Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

One of the most comical — or perhaps deeply troubling — aspects of the massive effort by President Trump and his allies to create an alternate narrative to the Russia probe is that it continues unabated, even as the numerous conspiracy theories created to bolster it have, one after another, fallen like dominoes.

This morning, Post fact checker Glenn Kessler offers a comprehensive look at various threads of this alt-narrative that helps illustrate just how buffoonish this whole effort has become. Kessler takes as his starting point a remarkable statement from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who is perhaps Trump’s staunchest bodyguard against accountability on Capitol Hill. Nunes said this in a radio interview:

“The truth is that they [Democrats] are covering up that Hillary Clinton colluded with the Russians to get dirt on Trump to feed it to the FBI to open up an investigation into the other campaign.”

In a sense, this is a perfect one-sentence distillation of the whole alt-narrative, because it turns the facts entirely upside down: The story isn’t that the Trump campaign may have conspired with a concerted Russian effort to sabotage our democracy that has been documented by U.S. intelligence services. It’s that Clinton actually colluded with Russia to undermine the Trump candidacy — this is the real sense in which Russia sabotaged our democracy — and that the real role of the Deep State was to assist in that effort to swing the election, which, of course, continues today with the Deep State Plot to Remove Trump.

As Kessler shows, everything about this Nunes statement is a lie. The much-ballyhooed Nunes memo was supposed to illustrate that statement, by showing that Deep State operatives improperly obtained warrants to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page on the basis of information in the Democratic-funded “Steele dossier,” which was based on former British spy Christopher Steele’s Russian sources and is supposed to show the whole probe was tainted. In fact, the Nunes memo actually revealed that the genesis of the probe was information gathered earlier by the FBI about former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, which completely gives the lie to Nunes’s claim that dirt on Trump from Clinton is what got the FBI to “open up an investigation.”

What’s more, the Nunes memo also stated that the warrant for surveillance had repeatedly been renewed, which accidentally demonstrates that judges repeatedly saw new evidence that justified continuing that surveillance. As Paul Rosenzweig puts it, this actually “validated the FBI’s investigation,” which further demolishes the Nunes narrative. Meanwhile, as Kessler demonstrates, it’s a huge stretch to claim the Steele dossier represented Clinton-Russia collusion to begin with, since Clinton was far removed from Steele’s reliance on Russian sources.

An ugly pattern

This is part of a pattern, in which one absurd conspiracy theory after another has crashed and burned. Let’s review:

  • The Nunes memo actually revealed that the genesis of the FBI probe of Trump-Russia collusion was the activity of a Trump adviser (Papadopoulos) who had been apprised of dirt gathered by Russia on Clinton. It predated the FBI’s use of the Steele dossier, which is at the center of the grand alt-narrative, and showed that the FBI probe had been repeatedly validated by judges.
  • Republicans release a September 2016 text between the FBI’s Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, which said Barack Obama “wants to know everything we’re doing.” This is supposed to demonstrate Obama interference in the FBI probe of Clinton. But there was no Clinton probe at the time — it had been resolved in July (and was only reopened in late October). What’s more, associates of Strzok and Page say Obama actually wanted information on Russian meddling. This makes much more sense — and, if true, it shows that this “scandal” is that Obama wanted information on Russian sabotage of our democracy, which Trump still often maintains never happened.
  • Republicans darkly said another Strzok-Page text containing the words “secret society” signaled deep FBI corruption. Then the full text was released, and it turned out to be about calendars and appeared to be a joke.
  • Congressional GOP investigators are preparing to interview an informant who supposedly has the goods on the Uranium One “scandal,” in which Clinton supposedly authorized a deal in which Russia obtained uranium extraction rights in the United States, in exchange for kickbacks to the Clinton Foundation. But top Oversight and Intelligence committee Democrats just released a letter claiming that the Justice Department privately briefed committee staffers and told them that the Justice Department had actually dismissed the reliability of this informant in a separate investigation. To be fair, this has not been confirmed. But as it is, the idea that the Uranium One deal is a scandal has already been thoroughly debunked. And independent reporting is likely to confirm that account soon enough.

This is just a partial list. To be clear, serious congressional oversight with regard to the intelligence services’ use of surveillance is absolutely appropriate and desirable. But if anything, that only confirms just what a massive abdication we’re seeing here: In GOP hands, this oversight activity is being perverted into a kind of weaponized obfuscation and misdirection campaign designed to guard Trump and his associates from accountability, which is a serious abuse of power and the public trust in its own right. This keeps getting demonstrated again, and again, and again. Yet it continues, unabated and undaunted.

* GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN ENDS: Early this morning, the House passed a bill funding the government for two years, after the Senate had done the same:

The bill would reopen the government while showering hundreds of billions of dollars on defense and domestic priorities, speeding disaster aid to hurricane-hit regions, and lifting the federal borrowing limit for a year. … Seventy-three House Democrats voted for the bill, while 119 voted against it. Among Republicans, 167 supported it and 67 voted no.

Those vote totals show show that Democrats did have some leverage to try harder to force a vote to protect the “dreamers,” but didn’t do so.

* DEAL FUNDS PROGRESSIVE PRIORITIES: Robert Greenstein of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells Vox that there’s a lot to like in the new spending deal:

“There’s $5.8 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, $20 billion for infrastructure, money for medical research, opioids … $20 billion on infrastructure such as wastewater, rural broadband, and energy. … We were pleased to see $5 billion in Medicaid funding for Puerto Rico with no matching requirement.”

Though there were some downsides — most notably the failure to force a vote on the “dreamers” — this probably explains why so many Democrats voted for it, anyway.

* REPORT: KELLY URGED PORTER TO REMAIN: White House chief of staff John Kelly is getting scrutinized for knowing for months about the domestic abuse allegations against top staffer Rob Porter. The New York Times reports:

White House officials said privately that the president was frustrated with … Mr. Kelly. Two people close to the situation said Mr. Kelly had strongly urged Mr. Porter to remain in his job. But a third person denied that, saying that Mr. Kelly had suggested to Mr. Porter on Tuesday night that he should resign. All three agreed that Mr. Kelly never demanded the resignation.

The Times adds that Porter “was also a favorite of Mr. Kelly’s.” Trump does not like it when his underlings get press, especially when it makes him look bad, so this could get dicier.

* McGAHN DID NOTHING ABOUT PORTER: The Post reports that White House counsel Donald McGahn learned of the allegations in January 2017 but wanted him to remain because he was a “steadying” influence. And then:

His view didn’t change in June when the FBI flagged some of its findings to the White House. Nor did he act in September when he learned that the domestic violence claims were delaying Porter’s security clearance, or in November when Porter’s former girlfriend contacted him about the allegations, according to these people.

A White House spokesman tells The Post that both McGahn and Kelly feel misled by Porter because he played down the charges. Um, wouldn’t you expect him to do that?

* DEMOCRATS STILL HOLD EDGE IN BATTLE FOR HOUSE: Charlie Cook takes stock of the president’s slightly rising approval rating and the narrowing generic ballot numbers, and concludes:

The Democratic advantage in national generic-ballot test polls is …. still very much in danger territory for the GOP. Private polling from both parties shows some pretty grisly numbers in individual states and districts. Democratic candidate recruiting in House races is going spectacularly well … Fundraising for Democratic challengers is going very well … the GOP is still in trouble. For now, the wave still appears to be coming.

As Cook says, the fact that Trump is starting to get credit for the economy bears watching, but Trump’s approval is still well short of where it needs to be to stave off GOP losses.

* HERE COMES THE BIG IMMIGRATION DEBATE: CNN reports that early this morning, Mitch McConnell made it official that there will be an immigration debate in the Senate next week:

McConnell moved on the Senate floor to vote to open debate on the bill Monday evening. … That now sets up a chance for both sides to offer amendments that will compete for 60 votes — the threshold to advance legislation in the Senate. If a proposal can garner 60 votes, it will pass the Senate but face an uncertain fate in the future.

As noted yesterday, one possibility is that a reasonable compromise on the “dreamers” will get a lot more votes in the Senate than a Trumpian wish-list bill does. Then pressure will mount on Trump and Paul Ryan.

* DEMOCRATS IN TRUMP STATES RAISE BIG BUCKS: A Bloomberg analysis of campaign finance data shows that Democratic senators in states Trump won are outraising their challengers:

The 10 incumbents facing re-election in states won by Trump raised $19.9 million during the last three months of 2017, while 24 Republicans competing in primaries to select their challengers raised $6.6 million …. The Democrats had a combined $71.3 million in their campaign accounts as of the end of the year, nearly four times more than the Republican candidates.

These will be tough races, and holding off challenges in all of them is probably the only way Democrats will retain any chance at all of taking the Senate.

* MEDIA ENABLES GOP’S FISCAL FRAUDULENCE: Paul Krugman reminds us that Republicans have done a 180 on government spending after forcing destructive showdowns and deep cuts during the Obama years, and adds:

Let me also bash their enablers — all those who were duped into believing their claims to be deficit hawks, or pretended to believe them in order to appear balanced and bipartisan. Such people did America a great disservice. And they will continue to do a great disservice if they obscure what’s happening now. … this is all about Republican bad faith. Everything they said about budgets, every step of the way, was fraudulent. And nobody should believe anything they say now.

To repeat: No matter how many times Republicans prove that they only care about deficits when the president is a Democrat, they will continue to be treated as paragons of fiscal seriousness.