credentials are unimpeachable – he led the Benghazi inquisition – and who was dispatched by Nunes to review all the classified intelligence used to obtain the Page warrant.
“There is a Russia investigation without a dossier,” he said Sunday. “The dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. The dossier has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.”
Gowdy announced recently that he will not run for re-election this fall. I wonder which comes first for Republicans these days: The decision to retire? Or the pangs of honesty, duty and – one hopes – remorse?
Three other Republican members of the Intelligence Committee – Chris Stewart of Utah, Will Hurd of Texas and Brad Wenstrup of Ohio – joined Gowdy on the rounds of the Sunday shows to deliver what sounded like a coordinated message: Of course the memo is a Terribly Serious Thing, but it doesn’t undercut special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
It sounded like a warning to Trump, who might be tempted to use the memo as a pretense to rid himself of the troublesome Mueller. This isn’t the way Trump’s fawning courtiers on “Fox & Friends” told him this memo gambit was going to work out. The whole Russia thing was supposed to be over.
Maybe he should change the channel every once in a while.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.