Work and other life things has prevented me from posting for eight days, which is equivalent to eight months in these manic-news-cycling days of the Trump era. What did I not even comment on? Well, the government shutdown over the weekend, and arguments about DACA. Oh, and Stormy Weather.
But that was ages ago it seems. Let’s start with this week, and recap some of the craziness of the Republican party and Trump TV (Fox News)
* On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, made a startling accusation on Fox News about both the FBI and Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation: “So what this is all about is further evidence of corruption—more than bias, but corruption—at the highest levels of the FBI. And that ‘secret society’? We have an informant who’s talking about a group that was holding secret meetings off-site. There’s so much smoke here, there are so many suspicions.” Cue endless “Worse than Watergate” headlines in the conservative media.
* Then on Wednesday night, ABC News obtained the “secret society” text-message in question, from FBI lawyer Lisa Page and to her agent-boyfriend Peter Strzok the day after Trump’s victorious election: “Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society.” In other words, it was probably a joke.
* And on Thursday morning, Johnson told CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju that “It’s a real possibility” the text was written in jest.
Also, the Justice Department’s “conveniently” missing text messages between Strzok and Page from December 2016 and May 2017, that Johnson had been sounding the alarm about? Thursday morning we learned they’ve been found.
It’s worth lingering on how brain-bendingly stupid this whole episode obviously was from the get-go, and what that says about the barely twitching husk of governing conservatism.
Start with Ron Johnson. A member of the original 2010 Tea Party wave in Congress, Johnson made a name for himself during his first term fighting Obama-administration executive overreach—suing the Office of Personnel and Management for writing broad interpretations of the Affordable Care Act, lambasting Obama’s immigration executive orders, arguing that new Authorizations for the Use of Military Force should be passed for new conflicts, and otherwise leaning into his oversight job with vigor. Remember when an exasperated Hillary Clinton told a Senate committee “What difference, at this point, does it make?!” That was Ron Johnson she was talking to.
So what kind of executive-branch oversight is the senator conducting on Homeland Security in his position as chair? This kind: When, as part of its investigation into possible collusion and conspiracy between a nuclear-armed adversary and an incoming administration, Mueller’s investigators acquired the Trump transition team’s emails from the General Services Administration (GSA), Johnson fired off a sternly worded letter about activities that potentially “disregarded federal statutes.” Not by any Trump associates, mind you, but by the GSA.
Johnson’s letter, which came on the heels of a similar one from a Trump lawyer, contributed to another 48-hour storm on the right. “A coup in America?” ran the chyron over at Fox News. FrontPage Mag needed no such question mark. “Mueller’s Sinister Coup Attempt,” ran the headline in David Horowitz’s journal. “The special counsel threatens the rule of law by stealing Trump transition documents.” There was widespread speculation that Trump was preparing to fire Mueller.
It’s that sense of undisguised opportunism, and facially ridiculous connect-the-dots hyperbole, that has come to mark conservative pushback against the Russia investigation. The initially context-less phrase “secret society” was contained in a single text message sent to a single, long-fired member of Mueller’s team of three dozen. Yet that was evidence aplenty for hardened sleuths like the Boston Herald‘s Howie Carr: “The crooked cops even had a name for their Democrat cabal — the Secret Society. It’s all laid out in black and white, in the post-election texts the FBI neglected to delete as part of their ongoing obstruction of justice.”
There has been more “deep state” on the Fox networks this week than in an entire season of The X-Files. “The deep state strikes back,” warned Laura Ingraham. “It may be time to declare war outright against the deep state and clean out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department,” Lou Dobbs thundered. “Talk about Watergate,” Sean Hannity said the other night, even after the “secret society” text was unearthed, “This is Watergate on steroids and human growth hormones. The constitutional violations are severe and historically unprecedented in this country. You have deep state actors using and abusing the powerful tools of intelligence that we give them to protect this country.”
When every subplot in the Russia investigation—Fusion GPS! Uranium One! Those temporarily missing text messages!—is literally “worse than Watergate,” then the suspicion grows that maybe the next claim, no matter how steeped in real FBI misbehavior, will turn out to be vaporware, too.
Another example? The yet-to-be-seen memo authored by Republican staffers on the House Intelligence Committee under the direction of Chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.). The same Devin Nunes who last year made White House surveillance claims, staged a rush to the White House to purportedly share surveillance information with the administration, but actually took information from the administration and staged a report of it
The memo is said to be about Obama-era abuses of the executive branch’s surveillance authorities under federal law — specifically, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The contents of the memo are not yet known to the public, so the commentary is the familiar game of shaping reaction to it.
Republicans who have seen the memo call it “shocking” and have pressed for the information to be released publicly.
“I’m here to tell all of America tonight that I’m shocked to read exactly what has taken place,” House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Monday. “I thought it could never happen in a country that loves freedom and democracy like this country. It is time that we become transparent with all of this, and I’m calling on our leadership to make this available so all Americans can judge for themselves.”
The New York Times’ Charlie Savage reported that the heart of the memo’s grievances is a secret warrant federal authorities obtained to monitor the activities of Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in the lead-up to the 2016 election. According to Nunes’s memo, the FBI, in seeking the warrant, all but misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court by withholding that the supporting evidence for the warrant came from Republicans’ favorite whipping boy, Steele — the former British spy contracted by research firm Fusion GPS (which in turn was contracted by the Democratic Party) to investigate Trump’s dalliances with Russia. According to Savage’s reporting, those who sought the warrant didn’t disclose that Steele was getting paid by Democratic interests, but merely referred to him in court documents as a trusted FBI source who had already done good work for the bureau in an earlier case.
IF, and I emphasize IF, that is what the four-page memo is about, then Nunes is going to shit the bed again. First of all, Steele was not paid directly by Democratic interests (he was a subcontractor for Fusion GPS, who was hired by both Republican, and then Democratic interests) and there’s no evidence he knew who was paying for his services. And even if he did know, there’s no evidence that he made stuff up (in fact, why would an investigator make stuff up if he wants to be hired again?) And it is still true, that Steele was a trusted FBI source. So the Nunes memo falls victim to a common Trump apologist belief: that everyone investigating Trump must be either pro-Trump or politically neutral. Which, of course, is laughable.
Meanwhile, the Justice Department has expressed serious concerns about the memo’s potential release. In a letter sent to Nunes on Jan. 24, Stephen Boyd, the department’s top congressional liaison, wrote that “it would be extraordinarily reckless for the Committee to disclose such information publicly without giving the Department and the FBI the opportunity to review the memorandum and to advise the HPSCI [the House intelligence committee] of the risk of harm to national security and to ongoing investigations that could come from public release.”
That letter also said the department is “unaware of any wrongdoing” related to the FISA process—indicating the department disagrees with the scores of congressional Republicans who say Nunes’ memo provides proof of wrongdoing.
I wouldn’t put my money on Nunes to accurately assemble intelligence and present it in an unbiased manner. We already know he can’t. Hill Democrats and former FBI officials say it’s a ploy to damage public confidence in the FBI and undermine Mueller’s investigation, and they are undoubtedly right.
Perhaps the memo will one day be released, but I suspect it will deflate much like most of these “worse than Watergate” conspiracies.