AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Opinion writer

President Trump’s strategy to discredit the Russia investigation has suffered yet another setback. Once again, we’ve seen the president and his defenders cry that they have found a smoking gun that will exonerate him, only for it to turn out that what they’re holding is a soggy turnip.

This Monday, Trump issued an order to make public documents relating to the FISA warrant to surveil his former campaign aide Carter Page, as well as text messages sent by a group of FBI and Justice Department officials whom he has decided are his enemies. The order had no law enforcement purpose, no intelligence purpose, no legitimate purpose at all. Trump was using the powers of the presidency to aid his PR effort, to (he plainly hoped) make his critics look bad and thus cast doubt on the entire Russia investigation. It was an obvious abuse of power, but we’ve gotten so used to Trump abusing his power that it was treated as just another Trumpian story in a week filled with them.

But today, Trump has backed off:

President Trump on Friday walked back his order earlier this week to declassify information in the ongoing probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, saying Justice Department officials and others had persuaded him not to do so for the time being.

The retreat from his declassification decree issued just four days ago underscores the ongoing tensions between the White House and the Justice Department over the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is examining whether any Trump associates may have conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the election.

In a pair of Friday morning tweets, Trump said: “I met with the DOJ concerning the declassification of various UNREDACTED documents. They agreed to release them but stated that so doing may have a perceived negative impact on the Russia probe. Also, key Allies’ called to ask not to release. Therefore, the Inspector General has been asked to review these documents on an expedited basis. I believe he will move quickly on this (and hopefully other things which he is looking at). In the end I can always declassify if it proves necessary. Speed is very important to me – and everyone!”

It may seem ridiculous that Trump and his allies are still so obsessed with the supposed injustice of the Carter Page surveillance warrant. After all, as we have long known, “Page had been on the radar of the FBI at least as far back as 2013, when a bureau wiretap caught suspected Russian spies discussing their attempts to recruit him.”

But if you tune in to one of the president’s favorite shows on Fox News, you’ll be fed a story that goes like this: The FISA warrant to surveil Page was wrongly obtained because it included information from a dossier prepared by a former British intelligence agent; the entire Russia investigation rested on the surveillance of Carter Page; therefore the entire Russia investigation is corrupt and must be shut down.

Every part of that story is laughably false. The judges who granted the initial warrant to surveil Page and the subsequent warrants to continue the surveillance knew the nature of the information they were using to evaluate the warrant request. The Russia investigation began not with Page but when George Papadopoulos (one of the four former Trump aides who have pled guilty to crimes) blabbed to an Australian diplomat in the summer of 2016 that the Trump campaign was getting information about Hillary Clinton from Russia, and that diplomat informed American intelligence. Page is a minor figure in this whole affair; if he had never signed on to the Trump campaign at all, almost nothing about this investigation would change.

Yet the president still seems to believe that if more documents from Page’s FISA warrant are publicly revealed, it’ll blow the lid off this whole witch hunt. As for the texts from people in the Justice Department Trump doesn’t like, who knows what’s in them. Trump himself said a couple of days ago that he hadn’t read the documents whose release he was demanding, and if that’s true, it may offer a clue as to why he’s pulling back on their immediate release.

I don’t doubt that officials in the Justice Department were profoundly disturbed by the idea of the president unilaterally making public documents pertinent to an ongoing investigation, and urged him not to do so. But it may also be true that one way or another, Trump began to suspect that the documents might not actually provide the smoking gun of an anti-Trump conspiracy he was hoping for.

After all, we’ve been down this road before. Remember the notorious Nunes memo, prepared by Republican staffers at the behest of House Intelligence Committee chair and Trump lickspittle Rep. Devin Nunes? Republicans and conservative media figures spent weeks demanding the declassification of the memo, saying that when it became public its blockbuster revelations would tear the entire Russia investigation to shreds.

Then it was finally released, and what happened? It was a bunch of absurd, misleading, and tendentious claims that were greeted with derision by almost everyone. It did not blow any lids off anything. When was the last time you heard a Republican use it as evidence of some argument they were making? They never do, because the memo became a source of nothing but shame at their gullibility and incompetence. Nunes was ridiculed mercilessly, the White House was embarrassed, and Robert Mueller’s investigation just kept going.

The fact that Trump is not simply declassifying all these new documents tells me that he’s afraid this would wind up being the Nunes memo all over again, and there’s a good chance he’d be right. So by passing it off to the Inspector General, he’s effectively saying, “Never mind.” It’s yet another reminder that the defense of the president against the Russia probe is being carried out by a bunch of clowns led by a fool.