Opinion

How the conservative conspiracy industrial complex should have handled the Nunes memo

Republicans never should have released the memo

Despite the hopes and prayers of so many Americans, we are still talking about the so-called "Nunes memo," which darkly and hilariously implies a secret FBI plot to undermine a presidential candidate and rig an election.

It is impossible to be serious about this monumentally stupid event in American history — possibly the dumbest cause mainstream Republicans have aligned themselves with since the end of January. The memo was conceived in cynicism, and cynicism is the only terms in which it should be discussed by responsible persons.

And the truth is that in the course of hyping and releasing the memo, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and President Trump were not nearly cynical enough.

Releasing the memo only a few weeks into the right-wing whisper campaign involving its unspeakable contents was an especially crude and wholly unforced error. Trump should have waited longer. Unreleased, clouded in mystery and discussed in tones alternately hushed and clamorous with lunatic speculation, it could have been bigger than Watergate. It could have been bigger than the Gunpowder Plot. It could have been, as far as ordinary Americans are concerned, as dark and sinister and dangerous as the GOP needs it to be. Actually letting everyone read it — and see what a lot of nothing it amounts to — gives the entire game away.

What Republicans ought to have done is to invent a series of official-sounding procedural reasons for delaying the memo's release. Get Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who have never missed an opportunity to genuflect before the altar of secrecy, to put out statements saying that "at this time release of the contents of the memo would pose a grave threat to national security." Keep whispering in the ears of Sean Hannity and Breitbart editors. Maybe even convince a few mainstream conservative #NeverTrumpers that Nunes really did uncover activity to which "worrisome" and other unfavorable but essentially noncommittal adjectives could be applied. Make it something that serious, thoughtful people could afford to have opinions about. Don't let speculation boil over, but keep it simmering steadily until, say, two weeks before the midterm election. Then release the memo in a heavily redacted version — missing at least an entire page — with even some of the obviously innocuous names blacked over.

Even better, Republicans could have sat on it for two and a half more years, allowing even the president's most dedicated supporters to forget its existence entirely. Then in October 2020, running against a generic woke capitalist Democrat whose campaign is essentially a catalogue of grievances held over from the conduct of the previous election, Trump could have announced his intention of revealing the memo. Even now it is possible to imagine the atmosphere of seriousness he would have been able to conjure. The protests from Democrats about opportunism would have sounded vain and hypocritical; their opposition would have been collaboration with treason.

The whole thing would have been spectacularly dumb and exactly what this country deserves.

This is not what happened, for reasons that are in a sense rather touching. In his bumbling, incompetent way, Trump is an honest politician. Part of him really does believe that the memo, which he doesn't seem to have actually read, is an unanswerable indictment of our intelligence services, irrefutable evidence that Crooked Hillary was actively colluding with the FBI. He also "believes," among other things, that his tax cut is the greatest domestic policy achievement of any modern president, that roughly 5 million cheering fans showed up for his inauguration last year, and that the hosts of MSNBC's Morning Joe may be responsible for at least one murder. Fanatics are capable of lying usefully in service of their cause, but Trump is not a fanatic because he has no cause. This means that his lies and exaggerations tend to be both unconscious and politically useless.

Trump and his most devoted lieutenants are all political amateurs. Someone like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the former chairman of the House Oversight Committee, surely would have understood how to exploit the memo's potential. Think of how he managed through a series of hearings, interviews, and showboating press conferences, to keep Benghazi alive until the very minute The New York Times made the world aware of Hillary Clinton's bizarre email use. From before the 2012 election until the day she lost in 2016, her name was never above suspicion. Why should it be now?

"You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Rahm Emmanuel told The Wall Street Journal days after the 2008 market crash. This is even more true of unserious or nonexistent ones.

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