President Trump and his Republican allies in Congress are running a systematic campaign of harassment and disruption directed at legitimate law enforcement activity being conducted on behalf of the American people — with the active goal of protecting Trump and his cronies from accountability and denying the public the full truth about a hostile foreign power’s effort to corrupt our democracy.
The latest example of this, like the others that preceded it, is being justified with the laughably disingenuous falsehood that the goal is “transparency.” And this one, like the others that preceded it, will likely blow up in Trump’s face in spectacular fashion.
Trump has ordered the Justice Department to release numerous classified documents related to the Russia investigation. A White House statement claims this is in the interests of “transparency.” One of Trump’s most dutiful servants in Congress, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, insists this release will “reveal to the American people some of the systemic corruption and bias” at “the highest levels of the DOJ and FBI.”
In reality, this is an effort at obfuscation, concealment, deception, and the weaponizing of the oversight process for “partisan political ends.” If recent precedent is any guide, the release itself will broadly confirm this — even though Trump and his allies will lie uncontrollably to the contrary.
Trump is seeking three main things. The first: additional portions of the FISA court applications to surveil former Trump adviser Carter Page. The pro-Trump mythology holds that the Dem-funded dossier created by British spy Christopher Steele was the basis for the original decision to wiretap Page, thus forming the main genesis of the whole investigation and rendering special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s probe illegitimate. In fact, independent reporting has established that the FBI probe launched amid revelations about another former Trump adviser who learned about Russian dirt collected on Hillary Clinton.
We’ve already been down this road. When the FISA applications for Page surveillance were released in redacted form a few months ago, it confirmed what Democrats had been saying, and debunked what Trump allies had claimed. It showed that the FBI had, in fact, disclosed the political motives behind the Steele dossier and had given the FISA judges the info they needed to evaluate Steele’s credibility. It also showed that judges had renewed the application numerous times, meaning the wiretaps were bearing investigative fruit.
Trump now has demanded the selective release of additional portions of the applications, and we don’t know what they’ll say. But one distinct possibility is that they will reveal more information generated by the probe that led to the authorizations of these wiretaps, thus underscoring the probe’s legitimacy.
It’s all about Trump’s self-interest
Beyond this, the release is a remarkably brazen abuse of power. As national security expert David Kris notes, Trump is overruling national security professionals who wanted to keep certain portions secret to protect sources and methods — not for purposes of “transparency” in the “national interest,” but because he believes it will serve his own “self interest,” as a “subject” of this investigation.
Trump has also ordered the release of unredacted texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, among others, another obsession of pro-Trump mythologists. We can guess where this might end up. Recently GOP Rep. Mark Meadows, another Trump handmaiden, claimed their texts supposedly revealed a culture of leaking at the FBI. Democrats cried foul, explaining how Meadows had ripped the texts out of context to create that false impression.
My guess is the full texts will further reveal Meadows’ misrepresentations. Regardless, the role of Strzok and Page has already been examined by the DOJ inspector general, and his topline finding was that, while their texts did reveal personal animus towards Trump, they did not illustrate any broad-based anti-Trump plot at the FBI. If the full texts do not alter this interpretation, as seems likely, this will once again undercut Trump’s narrative.
Trump also has demanded the release of all FBI conversations with one Bruce Ohr, who is little known but looms as a major figure in pro-Trump mythology. Trump has claimed that Ohr, a career Justice Department employee, has helped Steele try to smear Trump, and more generally, the claim is that Ohr functions as a conduit between Steele and the FBI in nefarious ways. But as Glenn Kessler’s extensive examination of Ohr’s role shows, there is little evidence — based on the known facts — of any Ohr-Steele conspiracy.
Democrats who have seen classified information have also cast doubt on the conspiracy-theorizing about Ohr, noting that his supposed alliance with Steele is vastly overstated, and that Ohr’s role does not actually tell us anything about the accuracy of Steele’s findings or the FBI’s reliance on him. Here again, the release Trump seeks will test who is lying and who is telling the truth.
A deep imbalance
Genuine transparency is generally a laudable goal, and Trump, of course, has the authority to do these things, but his intent is what matters here. Trump is placing his own personal interests before those of the country, rendering this an abuse of that authority, under the guise of phony, selective, cherry-picked transparency. This is also a massive abuse of the public trust by his GOP allies. The whole point of legitimate oversight is to bolster public confidence in law enforcement, given the awesome powers it wields, but this is fake oversight designed to weaken public confidence in it — solely to serve Trump’s political needs.
The big problem we face is that, regardless of the facts, these situations allow Trump and his allies to exploit deep structural imbalances in our discourse and political media. Even if the new release debunks Trumpworld’s narrative, they will lie relentlessly in bad faith to the contrary, and madly cherry-pick from the new information to make their case. And they can count on assistance from a massive right-wing media infrastructure that will faithfully blare forth this narrative — even as the major news organizations adopt a much more careful approach that treats the interpretation of the new information as a matter for legitimate dispute, thus putting good-faith analysis and bad-faith propaganda on equal footing.
We have already seen this happen with the Nunes memo, the IG report, and the release of the redacted FISA application on Page. Thus, the latest release, no matter what it says, will help the president and his allies further their political goals — but only to a limited, base-consolidating extent. Fortunately, most signs are that, despite their best efforts and the deep imbalances that they are exploiting, the broader public is entirely rejecting the alternate reality they are trying to weave.