(Agence France-Presse)
Opinion writer


The escalating campaign by President Trump’s allies to discredit the ongoing Russia investigation is based partly on the idea that the probe itself is an illegitimate abuse of power. Some Republicans in Congress are all in on this alt-narrative and are going to great lengths to employ Congress’s investigative machinery to bolster it, plainly in hopes of keeping the real truth about Trump and Russia from coming out.

But Democrats can make it harder for Republicans to get away with this. Democrats need to ensure that the transcripts of testimony delivered to Congress by the co-founders of the firm that commissioned the so-called Steele Dossier are made public. Hardball procedural tactics toward this end do exist: A Democratic senator can try to make the transcripts public by reading them into the congressional record on the floor.

This morning, two Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee — Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) — sent a letter to GOP committee chair Charles Grassley demanding the release of the transcripts. A Democratic leadership aide tells me that if the GOP majority refuses, Democrats will escalate calls for the transcripts’ release in coming days.

The narrative that Trump’s allies are spinning holds that the genesis of the original FBI probe into Russian sabotage of our election and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with it (which became special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe) originated with the Steele Dossier, which details links between Trump and Russia but has lots of uncorroborated information. This is supposed to show that the probe itself is compromised or illegitimate, because at one point Fusion GPS, the firm behind the dossier, was retained by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Thus, the probe is rooted in partisan dirty tricks, and because the dossier is based on info from Russian sources, this means (presto!) Hillary Clinton is the one who actually colluded with Russia.

This narrative took a major blow last week when the two co-founders of Fusion GPS published a New York Times op-ed detailing their own testimony to Congress on these matters. They said they told Congress — mainly the Judiciary Committee — that the original funding for their research was a conservative publication; that they don’t believe the dossier triggered the probe; and that their sources told them that the FBI took the dossier seriously because it corroborated reports of collusion coming in from many other sources, something that has been confirmed by deep investigative reporting.

Crucially, the two Fusion GPS co-founders called on the committee to release the transcripts of their testimony, arguing that it would show that Republicans know full well that those reports of collusion were “pouring in from independent sources” (i.e., that the alt-narrative is nonsense).

In their letter to Grassley, Blumenthal and Whitehouse reiterate that the Judiciary Committee’s probe has gathered info confirming the Fusion GPS co-founders’ claims, and call for the release of the transcripts. But Grassley is directing his investigative zeal in another direction. On Friday, he called on the Justice Department to investigate whether Christopher Steele lied to the FBI himself when interviewed about what he learned. Experts pointed out that this is bogus: The FBI would itself know if it had been lied to, without Grassley’s “help.”

Regardless, as Blumenthal and Whitehouse point out in their letter, if Republicans want to keep focusing on Steele, they should release the transcripts, because “the American people should be allowed to decide for themselves.” In other words, if Republicans want to spin this theory about the real genesis of the FBI probe, why should the American people be denied the facts that Republicans themselves have gathered (via Fusion GPS’s testimony) about the real genesis of the FBI probe?

Procedural hardball

Sarah Binder, a congressional scholar at George Washington University, tells me that if Republicans don’t release the transcripts, Judiciary Committee Democrats can try to force the issue, by getting recognized to speak on the floor, and then reading the transcripts into the record. “A Democratic senator — once recognized, which depends on the parliamentary context in which the Senate is operating — could hold the floor and launch into a discussion of the Fusion transcripts,” Binder says.

At that point, the GOP majority would probably block the move. But congressional expert Norm Ornstein tells me that Democrats could respond to that with more hardball, by having other Democratic senators try to get recognized and pick up reading where the last one left off. This might fail, too, but as Ornstein notes, “if something like that happens, it’s going to get an enormous amount of attention. That’s how you make Republicans look like they’re going to great lengths to cover up the truth.”

To be clear, we don’t know whether Mueller will end up uncovering serious misconduct. But the point is that Republicans don’t know what the truth is either, yet they are nonetheless working to prevent an accounting. This includes not just the criminal referral on Steele but also (among other things) the (bogus) use of investigators’ texts to “prove” the FBI is riddled with pro-Clinton bias, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes’s use of his committee’s probe to deflect accountability for Trump and further the claim that the FBI and the whole Russia story’s genesis are compromised.

“If Republicans are going to take it to that level, then Democrats have every reason to make a big public deal out of the transcripts,” Ornstein says. It would be better, of course, if Republicans agreed to release them. But if not, given that Republicans know Mueller might actually end up finding something deeply improper, or even criminal or impeachable, yet are actively employing Congress’s oversight machinery to delegitimize any such findings in advance, hardball tactics are more than justified.

* WHITE HOUSE WAGES RUTHLESS WAR ON BANNON:  After White House adviser Stephen Miller ripped Bannon on CNN, he issued a groveling statement of regret for criticizing Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting as “treasonous.” Jeremy W. Peters and Michael Tackett report:

Mr. Bannon’s allies understood the White House’s moves … to be an act of ruthless political war … They said they believed that the president and senior aides like Kellyanne Conway, who is close to Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire who issued a rare statement last week disavowing Mr. Bannon, were sending activists and donors a clear message: He is persona non grata in conservative politics.

Remember when Bannon was feted on the cover of Time Magazine as “The Great Manipulator”?

* STEPHEN MILLER IS ESCORTED OUT BY SECURITY: Miller’s performance was so preposterous and dishonest that CNN’s Jake Tapper berated him and finally cut him off. CBS News adds this from a CNN source:

“The segment was over and Mr. Miller was politely asked to leave the set multiple times. After refusing to leave, he was escorted out by security,” the CNN source told CBS News.

But no matter: Trump told his supporters that Miller “destroyed” Tapper, and so for countless numbers of them, this is what really happened.

* REPUBLICANS DIVIDED OVER ‘DREAMERS’: The Post reports that Republicans are split over how much to demand in exchange for doing the right thing and protecting the “dreamers”:

Despite Trump’s renewed calls for a border wall, Republicans remain frayed over how to move forward. Some moderates are willing to either pass a bill giving dreamers a path to citizenship or craft a deal with Democrats that would include some border security measures. But the bulk of the conservative rank-and-file want more in exchange for accepting an immigration policy that much of the Republican base opposes.

Meanwhile, Democrats are divided over how hard a line to draw. But they can’t let Trump get his wall, so they will likely give him border security measures that he can sell to the GOP base as a “win” on it.

* TRUMP’S POLICIES COULD HURT FARMERS: Today Trump is set to deliver a speech to farmers, but the New York Times reports that some industry analysts think Trump’s policies could actually harm farmers economically:

New analyses of the tax law by economists at the Department of Agriculture suggest it could actually lower farm output in the years to come and effectively raise taxes on the lowest-earning farm households, while delivering large gains for the richest farmers. … Mr. Trump continues to threaten to withdraw from trade pacts if other countries do not grant the United States a better deal, a position that has put him at odds with much of the farm industry.

Yet Trump is expected to tout his tax law, meaning he will tell farmers that they will benefit from it even if the opposite is true.

* TRUMP’S SCHEDULE IS SHRINKING: Jonathan Swan of Axios reports:

Trump is starting his official day much later than he did in the early days of his presidency, often around 11 a.m., and holding far fewer meetings, according to copies of his private schedule shown to Axios. This is largely to meet Trump’s demands for more “Executive Time,” which almost always means TV and Twitter time alone in the residence, officials tell us. The schedules shown to me are different than the sanitized ones released to the media and public.

Because what Trump needs is still more time inside his bubble of Fox News and Twitter feeds that tell him what he wants to hear.

* TIME TO WORRY ABOUT ‘THE WOLFF EFFECT’: E.J. Dionne Jr. points out that the revelations about Trump’s unfitness to serve are only leading Republicans to rally around him harder, and that’s a problem:

What might be called the Wolff Effect will thus be paradoxical. It could strengthen the bonds between Republican politicians and Trump at the very moment when everyone else is coming to terms with how dangerous it is to have a president who is so uninformed and unstable. In the meantime, more traditional journalists will carry on their painstaking work, piling up evidence that Trump did all he could to block a legal accounting for the methods that helped get him to the White House in the first place.

Indeed, it is not clear whether Republicans are even asking themselves if there is any point at which they, too, will need to come to terms with Trump’s unfitness.

* AND THE 25TH AMENDMENT IS DISCUSSED IN THE WHITE HOUSE: Michael Wolff said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that “25th Amendment” has become a kind of catch-all adjective among White House advisers to describe Trump’s conduct:

“Yes, actually, they would say, sort of in the mid-period, ‘We’re not at a 25th Amendment level yet.’ … This is alarming in every way. And then this went on, ‘Okay, this is a little 25th Amendment.’ So 25th Amendment is a concept that is alive every day in the White House.

Well, as long as we aren’t quite at 25th Amendment level yet, everything will surely be fine.