With the much-heralded release of the internal memo of the House Intelligence Committee by Rep. Devin Nunes this afternoon, President Trump signaled his willingness to play hardball, against the growing spectre of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Russian interference with the 2016 election.
Over the explicit, repeated objections of FBI Director Christopher Wray, and Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA), Trump declassified the House document, without allowing the FBI to review it, alleging FBI bias and misconduct in the opening stages of the Mueller investigation. “That’s it?” former FBI director James Comey fumed, upon reading the memo. “[This] dishonest and misleading memo wrecked the House Intel Committee, and inexcusably exposed classified investigations of American citizens.”
Some House Republicans repudiated Trump’s attempt at undermining Mueller, including Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who Tweeted that “as I have said repeatedly, I have 100 percent confidence in Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The contents of this memo do not–in any way–discredit his investigation.“
A core issue raised by the memo centers around Christopher Steele, the former British MI6 agent whose compilation of a dossier on Trump and Russia formed an “essential part” of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant that touched off the case. If Steele’s validity is an element in the FISA court’s issuance iof a warrant, it follows that something substantial about Trump and his campaign’s dealings with Russia is contained in the operative’s dossier–which remains classified.
In other words, we have a declassified memo which cites the Steele dossier, which we aren’t allowed to see–as a basis for accusing the FBI of bias. Another memo–this one written by the very agent, Peter Strzok, accused of covering for Hillary Clinton–was sent to Comey last fall, detailing the case against her for using an unauthorized server to send and receive State Department e-mails. Strzok, paradoxically, is also named in the Nunes missive, as evidence of FBI bias against Trump. It can’t go both ways.
Warner, moreover, railed against the Nunes memo, pointing out that it doesn’t jibe with the material on which it is based. “Unlike almost every House member who voted in favor of this memo’s release, I have actually read the underlying documents on which the memo was based. They simply do not support its conclusions,” the lawmaker observed, adding that he felt the Republicans were engaged in a transparent attempt to protect Trump from Mueller. The special prosecutor, meanwhile, is gathering steam as he grows closer it interviewing the President himself.
Yesterday, all three of indicted Trump campaign advisor Ricky Gates‘ defense attorneys abruptly quit the case, outlining their reasons in a sealed court motion. This can only mean that Mueller has successfully flipped Gates, who, in addition to former campaign manager Paul Manafort, also arrested by Mueller, has a trove of damaging information about the Trump’s alleged skulduggery during the summer and fall of 2016. Given that Mueller has already achieved two convictions in the Russiagate case, this does not portend well for the White House.
Like Nixon in the last days of Watergate, Trump is growing increasingly desperate, throwing obstacles like the Nunes memo directly into Mueller’s path, and crying “fake news” at every turn. Having prompted several Republican legislators to seek retirement rather than another House term, the President sees the handwriting on the wall.
As Nixon before him did, he is likely, maybe as soon as this evening, to try disemboweling the investigation, not by firing Mueller, but by going after Mueller’s boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “If Trump does that,” says Warner, “we will have a Constitutional crisis like no other“. Dismissing Rosenstein would almost certainly place Attorney General Jeff Sessions–who recused himself from the Russia case on conflict-of-interest grounds–in an untenable position. Trump has already lobbed several broadsides at Justice, by sacking AG Sally Yates, Comey, and FBI Deputy Director Andrew Mc Cabe. Sessions’ department would be sundered by the very officer it is investigating, leaving him unable to make policy or direct his prosecutors. This is the true state of the Union, Trump’s bromides of Tuesday night notwithstanding.
In any event, it is well seen that the wheels are quickly coming off the Trump administration, just over one year in. The discord of official Washington will be the discord of the Republic, absent the normal processes that give us a working government. The capriciousness of the Chief Executive, and the calumny of his repeated Tweets and public statements, have brought us here. That, and the assent of sixty million Americans, who should have seen this coming.
Our functional democracy hinges on what happens next. We can only hope that our system of checks and balances is strong enough to do its job.