Word seems to be leaking out of the White House that the memo we've been talking about all week could be, in the words of Axios's Jonathan Swan, “a dud.” And the New York Times's Maggie Haberman seems to be hearing the same thing.
The FBI is worried enough that it made the extraordinary decision to come out publicly with “grave concerns” about the document's release. House Democrats are worried enough that they've been crying foul in increasingly apocalyptic terms. And it's quite possible this is simply the kind of expectation-setting that we see on the eve of any major news event. The more our expectations are lowered, after all, the more significant the memo will seem.
But it doesn't seem unreasonable to think that the memo could be less than significant. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) is the man behind it, after all, and his last turn in the political spotlight didn't exactly inspire confidence in his political savvy and leadership. If anything, it suggested he can be far too eager to try to help the Trump administration justify some of President Trump's more conspiratorial thinking.
Philip Bump on Thursday recapped that fiasco, which resulted in Nunes facing an ethics investigation and temporarily recusing himself from Russia-related matters. At the time, I labeled Nunes's actions “one long unforced error”:
Nunes has frequently made strange comments about his panel's investigation. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to play down questions about alleged wrongdoing by the Trump administration — even more so than many Republicans who aren't tasked with running an impartial investigation.
There was the time he called Trump former national security adviser Michael Flynn “the best intelligence officer of his generation” — and said the Flynn controversy over his contacts with the Russian ambassador was “a lot of nothing” — mere hours before Flynn was forced to resign. There was the time he suggested Trump could not have instructed Flynn to talk to Russia about sanctions because Trump was too busy (?). And the time he suggested Trump's tweets about Obama wiretapping him could be forgiven because Trump didn't have 27 lawyers reviewing them.
Then we have to consider the fact that Trump decided to release the memo before he even reviewed it. One adviser told The Washington Post that there was “never any hesitation” about what they would do. That . . . doesn't seem to be a great way to handle a memo based on classified information — either policy-wise or politically.
But let's entertain the idea, for a moment, that the memo is much ado about nothing. We already know that the controversial, Democrat-funded Steele dossier was part of the application for a FISA warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. What if the memo basically enters that into the record without adding much to it?
The first thing we can say is that it probably wouldn't matter to the GOP base. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 83 percent of Republicans believe the Russia investigation is a “witch hunt,” and in our highly partisan time, even a kibble of new information can be seen as a smoking gun by anxious partisans.
And if this makes the GOP base dig in even further against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation, as Trump seems to believe it will, then it will probably have done its job. All of this seems to be geared toward preventing GOP members of Congress from acting on Mueller's findings, after all, and if the Republican base thinks the whole thing is bunk, Republicans in Congress will be reluctant to act.
But there are plenty of other dominoes that could fall here. Word leaked Thursday that the White House is reportedly worried about FBI Director Christopher A. Wray possibly resigning over the situation. These are rumors right now, but that's a move that would surely be embarrassing given he's Trump's second FBI director (who traditionally have 10-year terms) and Trump has been in office a little more than a year.
But even if Wray stays, Trump will have effectively alienated another FBI director. We've already seen Wray bristle at the White House's attempts to get him to remove his then-deputy, Andrew McCabe, before McCabe resigned this week. Firing Wray would be much more difficult after Trump already fired his predecessor, James B. Comey.
There's also the real possibility that all of this could cause Trump to overreach by firing someone else — most likely Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. It has been thought since the beginning of the memo saga that the real target was Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia investigation and whom Trump has derided as a Democrat. (Rosenstein, who is a Republican, is reported to have approved the FISA warrant to surveil Page.) And Trump has already fired Comey and moved to fire Mueller. If there's suddenly a modicum of justification for terminating Rosenstein, Trump may just be tempted enough to pull the trigger.
In other words, the actual content of the memo probably isn't nearly as important as what it will allow people to read into.