Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

It is still very possible that President Trump could use the Nunes memo as a pretext to try to quash or constrain special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe. Trump tweeted over the weekend that the memo “totally vindicates” his claim that the investigation is a “witch hunt,” which is an absurd lie in every possible respect, but it shows he’s still mulling a move on Mueller.

But the performance of congressional Republicans on the Sunday shows — and a weekend’s worth of legal analysis taking apart the Nunes effort — together suggest another possibility. The Nunes memo affair may be shaping up as a much bigger fiasco than we even know — so bad, in fact, that it could ultimately undermine Trump’s position even more dramatically than we could have expected.

Today Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee will push for a vote to release Rep. Adam Schiff’s rebuttal to the Nunes memo. We now know enough to speculate that the Schiff rebuttal — which wouldn’t exist in the first place if Nunes hadn’t embarked on this charade with the White House’s blessing — may actually give us new information about the genesis of the Russia probe that only further underscores its legitimacy.

A key conclusion about the Nunes memo reached by legal analysts is that the memo actually confirmed that the FBI’s investigation was launched in July 2016, well in advance of the awarding in October 2016 of a warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump adviser Carter Page due to his suspected links to Russia, based to an indeterminate extent on Democratic-funded research in the “Steele dossier.” The Nunes memo vaguely notes that information gathered on Trump adviser George Papadopoulos is what triggered the FBI inquiry. Papadopoulos revealed in his plea that he had learned of “dirt” collected on Hillary Clinton by the Russians.

What’s more, the Nunes memo notes that surveillance warrants were subsequently granted numerous times. As Paul Rosenzweig, a former Whitewater investigator, points out, these could only have been granted if new evidence had demonstrated sufficient grounds for suspicion of Page, meaning “independent reviews” by “separate judges” actually “validated the FBI’s investigation.”

If Schiff’s rebuttal is released, it is likely to add detail, where possible, filling in this picture of the genesis of the probe. The New York Times reports that the rebuttal will supply “crucial context” to the FBI’s case for getting the warrant.

Indeed, Rep. Jim Himes (Conn.), the No. 2 Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, hinted at this when he told CNN that the Democratic rebuttal will show that “it is not true” that the warrant “was awarded solely on the basis of the Steele dossier.” In other words, the Schiff memo will likely detail, to the degree that it can, the actual reasons the warrant was granted — and why subsequent warrants were as well.

Yes, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee could still vote against releasing the Schiff rebuttal. Trump himself signaled opposition to its release moments ago:

But on the Sunday shows, multiple Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee firmly stated that the Nunes memo should not be used to cast doubt on the integrity of the Mueller probe. This is disingenuous, in that they voted to release the Nunes memo while knowing Trump wants to use it to target Mueller. Still, this signals that some leading congressional Republicans are now reluctant to be associated with Trump’s efforts to undermine his probe. Trump just raised the stakes, in effect directly associating his seeming opposition to releasing the rebuttal with his own efforts to obstruct the investigation.

Yes, Trump himself could block the release of the Schiff rebuttal. But the White House itself called for release of the Nunes memo on grounds of “transparency,” and House Speaker Paul Ryan has come out for releasing Schiff’s rebuttal. If Republicans now give cover to Trump thwarting its release, they will be even more overtly associated with his efforts to block the truth from coming out than before. Perhaps their bad faith is bottomless enough to permit them to go here, but the glaring thinness of the Nunes memo may make it politically more risky.

In the end, Trump could still use the Nunes memo to hamstring Mueller by firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and replacing him with a loyalist to oversee the probe. But this would now have to happen either after the Schiff rebuttal served to reinforce the investigation’s legitimacy, or after Trump suppressed the Schiff rebuttal even though it could further undermine his own rationale for taking such a dramatic step. Trump is shameless enough to do this in either scenario. But it could now be harder for congressional Republicans to go along with it. This would not be the case if not for Nunes’s antics — which Trump backed.

* JEFF SESSIONS GOES QUIET: The New York Times reports on an important point: Amid Trump’s constant attacks on the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions isn’t saying much to defend the department:

Current and former prosecutors say Mr. Sessions’s tepid response reflects efforts to appease Mr. Trump, even at the expense of morale among the department’s employees, and has raised fears that prosecutors cannot depend on protection from political interference. … Two current federal prosecutors who spoke on the condition of anonymity said they were working hard to maintain morale.

The Times reports that Sessions is constrained from defending the Justice Department because Trump has berated him for failing to defend him from the Mueller probe. Trump’s attacks on Sessions are working.

* PANIC TIME? DEMOCRATS ARE OUTRAISING REPUBLICANS: Politico reports that the latest fundraising numbers show it may be “panic time” for House Republicans:

More than 40 House Republican incumbents were outraised in the final quarter of 2017 by one — or several — of their Democratic opponents … The trendline is getting worse, not better. Despite the myriad advantages of incumbency and control of Congress, there are more House members with less cash on hand than their Democratic challengers than the quarter before.

This is a good indicator of the energy on the Democratic side, and Trump’s antics aren’t stopping anytime soon, which could help maintain that energy (and fundraising edge).

* DEMOCRATS HOPE TO USE MEMO IN MIDTERMS: Bloomberg reports that Democrats are prepared to use the Nunes memo against Republicans in the midterms, by citing it as evidence of a GOP effort to protect Trump from accountability. Democrats are circulating talking points saying Republicans are “now part and parcel” of “an organized effort to obstruct” the Mueller probe.

This has the virtue of being true: Republicans backed #ReleaseTheMemo in the full knowledge that Trump expressly intended to use the memo to, at best, cast doubt on the investigation or, at worst, as pretext to constrain it.

* SENATORS PUSH IMMIGRATION SOLUTION, BUT IT’S DOA: The Wall Street Journal reports that Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) are set to introduce a proposal that would legalize the dreamers:

[The proposal] offers a path to citizenship for Dreamers and orders a comprehensive study to determine what border-security measures are needed. But the bill stops well short of almost all of the president’s demands — including immediate funding for the wall along the southern border — and is likely to meet a chilly reception from conservative Republicans.

If the proposal is for us to evaluate whether Trump’s wall is actually needed before we spend billions on it, then of course conservative Republicans are going to reject it.

* BIG FISCAL DEADLINES LOOM FOR CONGRESS: Sahil Kapur reports that the prospects for a deal protecting the dreamers are already clouded by Trump’s demands that Democrats give him the nativist wish list in exchange. But it could get worse, and here’s why:

Deadlines ahead for Congress could further complicate getting an agreement. … the federal debt limit will have to be raised by the end of February or early March to avoid a U.S. default. Democrats and Republicans also have yet to agree on a budget plan that would raise existing spending caps for defense and domestic programs for the rest of the fiscal year.

You’d think this would give Democrats more leverage — that is, if they’re prepared to use it.

* DEMOCRATS WARN TRUMP ON NORTH KOREA: The Post reports that 18 Democratic senators will send a letter to Trump warning against the much-discussed possibility of a “bloody nose” quick preemptive strike on North Korea:

The 18 senators … emphasized that it is an “enormous gamble” to believe that such an action, even if it were modest in scope, would not provoke an escalation from dictator Kim Jong Un. “Moreover, without congressional authority, a preventative or preemptive U.S. military strike would lack either a constitutional basis or legal authority,” the senators wrote in the letter.

It will be interesting to see which congressional Republicans are willing to step up and assert this authority for themselves.

* AND PAUL RYAN IS COMPLICIT: E.J. Dionne Jr. skewers Paul Ryan’s laughable claim that release of the Nunes memo “does not impugn” the Mueller investigation, noting that Trump himself has confirmed his own intention to use it to undermine the probe:

Ryan and other Republicans claiming that putting out this memo would not serve to undermine the investigation are either fooling themselves — or us. Autocrats don’t prevail unless they have allies to give them cover. Thanks to House Republicans, our country has taken another step toward the chaos that autocrats thrive on.

Indeed. If Trump does end up using the Nunes memo as even partial justification for quashing or constraining the Mueller probe, Republicans who knew perfectly well that this was the intention are complicit.