Rosemary Westwood: 'Nunes memo' sucks intelligence community into partisan fight
Observers see the memo as a move to discredit the intelligence community writ large as biased against the president.
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Americans likely didn’t need another reminder of the extreme partisanship sweeping across their nation, but they got one anyway on Tuesday when President Donald Trump offered his first State of the Union address.
Trump supporters praised the speech’s heart and tone — lacking entirely as it did the off-the-cuff vitriol of his Twitter feed and unscripted speeches — and Trump’s calls for unity. His distractors decried it as disingenuous, nativist and laced with dog-whistles for his base around race and immigration.
Then came Wednesday morning, and the speech — Trump’s chance to re-set the tone of his presidency and chart a more stable course — was subsumed by the most damaging and divisive controversy of Trump’s young presidency: the Russia investigation.
Gone was any discussion of unity amid the rising drama of a single memo that has brought Trump and his Department of Justice and F.B.I. officials into their starkest conflict yet.
The twists of this particular controversy, and to the political right, conspiracy, are too many to detail here, but in essence: A House Intelligence Committee memo purported by Republicans to prove the intelligence community abused its surveillance powers while investigating Trump’s campaign for ties to Russia is likely to be released soon, under the approval of Trump himself.
It’s being called the “Nunes memo,” after committee chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican congressman, who’s pushing the memo’s release.
The ranking Democrat in the committee, congressman Adam Schiff, has argued the memo “smears the FBI and Justice Department” and that its release would be a “violent” break of efforts to keep the intelligence committees at least somewhat above Washington’s cleaving partisanship.
In a highly unusual move, the FBI itself released a statement Wednesday warning of “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” Nunes countered that intelligence officials are essentially trying to cover-up their actions and stall the release with “spurious” objections.
But most observers see the memo as a clear move to discredit the intelligence community writ large as biased against the president, thereby undermining the Russia investigation.
Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading that investigation, has been nearing Trump’s inner circle, according to reports. As he’s done so, conservative media and Republican lawmakers have increasingly sounded the alarm of bias so deep, one lawmaker argued some intelligence officials should be sent to jail.
Fox News host Steve Doocy said the FBI and Justice Department are “hitting the panic button because they don’t want it out,” a view in sync with other right-wing news outlets: “Full of Schiff” said the Daily Wire, “Nancy Pelosi loses her crap over Devin Nunes” headlined Redstate, and “Dems in Panic!” declared Breitbart.
It’s messaging that Republicans across the country are picking up. While a plurality — 54 per cent — still had some confidence in the FBI in early January, another 41 per cent said they had little to none, according to one poll. Muller himself was viewed favourably by only 15 per cent of Republicans, 83 per cent of whom maintained confidence in the president himself.
Another poll found 74 per cent of Republicans also believed Trump will be cleared of any wrongdoing by the probe.
The controversy — as so much now does — has distilled on the political right into an either for-or-against-the-president feud, and with loyalties that clear, the intelligence community was never going to be allowed to stay out of the fight.