One of the nation's exercises in democracy can be found on late-night TV. Hosts crack sharply critical jokes about the country's politicians without fear of retribution from said politicians.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) sees that exercise very differently. He told Fox News Channel that a skit Stephen Colbert did mocking Nunes's memo alleging FBI bias in the Russia investigation is a danger to the country.
“Devin Nunes is a REDACTED,” says a memo Colbert circulated on Capitol Hill, asking Democratic and Republican members of Congress to fill in the blank.
“I think this is the danger we have in this country,” Nunes told host Neil Cavuto on Saturday in response. “This is an example of it.”
Except, two things:
1. We live in a free-speech society, and
2. Colbert is a comedian.
Unlike journalists, Colbert has no obligation to report the facts or even be unbiased. His job is to make people laugh, not to be fair to politicians. Through the First Amendment, this country's founders allowed Colbert to make fun of whichever powerful person he wants to without fear of retribution from that person.
Nunes's “danger” comment makes more sense when viewed through an authoritarian lens — that free speech can somehow undermine government that has been functioning for nearly 250 years.
Nunes's allies in the White House have increasingly decided to see the world through the lens of authoritarianism. Instead of rebutting their critics, White House officials have resorted, a number of times, to saying it's irresponsible to criticize the president and his staff. One of the most egregious examples came in October when White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it would be “highly inappropriate” for journalists to fact-check Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, because he's a general. But there are plenty more such instances.
Just this weekend in Florida, Trump mused to donors that he'd like to follow in Chinese President Xi Jinping's footsteps and get rid of term limits. “President for life. No, he's great. And, look, he was able to do that. I think it's great,” he said. “Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday.”
Those comments, a recording of which was obtained by CNN, may have been in jest. But they also come in the context of Trump praising and cozying up to authoritarian leaders in Turkey, the Philippines and Russia, and suggesting implementing controversial policies from those countries, such as executing drug dealers, in the United States. A sitting Republican senator has likened Trump's war on the media to that of former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
Nunes denies any kind of coordinated effort between him and the White House to undermine the Russia investigation. But in trying to denigrate his critics, Nunes certainly appears to be adopting some of the president's more controversial tactics.
To defend his point that Colbert's jokes are dangerous, Nunes spun off a conspiracy theory filled with factual inaccuracies that Hollywood and Democrats are working together to make fun of him because they have failed in the public sphere to debunk him.
“The left controls the universities in this country, Hollywood and the mainstream media,” Nunes told Cavuto, “so conservatives in this country are under attack, and I think this is great example of it.”
Nunes falsely told Cavuto that his memo provides “clear proof” that the Democratic Party colluded with Russians. (Fact check: There is an independent investigation looking into potential Trump-Russia collusion, not into Democrats and Russia.)
Nunes also claimed that the FBI opened an investigation into the Trump campaign specifically to spy on it. (Fact check: The FBI got a warrant from a secret court to spy on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page after Page had left the campaign, and there's no evidence that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign itself. )
Democrats released their own memo to try to counter allegations of FBI bias, pointing out that the FBI did share that a dossier alleging Trump-Russia collusion that was in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application had political funding. Democrats' point being: From there it was very easy for these highly educated judges to infer that the dossier was Democrat-funded.
There's also evidence that Nunes's memo is the more political one. The FBI, led by a Trump appointee, has said Nunes's memo is inaccurate and misleading. But Trump released it anyway and considered using it to fire the last high-profile intelligence official involved in the FISA warrants left standing, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.
In light of all this, Nunes has resorted to increasingly tortured arguments to defend his memo. But perhaps none top this, casting a comedian's 10-minute late-night TV skit as somehow a “danger” to the country and spinning a conspiracy theory about why.