Republican leaders in Congress have one main defense for releasing a controversial memo on the FBI's Russia investigation: It reveals mistakes and even bias at the FBI, not with the separate, independent special counsel investigation set up by the Justice Department.
The memo, said House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) on Thursday, isn't “an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice.”
Apparently President Trump didn't get that memo. In one tweet Friday morning, Trump publicly undermined Ryan's argument that the memo doesn't equal an attack on the FBI, Justice Department or the special counsel investigating Trump.
This memo will actually prove political bias in all of those places, Trump suggested:
Trump appears to be setting the narrative for what will happen later in the day, when House Republicans release the classified memo against objections from the FBI, the Justice Department and Democrats. Basically, everyone in Washington except the president and congressional Republicans don't want the memo released because, they say, it's politically biased, inaccurate, will expose sourcing methods, or all three.
Trump brushes those concerns off in this tweet by claiming it's the other guys who are against him. The “investigative process” is “politicized” against him, Trump says, pointing the finger directly at the top of the FBI and Justice Department.
The inclusion of the Justice Department in Trump's tweet is significant. For the purpose of the Russia investigation, because Attorney General Jeff Session recused himself, the top of the Justice Department is Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. He's the one who appointed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in May, shortly after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director.
So, why would Trump single out the Justice Department to explain why this memo should be released? Because he thinks the memo will help him undermine the Mueller investigation, both by calling into question its authenticity and integrity and possibly by firing the guy who set it up in the first place.
Reporting from the White House, my excellent Washington Post colleagues have a behind-the-scenes look at how the memo got released that corroborates all of this (my emphasis added in bold):
Trump told aides and confidants he believed the memo would vindicate his claim early last year that the expansive Russia investigation overseen by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was a “witch hunt.” He had long expressed frustration, both publicly and privately, with his Department of Justice and, specifically, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is supervising Mueller’s work.
The president said he thought the release of the memo would help build a public argument against Rosenstein’s handling of the case, according to people familiar with the discussions. Trump suggested to aides and confidants that the memo might give him the justification to fire Rosenstein — something about which Trump has privately mused — or make other changes at the Justice Department, which he had complained was not sufficiently loyal to him.
All of that was said privately by Trump to his friends and aides. But he basically said it publicly Friday morning. Trump thinks the memo will allow him to argue that the Justice Department, and by proxy the Mueller investigation, is out to get him. It's a very convenient line of attack given Trump has backed off actually firing Mueller (for now), so the next logical step to get out from under Mueller's investigation is to fire the guy who set it up.
We have more than one presidential tweet that helps us draw that conclusion. Trump has bashed the FBI and Justice Department a lot.
“Trump’s prior tweets suggest that he views the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence community — and perhaps even the entire federal bureaucracy — as engaged in a deep-state-style conspiracy against him,” said Cornell Law School Vice Dean Jens David Ohlin in an email. “I think it definitely undermines Paul D. Ryan’s claim that the memo has nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. Trump — and everyone else — clearly sees the two as connected.”
Let's back up for a second to Ryan's argument that this memo won't impugn Mueller. That may be wishful thinking, a distinction without a difference. The memo alleges the FBI relied on faulty information to start its investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, an investigation that is ongoing and backed by the FBI.
It's also possible Mueller is still using some of the information it got from surveillance of Trump aide Carter Page, said Asha Rangappa, a former FBI special agent now at Yale University, who spoke to The Fix about the memo earlier this week.
“You are going down a road where you are discrediting an entire system of government,” Rangappa said.
So, for all intents and purposes, to question the FBI's handling of the Russia investigation is the same as questioning the Mueller investigation itself. Meddling in Mueller's investigation is a red line for Ryan. But clearly, Trump isn't listening. He seems to have just revealed that the real reason he wants this memo released is to handicap, or even end, the special counsel investigation that is increasingly focused on him.