THE MORNING PLUM:
Here’s the difficulty. We want Congress to exercise oversight when it comes to the activities of our intelligence services, to prevent them from abusing their awesome powers and to maintain public confidence that such abuses — of which there is a long history in this country — aren’t happening once again.
But there comes a point at which legitimate oversight might cross over into something else: an active effort to pervert Congress’ investigative machinery, under guise of exercising fake oversight, into a kind of defensive weapon, one that is employed against legitimate law enforcement activity, to prevent accountability from being meted out and justice from being done.
How do we identify where that line is and when it has been crossed? And what do we do if and when that happens?
The Post has a blockbuster report that tells us President Trump has joined his allies in Congress in “an increasingly aggressive campaign to undercut the Russia investigation by exposing the role of a top-secret FBI source.” The goal is to show that the FBI improperly spied on the Trump campaign with an informant “embedded” in the campaign, as Trump recently tweeted. In an interview with The Post, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that if this improper spying had been happening, it could render the Mueller probe “completely illegitimate.”
Today on Twitter, Trump kept pushing the story about this FBI informant allegedly “implanted” in his campaign, which, he said, would constitute the “all time biggest scandal.”
As The Post’s report tells us, intelligence officials worry that if this source is exposed, it could cause all kinds of damage:
The dispute pits Trump and the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee against the Justice Department and intelligence agencies, whose leaders warn that publicly identifying the confidential source would put lives in danger and imperil other operations.
The stakes are so high that the FBI has been working over the past two weeks to mitigate the potential damage if the source’s identity is revealed, according to several people familiar with the matter. The bureau is taking steps to protect other live investigations that the person has worked on and is trying to lessen any danger to associates if the informant’s identity becomes known, said these people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence operations.
The motive for this isn’t even being concealed. It’s right there in plain sight:
Trump’s allies believe outing the source and revealing details about his or her work for the FBI could help them challenge the investigation and, potentially, provide cause for removing [special counsel Robert S. Mueller III] or his overseer, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. …
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) has been conferring with Trump — in three or more calls a week — communicating concerns that the Justice Department is hiding worrisome information about the elements of the probe, according to people familiar with their discussions. …
[House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin] Nunes, meanwhile, has purposefully not been talking to Trump, to avoid accusations that he is providing sensitive information to the president, according to these people. Instead, Nunes has been relaying the status of his battle with the Justice Department to White House Counsel Donald McGahn.
The explicitly, openly stated motive for doing this is to create a rationale for Trump to either try to close down Mueller’s investigation by removing him, or to fire Rosenstein, which would allow Trump to install a loyalist to oversee and dramatically limit the probe’s scope. A replacement for Rosenstein could also do a lot more to keep Mueller’s findings under wraps.
Soon enough, we may find out the truth about this alleged informant. But here’s what we know so far: Career intelligence officials believe what House Republicans are now doing could imperil lives and compromise ongoing intelligence investigations, harming our national security.
Now, surely House Republicans would respond that in saying this, intelligence officials are merely trying to resist legitimate oversight into their activities. But here’s what we also know at this point: Previous efforts by Nunes and his fellow House GOP travelers to exercise such oversight have proved to be thoroughly bogus.
The Nunes memo was supposed to reveal dark new details about the genesis of the probe that would undercut its legitimacy. It ended up doing the opposite. The final House Intelligence Committee report concluded that Russia didn’t interfere in the election for the purpose of helping Trump. But the Democratic response revealed that Republicans didn’t take key investigative steps that could have fleshed out what Trump knew about the Trump Tower meeting and when. And the House GOP conclusion was undercut by Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which concluded that the intelligence services’ original assessment — that Russia favored Trump — was correct, boosting their credibility.
The core of the matter
This last one really gets to the core of the matter — and to the core of why the current House GOP conduct is so indefensible. As Benjamin Wittes and Quinta Jurecic recently explained, the whole point of having congressional oversight of our intelligence services is to provide a way for the public to remain confident that their powers aren’t being abused. Congressional intelligence committees have access to all kinds of secret information so that they can exercise this oversight dispassionately and in good faith. As Wittes and Jurecic note, their role goes in two directions: They exercise oversight to rein in bad behavior, but also they are supposed to function as a “validating mechanism” when the committees believe the intelligence community is “behaving lawfully and being slimed anyway.”
That sliming is what is happening right now, and it is being carried out by the president. But rather than informing the public and functioning as a “validating mechanism” designed to bolster public confidence, House committee Republicans are joining in the sliming in a concerted effort to cripple that public confidence. Now, to be clear, we still don’t know all the facts about this alleged “informant.” But if and when we do learn them, we may discover that this alliance in sliming between the president and congressional Republicans is worse than we ever thought.
Of course, if that happens, at that point, Trump and Republicans will simply keep telling the story their way, via their massive alternate media network. What do we do then?
* CHINA MAY OFFER TRUMP ‘ILLUSORY’ CONCESSIONS: China may offer to buy up to $200 billion additional U.S. products if Trump drops his trade war. But the New York Times reports that economists think this will prove “illusory”:
The United States economy is already running near its full productive capacity, meaning it would not be able to produce enough new goods to meet Chinese demands … the United States would probably stop selling airplanes, soybeans and other exports to other countries and sell them to China instead — shrinking the United States trade deficit with China but leaving the United States trade deficit with the entire world unchanged.
This won’t stop Trump from declaring this the greatest trade victory ever negotiated, of course, but that may be what is necessary to stop a trade war.
* REPUBLICANS SPLIT OVER ‘DREAMERS’: Politico reports that House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) wants to try again for a deal with Trump protecting the “dreamers,” but his No. 2 , Kevin McCarthy, doesn’t want to do that:
McCarthy … worries that such an accord codifying the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would demoralize GOP voters whom the party needs to show up in the midterms to keep the House. “If you want to depress [GOP voter] intensity, this is the No. 1 way to do it,” McCarthy told his colleagues in a closed-door meeting.
Putting aside whether there is any deal Trump would sign that can pass Congress, McCarthy thinks even a deal blessed by Trump would demoralize the GOP base if it helps dreamers.
* DEMOCRATS ARE WARY OF IMPEACHMENT: The New York Times reports that Democratic leaders want to tamp down impeachment talk. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) says it is a nonstarter unless Mueller produces “overwhelming” evidence against Trump:
“You don’t have impeachment unless the case is so strong that you will convince a good fraction — not a majority, necessarily, but a good fraction — of the people who voted for Trump that you had to do it,” Mr. Nadler said.
Okay, but Democrats also need to think about what they’ll say if Trump pardons top aides or tries to close down the Mueller investigation.
* WHITE HOUSE ‘STRETCHED THIN’ AS WARS LOOM: Axios’s team of reporters brings us the news that a confrontation with North Korea, a Middle East conflict and a trade war with China may all be more likely than we think:
It’s unlikely any of the three turn into hot wars. But people inside the national security team or in those regions tell us that the possibility of each is higher than publicly appreciated. … Trump enjoys and even revels in having a whole lot going on at the same time. But … the White House is stretched too thin, with barely enough people to manage the day-to-day, let alone the dizzying array of battlefronts Trump has opened up.
Well, hopefully Trump’s team of advisers on Fox News can help fill the gap.
* GOP ENABLES TRUMP’S VERY WORST: Paul Krugman notes that Trump reversed course on punitive action toward Chinese company ZTE even as a Chinese state-owned company is investing in a Trump-involved project in Indonesia, and adds:
The problem of undue influence is especially severe when it comes to authoritarian foreign governments. Democracies have ethical rules of their own … But if Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin make payoffs to U.S. politicians, who’s going to stop them? The main answer is supposed to be congressional oversight … But today’s Republicans have made it clear that they won’t hold Trump accountable for anything, even if it borders on treason.
And, of course, Republicans are also complicit in creating this situation by refusing to push for transparency around Trump’s business holdings.
* AND TRUMP RIPS ‘FAKE NEWS’ COVERAGE OF ‘ANIMALS’ CRACK: Good morning, Mr. President:
Right, because the guy who called Mexicans rapists and said thousands of U.S. Muslims cheered 9/11 couldn’t possibly have been trying to associate immigrants with gang members, and totally deserves the benefit of the doubt.