On Friday, the former general counsel of the FBI, Jim Baker, decided to speak out. Frustrated by the burgeoning Republican narrative about how the Russia investigation might have been launched under false pretenses and with nefarious motives, the previously quiet top FBI aide stepped onto the public stage.
“There was no attempted ‘coup,’” Baker said at the Brookings Institution. “There was no way in hell that I was going to allow some coup or coup attempt to take place on my watch.”
He added that he stepped forward because he “just became sick of all the B.S. that is said about the origins of the investigation.” Baker, who left the FBI in 2017, said he wanted to “reassure the American people that it was done for lawful, legitimate reasons.”
Whatever legitimate questions might be asked about the process for obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants or the Justice Department’s initial inquiries in the Russia probe, it’s worth noting just how long this “coup” narrative took to build on the political right — and how much GOP leaders initially eschewed it.
Then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) first injected this into the public bloodstream via the so-called “Nunes memo,” which raised questions about the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. At the time, the “coup”/“witch hunt” narrative (which generally hadn’t used those words but occasionally implied such an effort) was largely the provenance of President Trump and some of his most conspiratorial defenders.
Some GOP leaders were clearly uncomfortable with where the Nunes memo might lead. When Trump approved its release, then-House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) urged colleagues not to overstate its details. The House Intelligence Committee’s then-Republican leaders seemed to heed that advice, passing around talking points telling fellow members, “The Memo is NOT intended to undermine the Special Counsel [Robert S. Mueller III],” and “The Memo is NOT intended to undermine DOJ or FBI.”
Then-Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) went on CBS’s “Face the Nation” and said, “I actually don’t think it has any impact on the Russia probe, for this reason: There is a Russia investigation without a [Steele] dossier. So to the extent the memo deals with the dossier and the FISA process, the dossier has nothing to do with the meeting at Trump Tower. ... The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’s meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice. So there’s going to be a Russia probe, even without a dossier.”
When one of the most conspiratorial GOP members of Congress, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), spun an elaborate theory about how the Democrats might have been working with federal law enforcement to get a FISA warrant to “spy” on the Trump campaign, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions — a very conservative former senator — shut him down.
Those days are long gone. Now that the Mueller report has alleged no conspiracy with Russia (and Mueller punted on obstruction, citing DOJ policy), Republicans have largely echoed Trump’s talking points — or at least raised suggestive questions — that the surveillance of Page might have been symptomatic of an effort to take Trump down. And unlike in Sessions’s day, Attorney General William P. Barr is hearing them out.
Contrary to Ryan and Gowdy’s cautions and the talking points passed around at the time, the Nunes memo has now formed the centerpiece of an argument that the Mueller probe began as an anti-Trump political effort. Gowdy’s assurances that there would have been a Russia investigation regardless have been swept aside in favor of an argument that nothing about this was based upon legitimate inquiries or what the Trump team actually did.
Today, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has called for investigating the origins of the probe. Barr has suggested the matter is worth of an inquiry, even adopting Trump’s controversial talking point that the FBI was “spying” on Page (a word that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray took issue with this week). And Republicans have consistently exaggerated the Mueller report’s supposed “exoneration” of Trump (a word Mueller explicitly said did not apply to his obstruction conclusions) in an effort to argue that the investigation was bogus from the beginning.
It’s a pretty predictable outcome of the Nunes memo. And it’s one that even some top Republicans predicted and clearly worried about.