That sound that everyone heard coming from Washington on Friday was the much-hyped Nunes memo dropping like a lead balloon.
After days of breathless coverage about the four-page document that was supposedly going to blow the whistle on the FBI and the Department of Justice’s alleged abuses of power in the Russia investigation, its release was met with a collective and bewildering shrug.
There truly is no “there” there. The memo offers no evidence of wrongdoing and no impugning of the Robert Mueller investigation, or even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who many believed would be directly targeted.
The key argument in the memo is that the FBI sought a FISA warrant in October 2016 against Trump adviser Carter Page based almost exclusively on the so-called Steele dossier. This is the famous and salacious document compiled by a former British intelligence officer on behalf of first, Republican opponents of Donald Trump and then later, the Democratic National Committee. Democrats who have seen the underlying intelligence that informs the Nunes memo have noted that the document offers a selective reading of the FISA application. It focuses only on the Steele dossier and ignores the likely possibility that the government provided other information in its request for surveillance of Page.
What’s most remarkable, however, is that the memo, which is clearly trying to cast the Russia investigation as having been driven by the allegedly partisan Steele dossier, is torpedoed by its own arguments.
Indeed, the document’s last bullet point notes that the FISA application references former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos, who last year pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is now cooperating with the special counsel investigation. Specifically it states, “the Papadopoulos information triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016.”
But if the FBI began looking at connections between Trump and Russia in July 2016 — and did so because of revelations related to Papadopoulos — this blows up the argument that the dossier was the impetus for the Russia investigation. By the time a warrant was requested on Page, the FBI had been looking at the possibility of collusion for three months — and the Nunes memo confirms that.
Not to be a stickler, but if you’re going to argue that there’s a wide-ranging conspiracy inside the Justice Department and FBI to take down the president, you ought to at least make a consistent argument. This one falls apart on the the slightest scrutiny.
To be sure, the whole idea that Trump is the victim of an out-of-control FBI is certifiably insane. It’s as if everyone has forgotten that it was the Comey memo regarding Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation, dropped less than two weeks before the election, that basically cost her the presidency. Moreover, at the same time, the FBI leaked to the New York Times that the Trump campaign was not under investigation — something that we know was untrue.
The idea that the FBI is out to get Trump, and that back in 2016 it actively engaged in a conspiracy to help Clinton get elected, is beyond laughable.
It would be easy to chuckle at this whole three-ring-circus if it wasn’t so deadly serious and dangerous. The president of the United States is actively seeking to subvert a criminal investigation of his campaign and his actions as president. Republicans in Congress are openly helping him and are manufacturing “evidence” in order to discredit not just the special counsel but the FBI and the Department of Justice. I’m not sure this can be defined as a constitutional crisis. It’s something worse: they’re trying to immunize a president who may have conspired with a foreign government to win an election, and who repeatedly tried to obstruct justice as president, from any legal accountability — and they’re burning down key law enforcement institutions to do it.
This is a crisis of democracy and looming authoritarianism, and as underwhelming as today’s revelations might have been, it’s also disturbing evidence that Trump and his enablers will do anything to protect him from justice. If we can take any solace in this troubling turn of events, it’s that their efforts are undermined by their astounding incompetence.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.