In the days leading up to the release of the Nunes memo, both its architects and its critics were united in the belief that its four pages might topple pillars at the FBI and ignite satchels of C-4 at the Department of Justice. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee chairman who spearheaded the memo, believed that his document would prove that the investigation into Russian meddling and Donald Trump was a partisan set-up by the Democrats. Democrats, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), howled for the suppression of the memo because it sought to smear law enforcement and taint the Trump investigation.
Trump gave the memo a pursed-lipped but non-specific preview with comments at the White House. “It’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” Trump added. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that.” What exactly was the disgrace? And who exactly should be ashamed? He didn’t say. When the memo finally surfaced at noon on Friday and received its public reading, it was hard to recall the high consequences both Trump fans and foes had ascribed to it. What was everybody so afraid of?
Packing less kick and fizz than day-old near beer, the memo fails to buttress the Nunes crowd’s fears of a runaway investigation. Where it needs to be precise, the memo puddles out into vagueness. For instance, it engages in a sustained attack on the role Christopher Steele and his dossier played in securing a FISA warrant to surveil Trump associate Carter Page. The memo claims the Dossier “formed an essential part of the Carter Page FISA application” without indicating what “essential” means. Is it 5 percent or 50 percent? If it’s only 5 percent, then the fact the the FISA judge court wasn’t told the complete origin story of the dossier becomes a much smaller deal than Nunes implies. The memo claims former FBI Director James Comey called the dossier “salacious and unverified” in June 2017 testimony when what Comey really said was that he had briefed Trump (a couple of weeks before his inauguration) on “salacious and unverified material,” which is a very different thing. The memo also skips over the fact that the counterintelligence investigation of the Trump crowd predated the Steele Dossier. The FBI opened its probe of Trump adviser George Papadopoulos in July 2016 after an Australian diplomat provided a tip. And so on. The wags of the Web immediately started comparing the memo to Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s vault.
Nor did the memo end up injuring the cops chasing the scandal—aside from positing a “narrative” they can’t easily refute unless they cite classified information, which they likely won’t. Remember, much of what the FBI and Department of Justice feared was a memo that wasn’t properly vetted and declassified before release. On first reading, the document appears to have gotten a sufficient scrubbing and dusting to satisfy them. The cops have to be thinking they came out of this one OK. The point is being made for them that official investigations absorb information from all sorts of sources—high-minded whistleblowers as well as paid snitches. To have taken information from a reputable former British intelligence agent, one who helped bust a massive corruption scheme in international soccer, does not leave much of a stain, even if he did oppose Trump’s election. On Monday, Schiff will ask the House Intelligence Committee to declassify his counter-memo. It might puncture Nunes’ bag of gas, so the cops might as well sit tight.
As for last week’s conjecture that the president might shape the Nunes memo into a bludgeon and club deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III with it, that now seems overplayed. A wet dishrag makes a pretty ineffective weapon.
Washington ordinarily rejoices at the chance to partake of forbidden fruit, as shown by the rave receptions journalistic and political circles accorded to the Pentagon Papers, the Pike Committee report, the Diplomatic Cables, Snowden’s NSA Files, the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers. But where the Pentagon Papers were juicy and voluminous, the Nunes memo is dry and brief. Where the Panama Papers overwhelmed and invited digging, the Nunes memo provides hogwash that can be consumed faster than an espresso. Instead of giving us a peek at the worthy source documents—the Carter Page FISA application—the memo gives us a sketchy Cliffs Notes overview—with heavy Republican topspin! As Johnny Rotten said at the end of the last Sex Pistols show, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
The Trump scandal spotlight hit aide Hope Hicks this week as the New York Times went long on her legal exposure. One of the last survivors from Trump’s campaign who’s not related to him, Hicks figures highly in what the early Times headline called the “Trump Tower Cover Story.” Hicks, you recall, was on the Air Force One last July with the president when he and his advisers composed a press release to handle the news that Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner had welcomed a bevy of Russians bearing campaign dirt to Trump Tower the previous year.
According to former Trump spokesman Mark Corallo, Hicks said in a conference call with Corallo and Trump that the emails Donald Jr. wrote about wanting to see Russian-sourced dirt on Hillary Clinton “will never get out.”
“That left Mr. Corallo with concerns that Ms. Hicks could be contemplating obstructing justice,” the Times reports. Corallo resigned his position shortly after that. Mueller’s team has notified Trump’s lawyers that the Air Force One statement is one of a dozen topics it wants to question the president about, the Times states.
The opening Hicks appears to have given Mueller reminds us of what a rich obstruction of justice vein awaits the special prosecutor if and when he brings charges. If Trump attempts to retrofit the wet dishrag that is the memo into a weapon to dismiss Rosenstein and Mueller, can he do it without making it look like he committed obstruction of justice again? Leading Democrats have already gone on record saying that’s how they’ll treat such a double sacking. Will Trump take the dare? If he did, it would not be the first time he doubled-down on a bet.