The Law and Order Party Has Turned on the Law and Order Agencies
Aboard Air Force One during his flight to Davos on Jan. 24, President Trump erupted in anger. According to four people with knowledge of the matter, Trump got mad after learning that a top Department of Justice official had warned against releasing a memo prepared by Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a Trump supporter. The president had hoped the memo would undercut the Russia probe by showing FBI bias against him.
In a letter to Nunes, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd said it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release the classified memo, written by Republican staffers, which supposedly outlined alleged missteps at the FBI and Justice Department related to the Russia investigation. To Trump, Boyd’s letter was another example of the department undermining him and blocking GOP efforts to expose the political motives behind special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. Trump’s fury set in motion a swift rebuke from White House officials, including chief of staff John Kelly, who lashed out at Justice Department officials, according to the people.
Ultimately, the memo may be remembered less as a source of information and more as a symbol of how the Russia investigation devolved into a political fight. While some Republicans have hailed it as an eye-opener that will cast doubt on the entire rationale for the probe, Democrats have called it “a partisan sham cooked up to undermine the FBI, DOJ, and the Mueller probe,” as Virginia Senator Mark Warner tweeted on Jan. 30.
The temperature is certainly rising as Mueller’s probe gets closer to Trump. The special counsel appears to be wrapping up at least one key part of his investigation—whether Trump obstructed justice by, among other things, firing former FBI Director James Comey, according to current and former U.S. officials. Trump’s lawyers are said to be negotiating terms under which Mueller might be able to interview the president.
In the end, the squabble over the memo’s release didn’t faze House Republicans. On Jan. 29, the House Intelligence Committee voted along party lines to release it. The White House has as many as five days to review the four-page document before deciding whether to make it available to the public. Also on Jan. 29, the GOP majority on the committee delayed the release of a competing memo drafted by committee Democrats, and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a frequent target of Trump criticism, resigned. It was all a fitting capstone to what had been a bizarre and often confusing few days of GOP efforts to discredit the FBI and Justice Department, filled with allegations of secret societies, missing text messages, and informants holding off-site meetings.
It’s hard to tell what, if any, of this is based in fact. But what’s become clear is that the Republican Party, or certain elements of it, has marshaled a propaganda war against the country’s top two law enforcement agencies in defense of Trump. The noise has built into a conservative narrative of wrongdoing, including questions about the FBI’s dealings with a former British spy and whether top officials relied on his Democratic Party-financed work to cut corners to spy on Trump associates. Commentators on Fox News regularly talk of a “deep state” plot against the president and argue that Mueller’s investigation should be shut down.
This all makes some in the intelligence community uncomfortable, particularly because the release of a classified memo is a dramatic departure from normal procedure. Intelligence agencies usually conduct a declassification review before a vote to release a document. That didn’t happen this time. To release the memo, Nunes had to rely on a little-known procedure known as Rule X that, according to the Congressional Research Service, has never been used before and was designed to allow disclosures of classified information when it would serve an “essential” public interest.
Top law enforcement officials spent weeks lobbying against giving the panel classified information that may have become part of the basis for the memo. In early January, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tried to persuade Speaker of the House Paul Ryan to stop Nunes from releasing the document. He ultimately sided with Nunes. Wray, who was allowed to read the memo the day before the vote to release it, told the White House it contained inaccurate information. In a Jan. 31 statement, the FBI said it had “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Three House lawmakers who’ve read the memo say it claims FBI officials didn’t provide all the relevant facts in requests made to a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to obtain a surveillance warrant targeting Carter Page, a Trump campaign associate and former investment banker in Moscow. The memo claims important details were left out that might have kept a judge from issuing a warrant on Page, according to the lawmakers, who asked for anonymity to describe the sensitive document. One lawmaker added that he didn’t know if the memo’s claims are accurate.
After the vote, Ryan defended the move, saying the memo raises “legitimate questions” about possible official “malfeasance” and whether an American’s civil liberties were violated. Those comments stand in contrast with the speaker’s strong defense in early January of a portion of the foreign surveillance law that was set to expire. Some conservatives had opposed the reauthorization, citing concerns about abuses they said may have led to improper surveillance of Trump.
Some Republicans worry attacks on the FBI could backfire. “We as Republicans have been the party of law enforcement at the state and local levels, as well as the federal level, and we were horrified by attacks from the far left on law enforcement a few years ago,” says Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think it’s in our party’s interest to be at war with the FBI, or the DOJ, for that matter.” Representative Tom Marino, a Republican from Pennsylvania and a former U.S. attorney and local prosecutor, says he has “significant reservations” about releasing the memo, in part because it would lack the context of a broader report that panel Republicans intend to issue on Russian election interference. Marino also says it’s dangerous for the GOP to be casting such broad allegations at the FBI. “If you’re going to be critical, you got to make sure you’re not painting with a broad stroke and blaming everybody.”
February 1, 2018 at 08:38PM