In addition to the potential for Wray to quit, Trump should consider other political and legal risks.
First, Trump is reportedly telling aides that he wants to release the memo for the purpose of discrediting his investigators. (By the way, how dense would one have to be to say this?) Since the memo has been widely disparaged, its release might be more trouble than it is worth to Trump’s defense team. As to the latter, Trump’s lawyers must by now understand how perilous Trump’s situation is regarding a possible obstruction of justice claim. One wonders whether any of them have enough sway with Trump to change his mind. Furthermore, there will no doubt be conversations and emails about releasing the memo, which in turn would become new evidence in special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Trump is making evidence faster than Mueller can investigate it.
Second, criticism from usually apolitical former intelligence professionals is raining down on Trump and Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Former FBI director Michael Hayden writes, “The intelligence interests here go well beyond the Bureau. All are put at risk when intelligence is politicized and information from many agencies makes its way into [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA applications. No one is served when the public is misled via selected releases.” He also cleverly points to national intelligence director Daniel Coats, suggesting that his opinion might be solicited. (Psst, Senate Intelligence Committee: Go interview Coats.) Oh, has anyone asked the CIA for its view?
Likewise, former acting CIA director John McLaughlin tweeted: “FISA warrants typically are big thick documents, 50-60 pages. If the Nunes memo about one is just 4 pages, you can bet it’s a carefully picked bowl of cherries. Made all the more dishonest by holding back the minority rebuttal memo. A real debate needs both. Someone fears that.” Former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith has also warned against release of the memo.
Why do their opinions matter? Well, they influence public opinion, and they paint the GOP as derelict in its duty to protect national security. If an intelligence failure or security crisis arises, Trump surely doesn’t want the opinion out there that he is reckless and irresponsible. And if the actions were blatantly contrary to national security, this escapade becomes an impeachable offense, if we ever get that far. The president is acting in dereliction of his oath to protect the country and contrary to his obligations as commander in chief. I cannot imagine a more appropriate subject for impeachment than disclosing the nation’s secrets to protect one’s own hide.
Third, this war against the intelligence agencies may actually do permanent damage to Congress and the intelligence community. Trump might not care in theory, but he surely will care if, for example, he does not want Congress to decide to hobble the FISA process or if the FBI is in tumult when, God forbid, a terrorist incident occurs. Trump might try to point fingers, but he appointed the heads of the various intelligence entities, he gets the daily intelligence briefing and he remains commander in chief. He should also be aware that he’s not helping his House GOP majority any. Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) sounds absolutely ridiculous in arguing that the memo won’t damage the Russia investigation, when the president and Nunes are saying the opposite. He looks weak, and the avalanche of criticism falling on Nunes will bolster the Democrats’ claim that only with a Democratic majority can the country be kept safe.