Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics | Analysis

House Republicans are not only loath to investigate Trump, they’re confusing the actual facts

September 12, 2018 at 10:36 AM

House Oversight Committee member Mark Meadows (R-NC.) speaks to reporters on Aug. 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) offered the world a smoking gun this week, incriminating former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI attorney Lisa Page as having leaked information to the media.

In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Meadows revealed two newly uncovered text messages between Strzok and Page who, during parts of 2016 and 2017, were engaged in a romantic relationship.

In one of those text messages, Strzok told Page he wanted "to talk to you about media leak strategy with DOJ before you go." That message was sent one day before The Post reported that Carter Page, once an adviser to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, was the target of a federal surveillance warrant. Another text message, presented by Meadows as having been sent the day after that article, reads, "Well done, Page."

But that message was not sent the following day. It was sent 10 days later, as Meadows subsequently admitted. And the "Page" referred to may not have been Lisa Page but, instead, Carter Page. As for the "media leak strategy," that also has a less nefarious explanation. Strzok's attorney told The Post that it "refers to a Department-wide initiative to detect and stop leaks to the media."

That claim is bolstered significantly by a robust analysis of the situation by journalist Marcy Wheeler, who notes, among other things, that Strzok was the one who pushed for the warrant to surveil Page in the first place, a warrant that was still active at the time The Post learned of it. By leaking its existence, Strzok would have rendered his own warrant useless.

The gun wasn't smoking. It appears to have been on fire.

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Longtime FBI agent Peter Strzok was fired on Aug. 10, over furor surrounding his politically charged text messages. He is the third high-ranking FBI official involved in the Hillary Clinton and Russia investigations to be fired. (Jenny Starrs /The Washington Post)

That's setting aside the broader context. We tend to eagerly dive into rabbit holes on this stuff, only belatedly coming back to the surface. Consider what Meadows was offering here: An attempt to undercut Strzok for something Meadows alleged he did in April 2017, well after the Page investigation began and well after the start of the broader investigation into any possible links between Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia. At best, had his information been beyond dispute, Meadows would have cast Strzok and Page as being willing to share information with the media in an inappropriate way. It's a gotcha that is somewhat kneecapped by the fact that neither still works for the FBI. To extend that backward to a defense of Trump against the broader investigation would have been a stretch even if Meadows had been right.

But, of course, that's a central reason that Meadows sent his letter. It was first reported by Sara Carter, a reporter who is a regular on Sean Hannity's Fox News program. Carter's appearance on Lou Dobbs's Fox Business Network program on Monday night was what brought the subject to Trump's attention on Tuesday morning, prompting him to tweet his disparagement of Strzok, Page, the FBI and the Department of Justice. Meadows set up Trump's opponents on a tee, or so it seemed, and Trump took a big swing.

It was not the first such swing-and-a-miss by Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill. Back in January, there was the implication that Strzok and Page were members of a secret group within the FBI hellbent on undercutting Trump's administration, an implication promoted by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). That was based on another isolated Strzok-Page text in which a "secret society" was mentioned. That rippled outward over the same networks that promoted Meadows's "media leak" theory in short order. As it turns out, the full context of the mention of a secret society makes fairly clear that the phrase was meant as a joke.

There was the discovery earlier this year that a number of text messages between Strzok and Page were missing, a revelation that itself spun off a number of critiques and conspiracy theories. Those text messages were later recovered, without much fanfare.

Those are just the theories linked to the subset of the subset of the issue at hand: Text messages between two FBI employees. That there are so many messages, the brevity of which provides fertile ground for over-interpretation, makes them particularly useful for those looking to raise questions about how the FBI operates.

But there are many other ways in which Trump's House allies have undercut confidence in the investigation into Russian interference, willingly or not, deservedly or not. At the heart of that effort is Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. The committee abruptly ended its investigation into Russian interference earlier this year, when the panel's Republicans reached the conclusion that Russia's efforts were not intended to aid Trump's election.

That determination was at odds with the intelligence community's evidence and analysis. It was at odds with the minority members of the committee, who released their own report on the subject. It was at odds with the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee's findings, which agreed that Russia wanted to bolster Trump's candidacy. The determination by Nunes's team was an outlier.

Nunes has also been the point person on a number of other murky theories that run contrary to the broadly accepted understanding of Russia's efforts and Trump's actions -- theories that have consistently been poked full of holes in short order.

After Trump claimed that phones at Trump Tower were tapped by President Barack Obama during the 2016 campaign, Nunes, having been shown classified information by White House staffers, announced that Obama's team had used intelligence improperly to target Trump campaign staffers. An investigation ensued; both Democrats and Republicans found no wrongdoing.

Nunes also promoted a memo earlier this year meant to show that the warrant to surveil Page was improperly obtained. The memo was hyped by Nunes and his allies on the Hill and in the media. When released, though, it was quickly shown to have cherry-picked certain details and to have excluded others. Nunes pushed for the release of the warrant itself, which Trump ultimately approved in redacted form. It didn't help Nunes's case.

In recent weeks, Nunes has been pushing for a fully unredacted version of the document to come out and has suggested that evidence exists that would prove the warrant application should not have been granted. Trump hinted on Twitter that he might release the full warrant.

Nunes also pushed for the release of information about a confidential informant who had contacted members of Trump's campaign during 2016. Trump and his allies seized on this as evidence that there was a spy in his campaign; in reality, it was a London-based academic who had a handful of meetings with three people -- some of which happened after the Russia investigation had already begun at the end of July 2016.

There's a symbiosis at play here among Trump, conservative media and Republican elected officials. Embracing a questionable conspiracy theory is a fast-track to Fox News interviews and positive articles in Breitbart and the Daily Caller. A defense of Trump plays well in red districts where the president is still overwhelmingly popular. The alchemy here is not mysterious.

It's an important point to remember, though, as midterms loom and questions about Trump's non-Russia-related activities continue to mount. Congress is meant to act as a check on the president. At this point, though, the House Republicans who spend the most time in front of microphones seem to be ones whose instinct is the opposite.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.

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