On Friday, the long-awaited, much-hyped memo from Republican congressman Devin Nunes was released to the public over the objections of Democrats and the FBI and with the approval of Donald Trump. This four-page document purports to show what it describes as "a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect American people from abuses related to the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] process." The basic idea is that the FBI relied on shaky information from a dossier funded by Democrats to get a warrant to spy on former Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page, and during that process concealed the document's partisan origins from a secret surveillance court.
Democrats have accused Republicans behind the memo of cherry-picking information and trying to discredit the entire Russia investigation by casting aspersions on a single warrant. And there are certainly a number of ways to attack the memo's credibility. It's not clear if the information the FBI had from the dossier was wrong (the memo doesn't make any claims about that). Bias on behalf of the dossier's author may not have mattered in a court setting. It's unclear how important that dossier info was relative to other factors, though the memo states that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said the FBI wouldn't have sought a warrant without information from the dossier. (The Daily Beast has sources that dispute that bit.) The memo itself admits basically concedes that larger Russia investigation began because of information spilled to an Australian official by another Trump associate, not Page. The monitoring of Page began after he had left the Trump campaign under a cloud of suspicion regarding his Russia connections, so any claims that that surveillance him was an attempt to target Trump seem off. After all, the FBI was aware of Page's (rather blundering) contact with Russian spies back in 2013 and monitored that contact in 2014. At the very least, it's impossible to judge the memo's claims (or the claims of the not-yet-released memo from the Democrats attacking the Nunes memo) without knowing more about the FISA warrant application—which is extremely classified information.
But the purpose of the memo was never to increase transparency around the Russia investigation, as many on the right—and in the White House—have asserted. (If transparency was the goal, why not release the Democrats' dueling memo as well, or even a redacted version of the warrant application itself?) Obviously the idea behind releasing the memo is to focus attention on the idea that the Russia investigation is tainted, a deep state production designed to bring down Trump. And as flimsy as the thing may look, it could serve Trump with all the justification he needs to make some very big moves.
Unsurprisingly, the memo is leading every political news site in the country, and the right-wing press is setting itself on fire. "Revealed: FBI, DOJ Lied to FISA Court, Withheld Key Info" declared a Breitbart homepage headline. (The article headline toned it down somewhat.) "THE MEMO DROPS: Bombshell doc says British spy’s dossier, paid for by Clinton campaign, key to Trump snooping warrant," is what the Fox News website went with. And on the Drudge Report, a link to a middle-of-the-road CBS story was adorned with an FBI logo and "DISGRACE" in massive letters.
Trump is a president uniquely keyed into and influenced by right-wing media, and he's been his usual hyperbolic self around the memo. In the hours before it dropped, he tweeted, "The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans" and quoted a conservative activist who accused the Obama administration of convincing "a Court misleadingly, by all accounts, to spy on the Trump Team." The release of memo, and the accompanying conservative response, suggests the anti-FBI rhetoric peddled by Republicans in recent days is going to get even more aggressive.
Current speculation is centered on whether Trump will fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who oversees the Russia investigation since Jeff Sessions recused himself), then appoint someone more sycophantic who might can Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Reporters asked Trump if he was thinking about firing Rosenstein on Friday, and he replied, "You figure that one out."
The playbook here is fairly obvious. Under normal circumstances, Trump's dismissal of Rosenstein—who he appointed in the first place—and Mueller, who was praised by Republicans and Democrats less than nine months ago, would be a sign that his administration was spinning out of control. But with all this confusion and doubt in the air, Trump could have enough cover to do whatever he wants. There would be protests, the Democrats would denounce him—but there are always protests, and the Democrats are always denouncing Trump. If a Democratic memo says one thing and a Republican memo says another, is America's media ecosystem capable of sussing out the facts at this point? Who even knows which parts of that notorious dossier were corroborated by the FBI and which parts weren't?
The doubt spread by a balkanized and partisan press was Trump's friend in 2016: Maybe Trump seems corrupt and racist, maybe he's hiding something in those tax returns he won't release, maybe he lies a lot, but isn't Hillary Clinton corrupt, too? Isn't she hiding emails, or something? That same kind of doubt is serving him as president. The memo and the accompanying stories don't need to prove that the FBI is actually out to get Trump. They just need to plant enough of a hint in enough people's minds that something is going on there—to convince them that who knows, maybe Trump is right to clean house.
That doubt is how Trump keeps winning.
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