Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Today the memo from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) will be released, and it seems reasonably obvious that President Trump will be gauging the public and media reaction to the memo’s contents to decide his next steps. Will Trump feel that the memo gives him pretext for dramatic action to constrain special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe, as has been widely reported to be his intention?

Or will it be a total “dud” in its details, as some White House advisers believe, which might lead him to refrain? The very fact that this framing, by all indications, is the one by which Trump will decide the memo’s significance is worrisome enough on its own.

But the details in this new Post story, which sheds fresh light on the process that the White House entered into as it decided whether to authorize the memo’s release, make the whole situation look even worse. Here are the key revelations:

  • Trump appears to have decided very early to release the memo, before seeing it himself and before the White House heard from top intelligence officials who warned against it. At least some of this thought process was influenced by “cable television segments about the memo.” As one adviser put it: “There was never any hesitation.”
  • Despite Trump’s advance decision to release the memo, “White House aides were determined to show they were following an official process in reviewing whether … to release the memo” (emphasis mine). White House advisers knew it would be “fruitless” to resist Trump’s decision, and they knew intelligence officials would bitterly object, but they had to create the impression that a real process of deliberation was underway.
  • Top intelligence officials repeatedly warned senior White House officials that releasing the memo would compromise national security, expose classified information and paint a misleading picture of the FBI’s methods. (If true, that last one in particular threatens to undermine public confidence in law enforcement.) White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly was “not swayed.”
  • White House officials worried the memo might be a “dud,” so they left the “public cheerleading for the memo’s release largely to Republican lawmakers,” to create “distance” from it if necessary. The reporting suggests that they worried more about the politics of the memo’s release than about other senior administration officials’ objections on national security grounds.

This morning, Trump tweeted that the leadership and senior investigators at the FBI and DOJ have “politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.” Coming just before the memo’s release, this underscores the possibility that Trump hopes to use it as a pretext for trying to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe, which could clear the way to installing a Trump loyalist to oversee it.

Targeting Rosenstein has already been reported to be his intention, and if that is indeed the case, it would be fully in keeping with Trump’s previous abuses of power and contempt for the rule of law. We do not know how seriously he’s considering it. But it’s clear that the reaction to the memo will probably help shape his thinking on that front. The Post’s reporting has already established that “cable television segments” helped persuade him to authorize its release. We can expect a relentless effort by Trump’s favorite cable personalities to hype the memo’s findings — which will supposedly accuse Rosenstein of improper conduct — as damning and scandalous, no matter how absurdly shoddy they appear.

Democratic backsliding

In their great new book on how democracies backslide, Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky identify traits common to rulers with autocratic tendencies that Trump has exhibited as a candidate and president. One is “capturing the referees” — neutralizing institutional checks on power.

In an interview with me today, Ziblatt said that the actions around the Nunes memo carried “very ominous echoes” of the “first moves” of other elected autocrats.

They “begin by politicizing law enforcement agencies, turning them into shields to defend themselves from investigation and prosecution and weapons to target opponents,” Ziblatt said. “This is always done by firing or forcing out neutral officials and loading up law enforcement agencies with ‘friendly’ officials.”

Another key ingredient in democratic backsliding, they write, is “abdication,” in which under unified government, members of the elected leader’s party enable him to “get away with abusive” and “even authoritarian acts.”

Ziblatt noted that this episode may end up showcasing that, as well. After all, Republican leaders have backed the release of the memo even though they know full well why Trump wants it released. Republicans assert that they are merely exercising oversight over our intelligence agencies — which is, of course, entirely appropriate — but their particular handling of this affair betrays a level of bad faith that completely undermines that claim.

“The key determinant of what happens here is whether partisan allies — in this case, the Republicans in Congress — abdicate in their constitutional duty,” Ziblatt told me. “Where governing parties are complicit in executive efforts to pack law enforcement, intelligence and other bodies, the results can be incredibly damaging.”

To repeat, we have no idea what Trump will end up doing. Let’s hope the memo is such a laughable “dud” that even Trump doesn’t think it provides him with a convincing pretext for acting on the Mueller probe. Even if he doesn’t, Trump’s handling of the whole affair bodes badly for other future episodes. And if he does, this may be seen in retrospect as a harbinger of worse to come.

* THE ABSURDITY OF THE NUNES MEMO: Republicans say the memo proves law enforcement bias against Trump. But as Eileen Sullivan of the New York Times points out:

That argument is undercut by another piece of information said to be in the committee memo: that the top official at the Justice Department who is overseeing the Russia investigation, Rod. J. Rosenstein, approved a government application to continue the surveillance of Mr. [Carter] Page, which was originally approved in mid-October 2016. Mr. Rosenstein is a Republican and was appointed by Mr. Trump.

True, but anyone who thinks this will undermine the memo in the minds of the right hasn’t paid attention to how the right has really functioned in recent years.

* THE ABSURDITY OF THE NUNES MEMO, PART II: The memo claims that a FISA warrant for the surveillance of a top Trump campaign official was improperly based on the Democratic-funded “Steele dossier.” But as Bush homeland security adviser Fran Townsend points out:

“There’s multiple internal reviews in the FBI, there’s a legal review at the Justice Department, it goes to the attorney general, or in this case, the deputy who reviews it and then it goes to an independent federal judge who looks at it. No FISA warrant relies on a single piece of evidence. So if the allegation from Chairman Nunes is that they relied solely on the Steele dossier, that’s not possible. It never happens.”

It will be interesting to see what lengths the memo goes to conceal or omit all the other information that went into the granting of the warrant.

* WHAT THE DEMOCRATIC REBUTTAL SAYS: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has read Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s (D-Calif.) rebuttal to the Nunes memo, and he says:

“When you read the Democratic side, the minority report, it is pretty obvious that all the information that could be before the judge was there.”

In other words, it will show that the warrant was not based on the “Steele dossier.” No wonder Republicans won’t say whether they’ll authorize the rebuttal’s release!

* RYAN BACKS RELEASE OF DEM MEMO: A spokesman for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) tells reporter Natasha Bertrand:

“The speaker is in favor of greater transparency. If it is scrubbed to ensure it does not reveal sources and methods of our intelligence gathering, the speaker supports the release of the Democrats’ memo.”

Good. Of course, true transparency would also entail release of the FISA warrant and other underlying source materials where possible, but that would allow us to evaluate the Nunes memo’s accuracy.

* COULD MUELLER TARGET TRUMP? Politico interviewed an unnamed attorney for a Trump official who thinks it’s possible Mueller will try to indict Trump for obstruction of justice, even though some experts doubt it would work. The reason is interesting:

“It’s entirely possible that Mueller may go that route on the theory that, as an open question, it should be for the courts to decide,” the attorney said. “Even if the indictment is dismissed, it puts maximum pressure on Congress to treat this with the independence and intellectual honesty that it will never, ever get.”

And let’s face reality: It will take maximum, maximum, maximum pressure to get Republicans to take it seriously if Mueller establishes grave or criminal misconduct, if that’s even possible at all.

* REPUBLICANS SPLIT ON IMMIGRATION: CNN reports that some Republicans sensibly back a narrow deal protecting the “dreamers” in exchange for border security, instead of including the big cuts to legal immigration Trump wants:

But other Republicans, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, have repeatedly rejected calls to narrow the deal. “Everybody wants to alter reality in a way that suits their needs, but the reality is the President said there has to be four pillars, and I think people just need to accept that and deal with it,” Cornyn told reporters.

Trump is making deeply unreasonable demands, so just accept that and deal with it. Democrats may have some leverage with which to say no. Let’s hope they use it.

* WHY THE ADMINISTRATION’S INCOMPETENCE MATTERS: Paul Krugman notes that despite all the glaring examples of the Trump administration’s incompetence, the economy is doing well. So what’s the problem? Well, this:

America is a very big country with a lot of strengths, and it can run on momentum for a long time even if none of the people in charge know what they’re doing. Sooner or later, however, stuff happens — and then incompetence becomes a very big deal. … The scariest scenarios involve national security. But we can’t count on smooth sailing for the economy, either. And who will manage economic turbulence if and when it hits?

If so, the threat will be compounded by the tweeter in chief’s refusal to acknowledge that it’s actually happening, given how much he’s staked on the false idea that he rescued the economy.