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Opinion The GOP’s new tactic to protect Trump from Mueller is a transparent ruse

The Nunes memo is either a partisan document, a distraction, or an FBI smear, according to Post opinion writers. (Video: The Washington Post)


Last night, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee voted to release to the public the now-notorious memo created by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). At the same time, they have not said whether they will allow the public release of the rebuttal to that memo authored by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, though they have agreed to release it to all members of the House to read.

Under the House rule used in last night’s vote, President Trump now has five days to decide whether to release the memo. The White House has already said it wants the memo released, presumably to help build the case — supposedly supported by the memo — that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe actually constitutes an ongoing Deep State Coup to dislodge the president.

In an interview with me, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut — the No. 2 Democrat on the House Intel Committee — noted, ominously, that there is a reasonable chance that Schiff’s rebuttal memo will never be released. Himes pointed out that Republicans on the committee could vote against its release, or, worse, if Republicans did vote to release it, that Trump could block it.

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“I’m under no illusion that there’s much probability at all that the Democratic memo ever sees the light of day,” Himes told me. “It is an extraordinarily detailed, point-by-point rebuttal of unbelievably shoddy allegations on the Republican side. If it were to get voted out of committee for public release, I would be very surprised if Trump didn’t block its release.”

Opinion | If President Trump fires the bane of his legal troubles, he could spark a legal and constitutional crisis. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

This sets up a very interesting test for Republicans and Trump that will reveal the depths of bad faith around this Nunes effort — and around the broader alt-narrative Republicans have created to delegitimize the Russia investigation. As Himes indicates above, it is the Democratic position that the Nunes memo, to put it delicately, is a pile of steaming crap. If Republicans are going to insist that the memo is valid, then will they allow Democrats to release their rebuttal to it? If so, will Trump allow its release?

There’s another report out today that further underscores the bad faith driving the use of the Nunes memo. According to the New York Times, Trump has “five days to review the document” to decide whether he’ll authorize its release, and it is now “being reviewed by White House lawyers.”

But Axios’s Mike Allen reports that Trump has already decided to release the memo:

Trump’s allies are betting that when all is said and done — and when special counsel Bob Mueller has completed his report — the American people will be so thoroughly disgusted with everyone that the political outcome is a wash. …
Jonathan Swan and I are told that President Trump has already made up his mind to release the memo, which he sees as vindication, despite Justice Department resistance. Trump believes it will solidify in the public’s mind that there’s a Deep State out to get him.

If this is accurate, then it is inescapably obvious that Trump is placing his own political needs over national security considerations. The Post reports that the Justice Department and the FBI are expected to lobby Trump against its release, because as DOJ has already said, releasing it without their review would be “reckless,” as it could harm national security and ongoing intelligence operations. If DOJ sticks to that position, yet Trump releases it anyway — having already decided to do so, to solidify the view that DOJ and the FBI are carrying out a corrupt plot against him — he is expressly prioritizing that goal over consideration of DOJ’s warnings about national security.

We don’t know if Axios is correct that Trump has already made this decision. But this seems like a very fruitful avenue for further journalistic exploration. It shouldn’t be too hard for major news orgs to confirm.

Democrats will try to rebut the memo

Given the apparent levels of bad faith on display here, do Democrats have any recourse? When I asked Himes if Democrats would take dramatic steps — such as reading the Schiff rebuttal on the floor, if Republicans and/or Trump block its release — he said he couldn’t guarantee that. But Himes did suggest the Nunes memo would blow up in the faces of Trump and Republicans, because its shoddiness will be so obvious and because Democrats will be freer to make the case against it.

“Smart people all over the country will read this thing and realize what a piece of middle school work it is,” Himes said. “If the Nunes memo is declassified, it will have the effect of declassifying some things that I can’t even talk about. So there will be a lot more scope for discussion.”

Still, Republicans may end up having days — or even a week — to spin the Nunes memo their way, largely unchallenged by competing documentation beyond what Democrats can offer verbally in public appearances. And, of course, if the main goal of releasing the memo is to continue feeding the belief in the Deep State Coup apparently harbored by the GOP base — as opposed to the broader public — then whatever facts are in the Democratic response may not even matter in the least.

* GOP BASE REALLY WANTS THAT MEMO OUT: The Post reports that even Republicans are divided on whether the Nunes memo really proves what it is supposed to prove, but in the end, the truth may not matter:

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) suggested the memo would be explosive: “We get this memo out there, and people will see, the fix was in.” Another Republican who has seen it said it might not be the smoking gun conservatives have described. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) said that while he has gotten more phone calls from constituents on the document than he did on the government shutdown, he largely attributed that uproar to cable news coverage of it.

More phone calls than on the shutdown! Conservative media has whipped up a huge frenzy, and those media sources will similarly spin the memo as a scandal no matter what’s in it.

* REPUBLICANS DON’T WANT FACTS ON NUNES MEMO: During last night’s skirmishing around the Nunes memo, this also happened:

Democrats tried unsuccessfully on Monday to push forward a motion for the F.B.I. and the Justice Department to brief the entire House in a private session on that material before the release of the Republican memo so that they could make a more informed judgment about its contents.

But Republicans don’t want to make an “informed judgment about its contents,” they want to use cherry-picked info to bolster their alt-narrative.

* GOP SENATORS FEAR TRUMP ON TRADE: Politico reports that Republican senators are hoping that Trump’s State of the Union address contains some hints that Trump isn’t going to shred the trading order:

Fresh off new tariffs aimed at imported washing machines and solar panels, GOP lawmakers fear a round of tariffs targeting steel and aluminum — or worst of all: a sustained attack on NAFTA and dissolution of the trade agreement entirely. Trump’s populist trade policies dominated the Senate GOP’s strategy sessions last week, privately eliciting handwringing from the party’s large bloc of free traders, according to GOP sources familiar with the matter.

Another question Republicans might be getting ready to ask is whether the trade policies Trump will end up pursuing actually benefit U.S. workers.

* CIA DIRECTOR PREDICTS MORE RUSSIAN MEDDLING: CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in an interview with the BBC that Russia will be back with more attempted electoral sabotage in 2018:

“Of course. I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that. But I am confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election. That we’ll push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great.”

Maybe someone should tell that to Trump, who according to administration officials has not taken this threat seriously because he still won’t seriously acknowledge it happened last time.

* TRUMP’S SPEECH WILL BE ‘FROM THE HEART’: John Wagner reports on the talking points being distributed in advance of Trump’s State of the Union speech:

Trump is expected to take credit for a stronger economy and tie its continued growth to the Republicans’ tax plan, as well as argue his case on immigration, trade, infrastructure and national security. In a separate document distributed to surrogates Monday, Trump aides said that Tuesday’s speech will be “bipartisan and forward looking” and that he will be “speaking from the heart.”

Republicans can distribute all the talking points they like, but chances are the public’s reception of the speech will be heavily colored by Trump’s historic unpopularity.

* GERRYMANDERING COULD HELP GOP HOLD HOUSE: National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers tells Politico that Republicans will hold the House, and is rather candid about why:

The first reason, he says, is a factor everyone knows about, but which Republicans rarely tout out loud: “I think it starts with the congressional lines,” Stivers said, pointing to the successful gerrymandering after 2010. Later, asked if that validates Democrats’ argument that Republicans have tilted elections to their advantage, Stivers shrugged off the criticism: “You can say that, but the people elected them.”

The Supreme Court is set to decide whether there is a workable standard for limiting partisan gerrymandering, which Stivers is admitting is about protecting GOP gains.