Imagine you were a member of Congress. No matter how much of a liberal or a conservative you are, you probably think that if there were some future president of your party who got caught up in a scandal, you'd be able to think objectively about it and act with integrity. Yes, you'd defend him if you thought the criticisms were unfair and the scandal was overblown, but it would only go so far. There would be certain kinds of behavior you couldn't countenance, and certain tactics of fending off the scandal you'd refuse to go along with. Right?
We all think that's how we'd act: loyal to our team up to a point, but not if it required compromising our principles. Which makes you wonder what Republicans in Congress are telling themselves right now when they look in the mirror.
Very soon, we'll get a look at a memo prepared by Republican staffers of the House Intelligence Committee for the chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a four-page document described by Democrats who have seen it as a collection of misleading and inaccurate talking points attacking the FBI and the Justice Department in a naked attempt to discredit the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties with Russia. On Monday, Republicans on the committee voted to release the memo to the public, while also voting down a proposal by Democrats to release a rebuttal memo they had prepared. Couldn't have that, after all, could we?
To hear some Republicans and their allies in the conservative media tell it, the contents of this memo are so explosive, so shocking, so mind-boggling that once it sees the light of day, the entire Russia investigation will collapse in a heap of rubble, so clear will it be that the FBI and Justice are the the beating heart of an anti-Trump conspiracy. The phrase "worse than Watergate" has been spoken repeatedly.
From the hints we've gotten, it appears that the centerpiece of the memo is the charge that when the Justice Department made a request to the FISA court to put former Trump adviser Carter Page under surveillance, it relied in part on a dossier assembled for former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, a dossier assembled as part of an opposition research project funded first by a conservative magazine and then by Hillary Clinton's campaign.
So let's walk through the logic, shall we? Despite the fact that Page is an extremely sketchy character whom the FBI had been aware of since at least 2013 when they learned that Russian spies were attempting to recruit him, and whom the White House has repeatedly said had barely any role on the Trump campaign, Republicans believe that if they can show that Justice used Steele's information to get a warrant to surveil Page, then that means Justice was in the tank for Clinton, and therefore … well … therefore … Trump is innocent?
We don't actually know what the surveillance of Page turned up. But we do know that Russia made repeated attempts to reach out to members of the Trump campaign, and that it hacked into Democratic email systems, then publicly released what it stole in order to embarrass Hillary Clinton and aid the Trump campaign. And we know that multiple members of Trump's inner circle, including Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn had contacts with either Russian officials or people acting on the Kremlin's behalf. And we know that Flynn and George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about those contacts in exchange for providing prosecutors with information on other Trump associates.
Do Nunes and the rest of the 239-occupant clown car that is the House Republican caucus think that if they can discredit the FISA warrant that provided for Page's surveillance, that all that will go away? It's like saying the detectives may have found the murder weapon with your prints on it, but it doesn't matter because they didn't feed the parking meter outside while they were searching your house.
That's not to mention the copious evidence pointing to the conclusion that President Trump undertook a concerted effort to obstruct the Russia investigation, of which firing FBI Director James Comey after demanding his loyalty and pressing him to lay off Flynn was only one part. What exactly are Republicans hoping to prove?
The real answer is: nothing. There's no argument here about the substance of the Russia scandal. All their efforts right now are geared toward discrediting the FBI, the Justice Department, the people who work for Robert Mueller, Mueller himself — essentially anyone who might be in a position to hold Trump accountable. The point is to delegitimize them all, so that whenever we get the full truth on the scandal, Trump can survive it.
And it may well work, because the key for a president trying to survive a scandal is keeping partisan loyalties intact. If Republicans stick by Trump, then even if Democrats took the House and voted to impeach him, he'd prevail in his trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required to convict.
And that's really what all this yelling and screaming about FISA warrants and Carter Page and text messages is all about. It's a way of giving Republicans permission to dismiss anything that emerges on this scandal, no matter how factual and proven.
The closer the investigation gets to its conclusion and the more we learn, the harder it's going to be for Republicans to justify the ludicrous tactics they're employing to defend Trump. It might be enough to save their leader from the full consequences of his actions, but it won't save them from the judgment of history.