On Tuesday evening, the American public reached a consensus, however small and transient, on the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Over 75% of the 40 million Americans who watched his inaugural State of the Union address approved of its overall message. The teleprompter-guided speech hit policy points, stroked the American mythos and showcased a rare peacemaker tone for the typically pugilistic Commander-in-Chief.
It didn’t take long, however, for this optimism to vanish. By dawn, Capitol Hill had once again plunged into bitter in-fighting over the impending release of a memo originating from House Republicans alleging severe abuses of power by America’s leading law enforcement agency.
These are strange days in Washington — gnawed away at by conspiratorial rot, deep partisanship and endless conflicting information.
Trump’s State of the Union address, his most dignified and stately performance since ascending to the presidency, was a fleeting reprieve from a distrustful new reality — a “new American normal” — which has been methodically ushered in by the president himself.
Donald Trump has always feasted on conspiracy theories. His political beginnings were spent floating the fringe accusation that Barack Obama was a Kenyan imposter named Barry Soetoro. Later, his sprawling Twitter account frequently questioned the death of Antonin Scalia, whether Obama was a secret Muslim and whether Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Now, holding America’s reins, people are told that saboteurs cling to shadows and homegrown dissidents are sabotaging “American greatness.” Without specifics, Americans are exposed to sinister plots and cabals and secret societies. They are supposed to believe that pillars of the justice and legal system, along with the national intelligence community, are infested with partisan hacks. It is no longer just eccentric tweeting, people are publicly told by the president that “Deep State actors,” are undermining American interests and weakening the nation through an entrenched and secretive bureaucracy located at the highest levels of government.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” the line goes, spoken from one suspicious, but unknowing night watchman to another.
With a few nationalistic tweaks, the Bard’s ominous words could’ve been the official White House slogan for Trump’s first year in office. Now, the impending release of this supposedly incriminating memo is the latest play by an administration desperate to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling and potential collusion in the 2016 election.
On Monday, Republicans controlling the House Intelligence Committee voted on party lines to release the document, written by formerly recused Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) and alleging anti-Trump bias at the highest levels of the FBI and Department of Justice.
The contents of the document claim that the agencies engaged in an illegal and surreptitious surveillance operation against former Trump campaign official Carter Page. Specifically, the memo alleges that officials at both agencies manipulated the process of obtaining a warrant through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Established in 1978, FISA established procedures for both the physical and electronic surveillance of “agents of foreign power” suspected of terrorism or espionage. Along with protocol, the legislation established independent courts dedicated to overseeing requests for surveillance warrants by the intelligence communities and federal law enforcement.
According to the Nunes memo, senior officials at the FBI and DOJ submitted false information to a FISA court to improperly obtain a warrant against Page. The false information was, of course, supposedly gleaned from the infamous Trump dossier penned by former British spy Christopher Steele.
Even for the average American citizen, the mental gymnastics needed to legitimize these claims are exhausting. Forget that Devin Nunes and his Republican compatriots have not even seen the original FISA warrant application, or that FISA courts are so notorious for approving warrant requests that critics have routinely accused the entire system of being biased and “rubberstamping” applications. For perspective, since 1979, over 35,000 warrant requests have been submitted to the court, and only 12 have been denied.
Further, there is ample evidence to suggest that the intelligence community was already fully aware of Carter Page’s dealings with Russian contacts. According to an FBI interview in 2013, the former energy executive admitted to providing documents and information to a Russian national and suspected spy named Victor Podobnyy.
Then, in November 2017, after months of denial, Page admitted in a Congressional hearing that he had contact with high-level Russian officials while in Moscow — during the same time that he was serving as a foreign policy advisor for then-candidate Donald Trump. To think that the highest echelon of the FBI and DOJ would not just engage in fraud, but need to deceive a federal judge to obtain a surveillance warrant against Carter Page is nothing short of gob-smacking.
The unsightly truth is that the veracity of the memo isn’t important at all. What matters to President Trump is the destabilization that the document is already causing. Andrew McCabe, former Deputy Director of the FBI and longtime voodoo target of the conspiratorial right, stepped down from his post this week. On Tuesday, in anticipation of the memo, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) called for a “cleanse” of the FBI. Then, in a rare defensive move, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a preemptive statement regarding the document.
“With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum,” the statement read, “the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it. As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Ever the showman, President Trump is teasing the release of the memo, controlling the news ecosystem, promising he’ll “100 percent” release the document — an assertion publicly contradicted by his own press secretary within hours.
The Department of Justice has called releasing the memo “extraordinarily reckless.” Democrats have objected to the document as a “misleading set of talking points,” although their attempt to simultaneously release a second document rebutting the claims of the Nunes memo was voted down, once again, on party lines.
Following the modus operandi of Trump administration communications, the public release of the Nunes memo has nothing to do with truth. It’s not a good faith effort to relay accurate information to the American public; it’s about sowing distrust in the Mueller probe — a contentious investigation that has already seen charges brought against four members of the Trump campaign and is reportedly tightening around the president’s inner circle.
It seems plain that if President Trump can’t stop the investigation, he’s perfectly content attempting to publicly burn to the ground the agencies he deems to be controlling the probe. This decision will have a damaging long-term effect on the psyche of the American public and the trust they place in their national institutions.
“All Americans deserve accountability and respect,” Trump said during Tuesday’s State of the Union address. “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.”
Without question, the statement is a subtle barb in a polished and presidential speech focusing primarily, and ironically, on national unity. All at once, it is a wink for his “Deep State conspiracy” truthers, a smile towards his Republican base of “small government” advocates and a menacing sneer at the independent agencies not yet under the heel of his shoe.
This memo has very little to do with accountability and respect. It is another attempt at strangulating the independent and non-partisan agencies who serve the American public, and not the president alone.