Is The Nunes Memo Backfiring?

UNITED STATES - APRIL 12: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., speaks at a "Countdown to Tax Day" news conference in the Capitol to address the tax in increases in President Obama's FY 2014 budget. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Group

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) may have achieved his short-term goal with Friday’s release of a memo that he says demonstrates anti-Trump bias among the Justice Department and FBI’s highest ranks.

President Donald Trump on Saturday crowed that the memo “totally vindicates ‘Trump’” in the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Donald Trump Jr., called the document’s release a “little bit of sweet revenge” for the First Family.

But over the weekend, a different picture emerged. There’s now reason to think that both the document’s underwhelming contents and the contested nature of its release may inadvertently have bolstered, not undermined, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

In other words, the much-hyped Nunes memo may have turned out to be a flop not just in substantive terms but, more importantly, in political ones, too.

The strongest evidence of this came from four of Nunes’ Republican colleagues on the House Intelligence Committee, who made the rounds on the Sunday shows to say that the memo doesn’t absolve Trump and that Mueller’s probe should continue unimpeded.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), one of few members of Congress who read the underlying classified evidence on which the memo was based, flat out said that the memo does not have “any impact on the Russia probe.” As the chair of the committee that investigated Hillary Clinton’s role in the response to the Benghazi terror attacks, Gowdy’s bona fides as a partisan Republican are hard to doubt.

Appearing on CBS’ “Face The Nation,” the South Carolina Republican devoted little attention to the memo’s central argument: that intelligence officials failed to disclose how much they relied on a partially Democrat-funded dossier in obtaining a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Instead, Gowdy pointed to the many other troubling connections between the Trump campaign and Russia that merit a closer look.

“There is a Russia investigation without a dossier,” Gowdy said. “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 has nothing to do with an email sent by Cambridge Analytica. The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’ meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice.”

Gowdy’s remarks were backed up by Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), who insisted in separate interviews that the memo was irrelevant to Mueller’s ongoing work.

Trump reportedly disagreed, musing to aides last week that he could use the memo as justification to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation. Those conversations—and the President’s decision to release the memo over the vehement objections of his own DOJ and FBI—could bolster the obstruction of justice case against Trump, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti argued in a recent New York Times op-ed.

And the memo’s release forced the White House to again go on the record insisting that the President doesn’t plan to lay a finger on his deputy attorney general. Deputy press secretary Raj Shah told CNN that there will be “no changes” at the DOJ, while White House spokesman Hogan Gidley added that “there are no conversations and no considerations about firing Rod Rosenstein.” Those comments indicate that Rosenstein’s position is now more, rather than less, secure than it was before the memo was out.

The fallout also extended to the FBI. Trump ignored the protestations of his handpicked director, Chris Wray, who argued that the memo was misleading, prompting the FBI Agents Association of rank-and-file agents to publicly take Wray’s side.

A former FBI counterterrorism investigator explicitly called out the memo and “politicians seeking partisan gain” in a Times op-ed explaining why he was leaving the bureau after 10 years of service, arguing that politicized attacks threaten “the credibility of the entire institution.”

To be clear, the GOP campaign to discredit the FBI is having some effect. An Axios poll conducted over the weekend found that only 38 percent of Republicans approve of the bureau, compared to 47 percent who disapprove. That suggests the GOP base may be primed to discount the conclusions of Mueller’s investigation.

Breitbart and Fox News, too, have cited the memo as proof that the intelligence community abused its powers to thwart Trump. But less unapologetically pro-Trump outlets were much more skeptical. Articles in both Red State and National Review argued that if Nunes and the White House wanted the document released in the name of greater transparency, they should also release the point-by-point Democratic rebuttal from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA).

Republicans on the committee last week voted to block the publication of that document, at least until it had been declassified. But the fallout from Nunes’ memo appears to have changed the political calculation. As of Monday afternoon, Republicans on the committee appeared poised to approve the Democratic memo’s release in a vote later in the evening.

If it passes, the President will then be put in the position of giving final approval to the release of a document that buttresses the foundations of the federal Russia investigation he calls a witch-hunt.

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