• Print

The Nunes Memo Kremlinology

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Washington, D.C., February 27, 2017

On the day before President Trump was to deliver his first State of the Union speech, an event his furious, humiliated wife reportedly will attend only grudgingly, the rest of us were reminded that a state of undeclared civil war now exists in America. On one side is the president, his Republican allies in Congress, scions of finance and commerce who are cashing in on the administration’s widening corruption, white nationalists and their enablers, the resentment-nursing, swindled “forgotten men and women,” and the gleeful Russians. On the other side are the rest of us, including longtime public servants at the Justice Department and the FBI, and congressional Democrats who have the facts but clearly not the power on their side.

It is a war that has been waged since the president took his oath of office with his “American Carnage” speech, designed to terrify and split an already-divided nation. For more than a year now, one side has relentlessly pressed forward thanks to congressional majorities in both chambers and control of both the judicial and executive branches. The other side has fought largely on the defensive, with rearguard actions and delaying tactics, in the hope that the tangible damage to the country, to the rule of law, and to democracy itself can be limited between now and next January, when the next Congress, perhaps a more Democratic Congress, is seated.

The war has taken two forms. It has featured the slow dissolution of legal and political norms, of common language even, but also sporadic days of great import, when the scope of what this president and his fellow travelers are capable of is laid bare. Yesterday was one of those days. No more can we say that the Trump administration is necessarily going to obey bipartisan congressional directives designed to punish our foreign adversaries. Any more than we can say that the president’s lackeys on Capitol Hill are content to allow the investigation into his ties to Russia to proceed without direct, partisan interference. Let me put it this way: Monday was the day Congress obstructed justice to aid the president. And it was the day the White House obstructed justice to aid the Russians.

Monday began with the now-routine litany of reported anecdotes detailing the emotional and intellectual fragility of the president and his inability to behave in ways that diminish or slow the evolution of the obstruction case against him. We learned that he had had yet another temper tantrum when he was reminded recently that the Justice Department is not his personal police force or detective agency. And we were reminded of his streak of cruelty in the taunt—gratuitous even by his own standards—that he issued during a phone call some months ago to Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, who announced Monday that he would be leaving his post six weeks early. For Trump, McCabe’s decades of his public service, and his commendable record of federal law enforcement, were nullified by the lawman’s matrimonial choice: McCabe had had the temerity to marry a Democrat who ran for office. If McCabe weren’t hostile to Trump before this episode, he surely should be now.

As afternoon turned into evening, we learned that Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, led like lambs by Representative Devin Nunes, had voted to release a memo they have ginned up that purports to detail overzealousness on the part of FBI agents investigating Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who met with Russian officials in the summer of 2016 (and who had denied those meetings for months). Page is a patsy here; on that, all agree. The partisan purpose of this memo, and of releasing it in this way, is to link the FBI to Christopher Steele, a former British spy whose work highlighting the Trump team’s extensive ties to Russia was funded by, among others, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.

In the addled world of conservative media, of dark conspiracies, which is to say the addled world of a president who gets his news from Fox News, Steele’s link to Clinton taints whatever information the FBI gleaned from his “dossier.” Tainting that link, the theory goes, in turn taints the FBI and the Justice Department and, by extension, the work of special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed, after all, by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who reportedly is one of the targets of the memo’s GOP-crafted scorn. It’s a convenient theory—that would neatly tumble together all the officials who threaten the president and his tenure like bowling pins—but one entirely untethered to law or fact or reality.

For the rest of us, the memo is nonsense. A distraction. A cheap stunt designed to give cover to the congressional Republicans while the president continues his assaults on the very structures of federal law enforcement. Actually, it’s not simply nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense. It is a partisan summary of raw intelligence information whose release Trump’s own Justice Department last week said would be “extraordinarily reckless.” To believe that the memo undermines the work of the FBI, Justice Department, and Mueller is to disbelieve the mountain of independent evidence that corroborates, in whole or in part, material aspects of Steele’s work. The world no longer needs to rely on Steele or his dossier to understand how deep and abiding were the ties between Team Trump and the Russians. It need only note how many of that team are already under criminal indictment or are actively cooperating with Mueller and company.

As a hearsay summary of a written report, the Republican memo would never be allowed into evidence in a trial unless the judge allowed the other side to cross-examine the memo’s authors on the accuracy of the document. Under that scrutiny, by any competent lawyer, the credibility of its contents would soon be in tatters, and the ploy by House Republicans exposed for what it is. We will likely never see that cross-examination in a court of law. But we can and should see it in the coming days and weeks in the court of public opinion

The last headline of the day came when we learned that the White House would not impose the sanctions against Russian officials that a bipartisan Congress demanded last year. Another win for Russia; another loss for those Americans who believe that foreign states that meddle in our elections should be discouraged from doing so again (including, for example, during the mid-term elections this November). By refusing to accede to congressional directive here, by refusing to fully punish Russia for improper interference in our democratic process, the Trump White House didn’t just veer from its “tough-on-crime” theme. It also showed us how emboldened it feels. 

The president evidently now sees no material risk in publicly ingratiating himself with the Kremlin even as Mueller and his investigators build their case that the Russians did the Trump team favors during the 2016 election. What the White House did on Monday, then—blowing off Congress on sanctions—is strong evidence of a quid in the quid pro quo, and it raises new questions about the extent of continuing undue Russian influence over the president and his administration. The White House tactic here is striking: rather than getting tough with the Russians to undermine Mueller’s case, they have intensified their Russian romance. There is no attempt at a cover-up, no remorse or regret; instead, the ploy is to discredit the tried and true cops who are investigating a potential crime.

On this black Monday, congressional Republicans undermined generations of legislative history and precedent to help a president who then, before the sun had set, undermined the will of Congress in its battle to rein in the Russians. Some will call this treason. Others, obstruction of justice. I’d rather call it giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The really bad news of the day was the inescapable conclusion that the real enemy America faces is not foreign, but domestic.