President Trump faces a big test of his sincerity and intentions this week: Whether to approve the release of a new House Intelligence Committee memo, authored by the committee’s Democrats, that provides a counterweight to the recently released memo put together by Representative Devin Nunes, the committee chairman.
Nunes has played a partisan role throughout Trump’s tenure. Although Nunes said last year that he was relinquishing leadership of the committee’s Russia investigation — an announcement made necessary by his previous controversial treatment of classified information, which came in an attempt to help the White House — he and his staff nevertheless compiled a document critical of the FBI’s conduct in investigating Trump and his campaign team. That memo, much ballyhooed by conspiratorially inclined conservatives, has turned out to be less than a revelatory bolt from the blue, suggesting much but proving little. Although the president claims that it vindicates him, even key congressional Republicans have looked skeptically at that assertion.
The Nunes memo is widely seen as an effort to create public suspicions that the Russia investigation is politically motivated. Its central claim is that a salacious opposition research dossier funded in part by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee was essential to the FBI’s FISA court request to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page — and that the court wasn’t informed of that funding.
That dossier was indeed part of the FISA application, but experts say considerable other evidence would also have been necessary. Further, other reports say the FISA court was aware of political motivations behind the dossier.Despite the urging of his hand-picked FBI director that the Nunes memo not be released, Trump wasted little time in doing so. Indeed, on the same day the White House said no decision had been made on the memo, the president was caught on tape at his State of the Union address assuring a Republican congressman that he would release it.
The committee’s Democrats then began pushing to release their own document, which they say provides needed balance to the Nunes memo. On Monday evening, the committee voted unanimously to make the Democratic memo public, which means it now goes to the president, who also must sign off on its release.
The White House has been noncommittal on that subject — even as Trump has attacked Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democratic member. On Monday, he took to Twitter to call Schiff “one of the biggest liars and leakers in Washington.” That may work with tried-and-true Trump supporters, who cheer for their president the way diehard fans do for a favorite football team. But that won’t suffice for more discerning and independent-minded Americans.
It’s laughable for Republicans to pretend that the Nunes memo was ever about transparency, but that claim was repeatedly made. Actually, the entire exercise looks more like a propaganda effort to discredit special council Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation — and perhaps establish a predicate for a Richard Nixon-like Saturday Night Massacre.
That being the case, to retain any semblance of even-handedness, Trump must now approve release of the Democrat memo as well — and without redactions that undercut the information it conveys. If he fails to do so, he will have admitted through his action how hypocritical his own conduct has been.