You could almost hear the smirks. The Republicans, after all, had every right to gloat.
The GOP strategy for handling dueling memos from the Republican and the Democratic members on the House intelligence committee was a carefully considered game of political chess. And at every turn, Democrats chased a rook like amateurs while the Republicans put their pieces into place and waited for their closing moves.
Even President Donald Trump, never one to stick to a script, seemed to understand how the plot that was unfolding. He and the White House did their part to help push the theory that the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections are little more than partisan-driven tomfoolery that stemmed from bogus allegations from Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In fact, many of them wrongly claimed that the entire probe into Russia’s role in Trump’s victory stemmed from an unconfirmed research report, often called the Steele Dossier.
“This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” the President tweeted about himself. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on.”
It didn’t matter that the Republican-written memo didn’t prove that. Nor did it matter that the Democrats’ response was sitting on the President’s desk, awaiting his decision to release it the same way he approved the public airing of the Republican edition. Forget the fact that most Americans have no idea who Devin Nunes is or why his memo matters or had bothered to read it.
The headlines said enough: Trump claimed he was vindicated, Republicans seemed to have some sort of vague dirt on the FBI, Democrats were left stammering and at the mercy of Trump’s mood and whether he would release their counter-argument. Anyone who went to find out more was directed to conservative sites that amplified the President’s claims. Because the Republicans released their memo first and the Democrats’ rebuttal was still unseen five days later, the GOP message dominated for days.
Set in motion by the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, things broke almost entirely in his direction, even though not everyone in his party thought it was the responsible course.
Nunes’ committee voted along party lines to release the Republican memo. Instantly, Republicans could say Democrats were fighting against transparency and oversight. And, of course, they did say such things. “The Democrats voted against declassifying the Republican memo, but not their memo,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at his weekly news conference with reporters.
It’s worth noting that the FBI made a rare public statement to urge Trump to quash the release on national security grounds. Doing so only played into conservatives’ suspicions that the FBI was putting its thumb on the scales of justice. Democrats quickly rose to defend the FBI and those investigating the Trump campaign. “The FBI and the Justice Department have become targets of dirty tricks,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday. “The unfair charges are gutter politics: trashing American institutions to protect a President from the due course of the law.”
The Republican memo itself? It doesn’t deliver on its promises. But the fierce partisans — and aren’t they all, these days? — exaggerated its contents. Trying to find answers only sent the curious into the warm arms of conservative sites in a self-perpetuating loop.
Even on the Sunday shows last week, most lawmakers were able to hold up the four-page document as though it were gospel. A handful of Republican officials stopped short of elevating the memo, but they were few and far between.
Back in Washington this week, lawmakers on the Intelligence panel voted unanimously to release the Democratic response, setting up another talking point for Republicans’ claim that they simply were conducting oversight of the FBI.
“When the Democrats brought their memo up, all the Republicans voted yes. They voted yes for both because we believe in transparency,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Tuesday on Fox News.
Republicans privately expect Trump to block the release of the Democrats’ memo, or at least to heavily redact parts of it. That allows Republicans to say they wanted to release the document, but the White House stopped it. Score one for the House Republicans in the name of transparency, especially when they didn’t expect the vote to matter.
At the same time, the dispute over the fate of the Democrats’ memo opens the door for a potential break between House Republicans and the White House — not such a bad thing these days. With a paltry 15% of voters approving of the job Congress is doing, it is among the minority of institutions faring worse than Trump. Even Republicans are down on the Republican-led Congress; 63% of them disapprove of the job lawmakers are doing.
Even if Trump decides to release the Democrats’ memo, it will be almost a week after the GOP document set the agenda. Much of the damage has been done. To channel Mark Twain: a falsehood can go around the globe before the truth gets out the front door.
That’s not to say all Republicans were on-board for this strategy. “There is a Russia investigation without a dossier,” Rep. Trey Gowdy told CBS News’ Face the Nation. Added Rep. Chris Stewart to Fox News Sunday: “This memo, frankly, has nothing at all to do with the Special Counsel.”
Indeed, House Speaker Paul Ryan joined the dissent. He told colleagues that the Nunes memo was in a completely different lane than the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and that they shouldn’t conflate the two. If the Nunes memo were completely accurate — and Democrats insist it is not — then it was sufficient to plant doubts about the FBI alone.
“This is about holding our government accountable, and this is about Congress doing it’s job in conducting oversight over the executive branch, which in this particular case, has been given great power over us as citizens. We need to make sure that that power is used correctly,” Ryan said.
Of course, this fealty to oversight could be useful for Ryan if his Republicans lose the majority after this November’s elections.The legal troubles around the President and his circle do little to help Republicans’ odds. Oversight might be some of the limited power the Republicans could have in a House under Democrats’ control.