The escalating war over the Russia investigation
In the wake of the news that President Trump tried to fire special counsel Robert Mueller last June, the president’s loyalists in Congress this week escalated their efforts to delegitimize Mueller’s investigation by voting to release a controversial memo alleging bias at the FBI and Justice Department. Written by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a fierce Trump loyalist, the four-page document reportedly alleges that the FBI used the Steele dossier, an “opposition research” document commissioned by Democrats, to obtain a FISA warrant to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page in 2016. Democrats on the committee and the Justice Department said Nunes was incorrect in asserting that the dossier was the primary justification for surveilling Page, whose contacts with Russians drew FBI interest as far back as 2013. Nonetheless, Republicans on the committee voted on Monday to publish the memo, giving Trump five days to approve or deny the decision.
New FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein urged the White House not to release the memo, saying it was inaccurate and would reveal classified information, but the president was overheard on camera telling a Republican lawmaker after his State of the Union address on Tuesday night that he was “100 percent” going to do it.
The memo reportedly accuses Rosenstein, a Republican who oversees Mueller’s investigation, of failing to divulge the dossier’s partisan origins in pressing for Page’s surveillance. Last week, The New York Times reported that Trump ordered White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller in June. When McGahn refused to follow the order and threatened to quit, Trump backed down. In December, CNN reported this week, Trump asked Rosenstein if he was “on my team”—a question Rosenstein deflected.
What the editorials said
This “much-ballyhooed” Nunes memo is a blatant attempt to discredit the FBI, and by extension Mueller’s investigation, said The Washington Post. Democrats have written their own point-by-point rebuttal of the GOP’s cherry-picked version of the events leading to the surveillance of Page—but Republicans have blocked its release. Nunes is “completely in the bag for the president,” said The Baltimore Sun. He even had to recuse himself from his committee’s Russia investigation last year after he was caught sneaking intelligence documents into the White House. Alas, Americans won’t know for sure whether or not his memo tells the whole story, because it’s all based on classified information that can’t be released. What a “diabolical maneuver.”
Americans deserve to see this memo, said The Wall Street Journal. We need to know if the FBI is abusing the process for obtaining surveillance warrants, and what role the tainted dossier played in the Russia investigation. This isn’t about “attacking the FBI” or diverting attention from Trump. It’s about “restoring confidence in a law enforcement agency that played an unprecedented role in a U.S. presidential election.”
What the columnists said
Congress already has sufficient evidence to impeach Trump for obstruction of justice, said David Leonhardt in The New York Times. The president asked for a pledge of “loyalty” from then–FBI Director James Comey last January, before urging him to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. When Comey refused, the president fired him—telling NBC News he did so because of “this Russia thing.” Since then, Trump has angrily accused Attorney General Jeff Sessions of “disloyalty” for recusing himself from the Russia investigation, “helped draft a false public statement” for his son Donald Jr. about his Trump Tower meeting with Russians promising “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, and tried to fire Mueller. Obstruction of justice is defined as actions motivated by “corrupt intent” to stop or hamper an investigation. Could Trump’s intentions be any clearer?
There’s a big flaw in that reasoning, said Rich Lowry in the New York Post. If Trump knew there was no crime to cover up, it was not obstruction for him to use his presidential authority to fire Comey or to order Mueller’s firing. What he actually told NBC News was that “this Russia thing… is a made-up story”—suggesting he thought the FBI director was wasting his time and the country’s. Trump actually had good reason to want to fire both Comey and Mueller, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. Quasi-independent investigations of presidential administrations have a history of going on for years, and of careening off into unrelated matters—leaving the president “under a cloud of suspicion” as he shoulders his awesome responsibilities. If Trump knew no collusion took place, he was right to conclude that the investigation was undermining his “capacity to govern.”
Republicans have resisted calls for legislation protecting Mueller, said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com—and they’ll probably back Trump no matter what he does. The country has changed since Watergate, when Republican leaders were willing to stand up to Richard Nixon’s attempt to put himself above the law. Today, the GOP is cowed and controlled by Fox News, talk radio, and the powerful conservative “propaganda apparatus,” which has convinced the Republican base that the Russia investigation is an illegitimate, “Deep State” coup. (See Controversy.) That’s why “the current moment is different from Watergate”—and why we could be headed to “a more alarming endgame.”
Rosenstein is now “in the president’s crosshairs,” said Scott Wong in TheHill.com. The deputy attorney general is “the only official who could fire Mueller.” The Nunes memo—which may have been drafted with White House input—clearly singles out Rosenstein for blame in seeking surveillance warrants. It could give the president the “ammunition” he needs to sack the Justice Department official, and to install a “political ally” who would order the special counsel to curtail and narrow his investigation, or fire him. Many Republicans have warned Trump this would be a “big mistake” and cause a political firestorm that would threaten his presidency. But will he listen?