With the rhetorical temperature on both sides of the aisle reaching a boiling point over the MacGuffin known as the “memo,” it’s easy to forget how grave the alleged offenses that got us to this point truly are.
We know the Trump campaign was surveilled by law enforcement after the Obama-era Justice Department secured a warrant in a secretive court that handles matters related to foreign espionage. We know that this investigation captured intelligence from both foreign sources and campaign officials. We know that a summary of those intelligence products was improperly related to reporters, and the names of the campaign officials who were caught up in the monitoring of foreign intelligence officials were improperly “unmasked” in public reports.
Those are serious matters, and they should not concern Republicans alone. Given what we know about Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Mike Flynn, the administration and the country are better off with him out of the White House. Yet the way in which he was undone—a leak revealing he had been on an undisclosed call with Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak that included the contents of that classified intercept—set a terrifying precedent. Weeks later, another Washington Post story revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparently misled Congress concerning his contacts with Russian officials over the course of 2016. Communications intercepted by “U.S. spy agencies” revealed Kislyak had told his superiors in Moscow he had had two conversations with the future attorney general, contrary to what Sessions told U.S. officials.
These revelations claimed scalps; Flynn resigned and Sessions recused himself from campaign-related investigations. Some might think those scalps were worth the risk to the integrity of America’s intelligence agencies, but Democrats would be naïve to think that this new standard of conduct won’t target them or their allies in the near future. If the ends can justify the means, it won’t be long before the ends become superficial and political.
It is a tragedy that, for now, the only elected officials who seem at all concerned with these events are Republicans. It is an even greater heartbreak, however, that the Republicans who supposedly champion these concerns have sacrificed their integrity in pursuit of a political narrative favorable to the president.
It was the issue of unmasking that got the ball rolling down a conspiratorial mud hill. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was one of the GOP’s most vocal advocates for getting to the bottom of the “unmasking” issue in early 2017. But, in the process of litigating that issue, he went to the mattresses to defend Donald Trump’s claim that Trump personally had been surveilled by Obama-era law enforcement. Amid that misguided campaign, it was revealed that Nunes had misled the press about his role in allowing the White House to use him as a conduit for their preferred messaging. Nunes was compelled to recuse himself from his committee’s investigations into the Trump campaign’s links to Russia. That recusal was necessary but also a shame. Nunes had been right: there was a FISA warrant targeting campaign officials, and it was apparently misused. Nunes’ decision to allow himself to be misused by the White House robbed advocates of good governance of their champion.
Flash forward. Now Nunes seems to have un-recused himself from campaign-related investigations. He has styled himself a purveyor of hard truths. Due to the arcane rules of secrecy surrounding classified intelligence, however, he is not at liberty to reveal the sordid details surrounding the procurement of that warrant. Instead, he’s embarked on a whisper campaign alleging grotesque yet unspecific abuses of power in law enforcement. It’s bad, he insists; precisely how bad, he is leaving up to your imagination.
On Wednesday, the committee Nunes chairs executed a never-before-seen maneuver that allows for the unilateral declassification of the classified intelligence in the “memo.” The whole point of this exercise was theoretically to clear the air, but the process of revealing this dispatch to the public has had the precise opposite effect.
On Wednesday night, sources told the Washington Post that both FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had made a last-ditch plea to the White House—which is now at liberty to release that memo—to keep it under wraps. These two Trump appointees, neither of whom had anything to do with the alleged abuses, warned that the document does not accurately describe investigative practices and that its release could set a dangerous precedent. Bloomberg confirmed the report, but these warnings went unheeded. Lacking any other recourse, the FBI went public in a statement “attributed to the FBI.” The Bureau expressed “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Whatever impact Nunes and his committee hoped to have with the release of this memo has now been blunted by the FBI’s intervention. Even if the White House subjects this memo to an interagency review and redacts anything that could jeopardize sources and methods, there is now ample reason to view the document as partisan, deliberately fragmentary, and suspicious.
Anyone invested in the good workings of the American government has observed this slow-motion car wreck unfold in horror. The intelligence gathered as a result of this warrant was abused. According to the office of the inspector general, the FBI’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s case was improper. Unmasking is a serious issue. FISA abuse is a serious issue. Those who care about these issues should be furious with their self-styled champions who have cheapened their concerns for trite and fleeting partisan gain. But they’re not, because they’re not serious.