Opinion

Republicans tried to discredit the Russia investigation. Instead they discredited themselves.

Trump and the GOP are digging themselves an even deeper hole on Russia

For weeks leading up to last Friday, conservatives clamored to #ReleaseTheMemo. They shook their fists at the fact that a blockbuster exposé by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) that supposedly revealed an FBI/Justice Department conspiracy to take down President Trump was being withheld from the public. It was all ridiculous kabuki, because the people who had control of whether it would be released were, first, the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee, and second, Trump himself, who as president had to give final approval for the document to be declassified. What a surprise that they gave in to all that pressure and made it public.

The memo, it turned out, was a gigantic dud, to the point where even some Republicans tried to distance themselves from the over-hyping. But along the way, Republicans made so many arguments about how the Nunes memo had to be made public in the name of "transparency" that they backed themselves into a corner. While the Intelligence Committee had previously voted down a proposal to also release a rebuttal memo prepared by Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, they've now been forced to reverse course. On Monday, the committee took another vote on the Schiff memo, this time voting to allow it to become public.

Now here's the amusing part. According to House rules, final approval for this kind of declassification rests with the president. So Trump will be forced to either let the world see Schiff's rebuttal — which by all accounts will beat the already pathetic Nunes memo into mush — or refuse to do so, and thereby only heighten the controversy.

Keenly attuned to the need to tread carefully in this fragile political position, the president tweeted this on Monday morning:

Among other things, the president seems to be running out of insults. But given that he will now be deciding whether to make Schiff's memo public, attacking the congressman might not be the best way to demonstrate his commitment to objectivity and fairness. And think about the position he has now put himself in. He's only drawing more attention to Schiff's memo, and should he refuse to release it, that will look to many people like a cover-up.

Meanwhile, the beclowning of the Nunes memo only gets more evident. On Monday, for instance, we learned that the central claim of the Nunes memo, thin as it was to begin with, turns out to be misleading. Republicans charged that because the FBI used information from an opposition research memo prepared by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele in its application for a FISA warrant to conduct surveillance on sometime Trump adviser Carter Page, but didn't tell the judge that Steele's research was financed by Hillary Clinton's campaign, the warrant was illegitimate. However, by Monday Republicans were forced to acknowledge that the warrant application did in fact say that some of the information had been acquired from a political entity (even though it didn't mention the Clinton campaign specifically).

That's not to mention the fact that the Nunes memo doesn't even claim that the information the FBI got from Steele and included in the FISA application wasn't true. And you can bet that if that were the case, Nunes would have been sure to mention it. This seems a highly relevant point, but no one seems to be talking about it. If Steele told the FBI fanciful tales and the FBI used those tales to get their FISA warrant, Republicans would have been trumpeting it to the rooftops. The fact that they haven't tells you all you need to know.

So what are we left with? Either the Schiff memo will be released, which will produce a couple of news cycles about the ham-handed GOP effort to protect President Trump at all costs; or it will be kept secret, and the naked partisanship of their indefensible campaign to attack the FBI and Justice Department will become even more obvious. The whole point of the Nunes memo was to discredit the Russia investigation, but Republicans have only wound up discrediting themselves.

That could matter a good deal in the future, because public opinion is where this battle is going to be fought. Unless President Trump fires Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his investigation will produce whatever it produces, undeterred by the antics of the likes of Devin Nunes. Mueller may indict more people, and he'll probably produce some kind of report describing everything he has found. At that point, we'll have to argue about what it means, and what we should do about it — up to and including the possibility of impeaching the president.

That will produce an intense argument — and Republicans have already shown that their outraged pronouncements on this topic should be greeted with skepticism, to say the least. They thought they would shatter the rationale for the entire Russia investigation, but they ended up only making themselves look like fools.

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