Republicans and Democrats alike are embarrassing themselves over the Nunes memo

How the controversial document about the FBI turned everyone into a fool

Rep. Devin Nunes.
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The trailers were right. The so-called Nunes memo, named after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), was not a movie you needed to see.

There is virtually nothing of significance in the four pages of documentation — from the FISA court's reliance upon the Clinton-financed work of Fusion GPS to dossier-writer Christoper Steele's unauthorized disclosures to a Mother Jones reporter in October 2016 — that was unknown to anyone who has been following this acclaimed series breathlessly. If you had been feeling inclined until now to play catch-up by binge-watching over the weekend, change your plans. There is nothing interesting here.

This might come as a surprise to those persons, President Trump among them, who have spent the last two or so weeks agitating for the memo's release after watching breathless Fox News reports. Indeed, the most significant takeaway here is that our commander in chief gets his news about crucial matters of intelligence from cable television. If reports are to be believed, he made up his mind to release the memo before even viewing it. Whether he has read it even now is an open question.

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Maybe I missed a crucial detail or two, but I am honestly wondering what the gross miscarriages of justice whose existence have been intimated by Trump and Nunes are supposed to be. Nor do I understand how the information collated in this memo can be considered damning by the same people — including this columnist — who are dismissive of the ongoing Russia investigation that led to its creation.

If nothing that has been turned up by Robert Mueller so far has convinced you that President Trump colluded with the Kremlin in order to win the election in 2016, nothing here should suggest to your presumably discriminating mind that some kind of vast and all-consuming plot was at work within the FBI to subvert the democratic process. Instead, as the last paragraph of the memo makes clear, federal investigators made the prudential decision to investigate various Trump-related personalities who had made themselves suspicious for reasons having little to do with Russian collusion. They played by the book, even reassigning one agent, Peter Strzok, for sending rude text messages about then-candidate Trump.

But I am not sure what people who take the Russia thing seriously are supposed to believe either. Because I do not take most of them at their word as disinterested patriots, I feel comfortable saying that they are going to dismiss the Nunes memo as a Benghazi-like farce. They should because it is one. But it is not clear how this squares with their ostensible dedication to proceduralist mores, as opposed to the anti-Trump hysteria that actually motivates them. Anyone whose slumber is disturbed by the horrifying truth that a member of a presidential transition team dared to speak to a foreign ambassador should not be able to laugh away the fact that a secret federal court with startling powers authorized surveillance of a private citizen even partially at the behest of an individual in the intelligence community whose political opposition to the party whose privacy was being violated was well known.

This is what happens whenever there is a national controversy about secrets and intelligence. From Whitewater to Plamegate to whatever the IRS is supposed to have done to those Tea Party groups to Hillary Clinton's damned emails, there are no discernable principles at work in our public discussions except partisanship. All of these could plausibly be dismissed as sound and fury signifying nothing; any of them might genuinely discomfit a person examining them in good faith. It's just funny how the outrage always seems to line up conveniently on one side of the aisle or the other.

There are two possible attitudes that can be held about the Nunes memo. Either it is another entry in the long list of horrors that was the election that began in 2015 and is not yet over — or it is nothing. People made up their minds which view they were going to adopt long ago.

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