THE MORNING PLUM:
The release of new documents relating to the genesis of the Russia probe — and President Trump’s response to those documents this morning — throw the asymmetry between the parties that is the driving fact of our politics right now into perhaps its starkest relief yet.
Broadly speaking, many Republicans have tacitly enabled or actively aided in efforts to pervert the basic functions of government in service of preventing the full truth about Russian sabotage of U.S. democracy from becoming publicly known, all to shield Trump (and, increasingly, themselves) from accountability. By contrast, in many cases, Democrats have been doing all they can to smuggle out to the U.S. public and the world as much basic information that is being learned about that Russian sabotage effort — and about the Trump/GOP campaign to cover that up — as possible.
This morning, the New York Times’s Charlie Savage has a great piece on the White House’s decision over the weekend to release documents revealing the FBI’s application to a FISA court to run secret surveillance on former Trump campaign official Carter Page. The bottom line: The documents lay waste to much of the narrative about the FBI investigation pushed by Trump — and GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the House Intelligence Committee chairman who enshrined that story line in his much-discussed memo — while largely confirming that Democratic efforts to correct that narrative have been offered accurately and in good faith.
The Trump/Nunes narrative rests heavily on the idea that the FBI probe into the Trump campaign was illegitimate, because it was triggered by the “Steele Dossier.” The Nunes memo in January charged that to spy on the Trump campaign, the FBI failed to disclose that former British spy Christopher Steele’s research had originally been funded for political purposes (which Trump and his allies maintain shows the probe had tainted origins). In his rebuttal memo at the time, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California — Nunes’s counterpart — disputed this, noting that the FBI’s application for the warrant did, in fact, disclose that Steele was hired by “politically motivated persons” to “discredit” the Trump campaign.
The newly released documents — in particular, the FBI’s FISA applications — show that Nunes was engaged in disingenuous parsing designed to deceive and that Schiff was telling the truth. The application contained a whole page detailing the FBI’s conclusion that Steele had been hired to do “research” to “discredit” the Trump campaign, and that the FBI deemed Steele credible anyway, having relied on his information in the past. As Savage puts it, the new release offers a “page-length explanation” that confirms what Democrats contended “at the time” about the research’s “politically motivated origins.”
The new documents also lay to rest another dispute. The Nunes memo claimed the FBI relied on a Yahoo News article to corroborate Steele’s account even though Steele was the source for that article. Schiff’s rebuttal pointed out that, in fact, the FBI had cited the Yahoo article to confirm a separate point. The new documents show that Schiff characterized the FBI claim accurately. As Savage notes: “The application dovetails with the Democrats’ account.”
In sum, the new documents show the FBI suspected that a top Trump official (Page) was collaborating with Russia to sabotage the 2016 election, perhaps along with others. As Julian Sanchez notes, there are extensive redactions following the Steele section that strongly suggest the FBI offered other information beyond the Steele Dossier to bolster those suspicions (which Democrats also claimed to be the case). Though those redactions mean this cannot be conclusively proved right now, the documents show that the FBI’s request for a wiretap and subsequent follow-up applications were greenlighted by judges appointed by GOP presidents, based on the info the FBI offered.
As Savage bluntly concludes of the Nunes-Schiff battle over this FBI application: “In respect after respect, the newly disclosed documents … corroborated rebuttals by Democrats … who had seen the top-secret materials and accused Republicans of mischaracterizing them to protect the president.”
Democrats are smuggling out information to the public
The crucial larger context here is that we have seen this on multiple fronts. With Trump denying Russian sabotage happened at all (which he again did this weekend) Democrats released a report detailing Russian assaults on elections in multiple countries (and Republicans refused to sign on to it). Democrats also released the testimony by a co-founder of the firm that bankrolled Steele, challenging the Trump/Nunes claim that the Steele dossier sparked the FBI probe. Independent reporting has confirmed that the Trump/Nunes account is bogus. Simply put, Democratic claims are dovetailing with this independently emerging narrative.
This is about more than just settling a political spin war. We want congressional oversight over our intelligence services so we can be sure they are not abusing their awesome powers, but also to inform the public when our intel agencies are acting lawfully and legitimately, to bolster public confidence in them when they are being undermined for nefarious purposes. That’s what Trump is doing now. (His latest tweets absurdly seized on the new documents to bolster his “hoax” narrative.) And Nunes is helping him by completely corrupting his oversight mission to that end — with the full acquiescence of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Meanwhile, Democrats are the ones informing Americans about what’s really happening here.
Many journalists have pointed out that the new documents reveal that Trump and Nunes have been deceiving the public. But the other side of this coin is that generally speaking Democrats have been trying to counter those efforts by informing the public with real, solid information in good faith wherever possible. The conventions of neutral reporting and analysis of course allow scrutiny of one side’s political misbehavior, but also tend to discourage journalists from forthrightly saying so when the other side is doing the right thing and acting legitimately in the public interest. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening here, and we all need to be as clear in saying so as Savage has been today.
* TRUMP IS ‘LASHING OUT’ AT IRAN — AND EVERYONE ELSE: Trump has issued an all-caps tweet threatening Iran with unspecified consequences, and CNN’s Stephen Collinson notes that he is “lashing out” at pretty much everyone in sight:
The controversies raging around the Oval Office underline how the President is increasingly taking control of his own defense and is willing to dictate high-risk political and legal strategies. But his incessant and often false attacks on … Mueller’s investigation also give the impression of someone who fears its ultimate conclusions and is unsettled that his fate may be out of his hands.
Indeed. You can smell the fear in Trump’s lies.
* GOP SENATOR: FBI DIDN’T SPY ON TRUMP CAMP: On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) dismisses the idea that the FBI “spied” on the Trump campaign based on surveillance of Carter Page:
“I don’t believe that them looking into Carter Page means they were spying on the campaign. … The only plot here is the plot to interfere in our elections by the Russians.”
As Trump continues to portray himself as the real victim of Russian sabotage, let’s not forget that he encouraged it and cited its fruits of on the campaign trail.
* GOP CANDIDATES’ RESPONSE TO TRUMP IS SILENCE: The Post reports that Trump’s embrace of Vladimir Putin is only the latest thing that GOP candidates in tough races have been forced to pretend isn’t happening:
While members of Congress in safely Republican districts are free to always side with Trump, those serving in more moderate districts have repeatedly found themselves squeezed between their need to court Trump supporters and the friction his actions have prompted in their districts. Their fallback is often silence.
Of course, that Republican “silence” sends the message that Republicans will not act as a check on him, which gives Democrats an opening to say they will.
* TRUMP’S TRADE WAR WILL HURT GOP IN MIDTERMS: The Post report also contains this nugget:
Trump is determined to make trade part of the midterm discussion — even though many in the White House are skeptical that it is a good issue, particularly in battleground Midwestern states. … Two senior White House officials said they receive the most complaints from Republican incumbents and candidates on trade and the president’s tariffs, as international retributions have begun to take a toll on the price of corn, soybeans and bourbon.
Trump’s trade war is a bad issue even in the industrial Midwest, i.e., Trump Country? We keep hearing that large silent majorities are rooting for Trumpism to succeed.
* DEMS COULD WIN MANY GOVERNORSHIPS: The New York Times has a good overview of rising worry among Republicans that they could lose a lot of governor’s mansions this cycle:
Just as Republicans pulled a host of moderate states significantly to the right after their success eight years ago, victorious Democrats could enact sweeping changes on labor, health care and energy … new Democratic governors could … block Republicans from repeating the post-2010 gerrymandering that helped entrench their power in Congress.
Republicans will remain in control of many state legislatures, but in many states, governors can veto district lines, giving them some influence over maps. That will prove important.
* ADMINISTRATION KEEPS DOWNPLAYING RUSSIA THREAT: Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen says Russian sabotage wasn’t designed to favor one party. Post Fact Checker Salvador Rizzo sets the record straight:
U.S. intelligence officials agree that the overall campaign was ordered by Putin to undermine faith in U.S. democracy, denigrate Clinton and favor Trump. … the bottom line is that the intelligence community’s assessment says Russia intruded into U.S. state and local electoral boards as part of an effort to give Trump an advantage.
How can the Trump administration be fully prepared for the next round of Russian sabotage if its senior officials refuse to accurately describe the last one?
* AND MANAFORT HEADS TO TRIAL: Former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort heads to trial this week, and Politico raises the curtain:
The … trial prosecuted by … Mueller will offer the clearest public view yet of what his investigators have on … Manafort, with a catalogue of evidence and testimony undercutting the president’s repeated claims that the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt.” … the Manafort trial will create daily reminders of the Mueller investigation, as commentators pile onto cable networks to discuss what the case could indicate about the president’s own exposure — and, potentially, as the president himself offers his own analysis on Twitter.
Why would Trump bother tweeting about the Manafort trial? Wasn’t Manafort, like, just the Trump campaign’s coffee boy or something?