The discussion on the Sunday talk shows heightened one of the strangest aspects of the debate around the Nunes memo: Republicans actively playing down its impact. Before the memo was released, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) insisted that it had nothing to do with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe. Since the memo became public, most Republicans have repeated Ryan’s line. “I actually don’t think it has any impact on the Russia probe,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) said on “Face the Nation.” “This memo has frankly nothing at all to do with a special counsel,” Rep. Chris Stewart (Utah) told “Fox News Sunday.” Asked on “This Week” whether he agreed that the memo “vindicates” President Trump, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) bluntly replied, “I don’t.”
This minimizing of the memo’s influence sharply contrasts with what sparked the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign: lurid charges from far-right congressmen that the memo could lead to criminal prosecutions of FBI leaders. Between this walkback and Nunes’s absence from the talk-show circuit, Ryan and company seem to be doing damage control. But if they truly believe that the memo won’t affect Mueller’s probe, they are badly mistaken.
We don’t have to go very far back to find an “unrelated investigation” that dealt a hammer blow to a politician even though there was no substance there. When then-FBI Director James C. Comey told Congress less than two weeks before Election Day 2016 that the FBI was investigating whether the Hillary Clinton email case should be reopened, it was because of emails that had been found in an “unrelated case” (the Anthony Weiner sexting investigation). Even though all emails found were either personal or duplicative correspondence, and the case remained closed, the headlines generated were a decisive factor in her Election Day defeat.
A similar phenomenon is playing out here as well: Republicans are insisting, as Comey did then, that they are conducting due diligence (even though only Gowdy has actually reviewed the intelligence the memo is based on). But much of the memo’s impact will come through headlines that muddy the waters and tarnish Mueller and his investigation. Intentionally or not, every House Republican who voted to release this memo voted to undermine the probe.
Furthermore, one person who still thinks the memo is very much about the Russia investigation — and that it vindicated Trump — is Trump himself. No matter how much other Republicans insist that the integrity of Mueller and his investigation is intact, the president believes the memo proves he’s the target of a “witch hunt.” And given the singular reach of his words, especially on the right, his version of events will be the correct one in the minds of millions. The avalanche of unreason is already well underway, it’s headed straight for Mueller and his team, and there’s nothing Ryan or Gowdy or anyone else on Capitol Hill can say to stop it.