As President Trump made his way off the floor of the House chamber after his triumphant (or at least competent, anyway) State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, he stopped to shake hands and exchange greetings with his ecstatic followers. Not realizing that there was a hot mic in the vicinity, he made the following comments:
In what became the night's only real news, Trump told Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., that he would definitely release "the Memo," the four-page document prepared by House Intelligence Committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., which purports to show that the FBI and the Justice Department did something nefarious regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in the Russia investigation. Very few people had seen that memo, including, if you believe, the White House and President Trump. If that were true, it would mean that he had "100 percent" decided to declassify sensitive intelligence without even knowing what it was.
Media reports indicate that the president did indeed know what was in the memo, despite the usual official lies. (There is even some suspicion that Nunes actually worked with the White House to write the memo.) What specifically interested the president was that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein allegedly signed off on a request for a FISA warrant for former Trump adviser Carter Page last spring. Nunes and his gang have cooked up a narrative which they believe proves that Rosenstein was conspiring against Trump, along with virtually everyone else in the Justice Department and the FBI. Or something like that.
The whole point of this, needless to say, is to throw mud on everyone associated with the Russia investigation in order to sow confusion among the public and give the president a rationale to curtail it, if not shut it down altogether. Judging from the Democratic response and the almost frantic objections from the FBI and the Department of Justice, the Nunes memo is based upon lies and omissions, to create a false impression. Worse, by releasing classified information, House Republicans appear to be exposing counterintelligence sources and methods for no other reason than to protect Donald Trump.
That's not to say that there is never a rationale for releasing classified information that sheds light on government activity, especially if that activity is unconstitutional or dangerous to the nation. Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers -- the story told in Steven Spielberg's current film "The Post" -- come to mind. Your mileage may vary on this question, but Edward Snowden's NSA revelations resulted in changes in the secret spy agencies and much greater public awareness of the government's expansion of its domestic surveillance powers in the wake of 9/11.
It's also possible the FBI and DOJ are inflating the risk of releasing the Nunes memo. They have been known to exaggerate the dangers to "sources and methods" if classified information is released to the public. The over-classification of government information is a real problem. But arguing against that theory in this case is the fact that FBI Director Chris Wray went way out on a limb to publicly decry the release, putting himself in the president's crosshairs, which seems foolish unless he believes the issue is truly important to the agency.
In any case, this is the first time Nunes has ever showed even the slightest interest in transparency. His commitment to reining in the FBI and DOJ coincidentally began when he took over the job of intelligence adviser for Trump's transition team, after which former congressman and FBI agent Mike Rogers was summarily dismissed for no apparent reason. But whether or not the classified contents of "the Memo" actually put anyone is risk is beside the point. The fact that Republican members of the Intelligence Committee hauled out an obscure congressional rule that's never been used before in order to get this done is yet another testament to how fully the GOP has embraced its new motto: "By any means necessary."
As The New York Times explained:
There is no known precedent for the Republicans’ action. Though House rules allow the Intelligence Committee to vote to disclose classified information if it is deemed to be in the public interest, the rule is not thought to have ever been used. Typically, lawmakers wishing to make public secretive information classified by the executive branch spend months, if not years, fighting with the White House and the intelligence community over what they can release.
To make matters worse, these same members also voted not to release a Democratic memo on the same topic, all in the name of transparency. Now it turns out, according to ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., that the memo the committee sent to the White House was materially changed after Republican members had voted to release it. It is hard to overstate just how aggressive a move to protect the White House this is. There is no legitimate rationale for throwing out decades of normal practice observed by members of both parties.
On Wednesday afternoon, CNN reported that Trump called Rod Rosenstein into the White House last month and asked him point blank where the Russia investigation was headed, demanding to know whether the deputy attorney general was on "my team." After the brouhaha over the president's call for loyalty from former FBI Director James Comey and his tantrums over the Russia-related recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump still doesn't seem to understand that federal officials take oaths of office to the Constitution, not to their president. Over and over again, Trump has reportedly demanded some form of reassurance from top officials in the FBI and the DOJ that they have his back in the Russia probe, despite an overwhelming amount of legal advice and political commentary instructing him that this is unethical and could form the basis of an obstruction of justice charge.
This Nunes memo is not a serious matter of national security. It's a political stunt. And because it's such an over-the-top gambit, you have to assume the memo's release means the president and his men truly believe they are in danger. Trump may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he's proven to be cunning, and has an instinctive ability to protect himself. There's no way he's so dim that he'd take all these risks and go to all this trouble if he didn't have something to hide.