Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

It is now perfectly plausible that President Trump may take dramatic action to constrain special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation in the next few days or weeks. We know this from the plain black-letter facts that are being reported by multiple news organizations right at this moment.

We also know from the plain facts of the reporting what mechanism Trump would likely use in service of this goal — the Nunes memo. And so, all of the Republicans who support its release — including House Speaker Paul Ryan — are doing so in the full knowledge that Trump could very well use it to take perhaps his most serious step yet in dismantling the independence of law enforcement, to shield himself and his associates from accountability.

These basic contours of the situation are right there in plain sight, right there at the end of our noses for all of us to see. Here are the latest developments:

  • The Post reports in the clearest terms yet why Trump wants to see the Nunes memo released: “According to senior White House officials and advisers,” the president “sees it as key to making changes at the Justice Department — particularly pushing out Rosenstein.” That would be Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation. His supposed misconduct is the subject of the memo.
  • The Post adds: “According to a person familiar with his comments, the president has told advisers the memo might make people realize how the FBI and Mueller are biased against him, and that could give him reason to force Rosenstein out.” This would presumably clear the way for the appointment of a Trump loyalist to oversee the probe, thus potentially constraining it.
  • Last night, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) — the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee — released a letter revealing that committee chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) — made “material changes” to the memo. The memo purports to “prove” that surveillance of a top Trump official was improperly based on Democratic-funded research, thus “proving” that the probe’s genesis is irrevocably tainted and that it represents a Deep State Coup to remove the president. Independent reporting has confirmed otherwise, and Democrats who have seen the memo say it’s highly distorted.
  • These changes, Schiff argued, were made to the memo that was delivered to the White House after the committee voted for its release, thus rendering the process illegitimate and requiring a new vote on the memo that the White House is currently “reviewing” for release (we already know Trump has decided to release it). It is hard to know what this means without more detail, but it again underscores the degree to which Nunes has been willing to pervert basic government functionings to protect the president. If the memo is released, it should be accompanied by true transparency, i.e., the release of as much underlying source material as possible so we can all judge it for ourselves. Yet committee Republicans have not even said whether they’ll authorize the release of Schiff’s rebuttal.
  • It is probably no accident that all of this comes as the New York Times reports that the Mueller probe is intensely focused on Trump’s role in drafting a statement falsifying the real rationale for the June 2016 meeting Donald Trump Jr. held at Trump Tower to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton via the Russian government. The Times reports that Mark Corallo, the spokesman for Trump’s legal team, is prepared to tell Mueller about an internal conversation about that statement that led him to think obstruction of justice was taking place.

If the reporting cited above is correct, it is perfectly plausible that, once the Nunes memo is released, Trump will move to fire Rosenstein and replace him with someone who will try to constrain the Mueller probe in some fashion. We don’t know whether Trump will actually end up doing this. If he does, we don’t know if it will work. But what we do know is that Trump very well may try to do these things.

We know this because Trump himself has basically told us in his own words, again and again and again, that he believes law enforcement should function as an instrument of his political will — that now that he is president, the top law enforcement officials in the land are there at his beck and call to investigate his political opponents and to protect him from scrutiny that began during the campaign for entirely legitimate reasons.

Indeed, Trump simply does not acknowledge that there are good reasons, grounded in an appreciation of our form of government, for law enforcement to remain free of political meddling or for him to respect its institutional independence even if he disagrees with its investigative decisions. We know this, too, because he has basically told us so and because he has repeatedly acted on this belief.

Many Republicans have insisted that the Mueller probe’s independence must be respected. Yet how many of them have come out against release of the Nunes memo? Some Republicans, of course, support its release precisely because they do actively want to see Trump constrain the Mueller probe. But many insist otherwise. Paul Ryan, for one, has argued that the Nunes memo should be released while insisting that it should not be used to hamper the Mueller probe.

But Ryan knows full well — since it has now been established by credible reporting — that laying the groundwork to do this is exactly why Trump wants the memo to be released in the first place. And so, Ryan and every Republican who supports its release know that he is opening the door to the possibility of a very serious escalation in Trump’s abuse of power. And if this escalation takes place, those who supported the memo’s release but insisted they didn’t want to see it used for that purpose cannot credibly claim they did not actively enable that outcome.

Update: The Post is now reporting that Trump will approve the release of the memo, with some redactions. So here we go.

* ANALYSTS SAY PUSHING BACK ON NUNES WILL BE HARD: Democrats say the Nunes memo cherry-picks from intelligence to falsely allege misconduct by the FBI and the Justice Department that will “prove” the Russia probe is tainted. The Post reports this dispiriting detail:

Law enforcement analysts say commenting on any omissions in the Nunes memo could be difficult, as the material left out could be classified and too sensitive for the FBI to reveal publicly, even in defense of its own reputation.

Perfect! The release of the memo is the opposite of real transparency. Republicans are secure in the knowledge that there will be limitations on citing the info rebutting it.

* COULD TRUMP GO AFTER ANOTHER FBI DIRECTOR? The FBI has come out against releasing the memo, and CNN’s Stephen Collinson reports that this could put FBI director Christopher Wray in Trump’s cross hairs:

The statement expressing “grave concerns” about the release of the memo … was more significant than the usual wrangling inside the U.S. government over the release of intelligence material. It represented a strong statement of independence from Wray, and a firm defense of his bureau that comes at the risk of infuriating the President, who has a record of demanding personal loyalty from top intelligence officials.

Why yes, Trump does have such a record. And we remember what happened the last time he demanded an FBI director show him “loyalty” that was not forthcoming.

* WHY FBI IS FIGHTING RELEASE OF MEMO: Law professor Noah Feldman points to another reason for Wray’s opposition:

Wray is also resisting Trump’s efforts to politicize criminal investigation and prosecution … [He] is standing up for the unwritten constitutional norm that says the FBI and Department of Justice should act apolitically when it comes to crime … At stake isn’t the reputation of the FBI but the whole principle of depoliticized criminal investigation.

Undermining this principle, of course, is Trump’s openly declared goal.

* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT MORE SPENDING FIGHTS: The Post’s report on the House GOP retreat reminds us of this:

On spending, Republicans face … fractures. GOP hawks are clamoring for a boost in military spending, but the party’s hard-liners are unhappy with proposals that would increase the federal deficit. Some Republicans, meanwhile, also fretted about the high hurdle of securing Democratic votes to pass a new spending bill by Feb. 8 to avoid another government shutdown.

And it’s perfectly possible that Congress will have to pass another short-term government funding bill next week, meaning this could come up several more times .

* ANOTHER SHUTDOWN, THIS TIME BY THE GOP? Politico reports that the looming deadline is sparking more GOP infighting:

Republicans have considered a stopgap funding bill that could run one month or possibly deeper into March, according to multiple sources. … But many rank-and-file GOP lawmakers … are balking at yet another patch. … frustration is spreading across the House Republican Conference, particularly as negotiations have stalled over raising stiff budget caps and providing relief to so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

And here’s your regular reminder that Republicans have total control of both the White House and Congress.

* ROUTES TO A DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY: Sabato’s Crystal Ball offers a detailed analysis of the multiple routes that Democrats have to a House majority. The upshot: Democrats have to flip two dozen districts, ones carried by both Hillary Clinton and Trump:

Of the 25 net seats the Democrats would gain, about half would come from the Clinton-district column (13), and about half from the Trump-district column (12).  … One can see how important the Northeast and California looms in these projections: More than half of the projected Democratic pickups come from just four states: California (five), New Jersey (three), New York (two), and Pennsylvania (three).

In spite of Trump’s deep unpopularity and historical trends, Sabato’s Crystal Ball currently puts the odds of a Democratic takeover at only 50-50, in part (of course) due to gerrymandering.

* KENNEDY TRIES TO UNITE DEMOCRATS: E.J. Dionne Jr. has a nice column explaining that Joe Kennedy’s rebuttal speech was about uniting Democrats by showing they can reach out to working-class whites without compromising their defense of minorities:

Kennedy … won over many who were skeptical of him going in, partly because he was so insistent on making clear that a belief in the … Democratic Party of old in no way precludes standing up for “dreamers,” Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. … The long-term test of his effort will be whether he succeeded in persuading his party’s battling factions that a politics of false choices and zero-sum games is neither progressive nor effective.

In 2018, at least, it appears Democrats are seriously wooing working-class whites, at least judging by the huge number of House districts in which they are competing.