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#ReleaseTheMemo and the GOP War on Empirical Reality

Most of the furor surrounding the joint House Republican/White House scheme to release a classified, Republican-authored memo, which spuriously accuses Justice Department officials of abusing surveillance powers to spy on the Trump campaign, stems from two distinct but overlapping concerns.

Based on voluminous reporting, and the accounts of the president’s closest friends, liberals—and even some Donald Trump supporters who still take rule of law seriously—worry that Trump intends to use the memo to further call the legitimacy of the Russia probe into question, and as pretext to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump could then arguably replace Rosenstein with a lackey who will kneecap Mueller’s investigation in furtherance of the coverup.

FBI and DOJ leaders, along with other national security establishment types, worry additionally about “equities”—will the memo reveal intelligence community “sources and methods”? Will its deceptive contents cause institutional harm to the DOJ and FBI? Will responding to it be possible without compromising intelligence assets or law enforcement operations?

But there is a third category of concern that should infuriate everyone from journalists to news consumers to citizens who care about whether their elected leaders deploy information in good faith or bad in the course of exercising political power. The George W. Bush presidency eventually ran aground because its efforts to persuade the public to support the Iraq were rooted in deception. In the Trump era, the cynicism runs even deeper, and the #ReleaseTheMemo effort embodies that cynicism in all respects. It is part of a larger effort to relegate what should be shared truth into the realm of partisan politics so that political accountability becomes impossible. 


There are many ways to suss out the fact that all the representations Trump and congressional Republicans have made about the memo are disingenuous to the bone.

  • The idea that Republicans are striking a blow for transparency is belied by the fact that they’ve spent a full year helping Trump conceal his tax returns.
  • The idea that Nunes and Paul Ryan are first and foremost concerned about political abuse of government spying capabilities is belied by the fact that they all just voted to reauthorize a related provision of surveillance law that the anti-Trump s saboteurs of the Deep State could just as easily abuse.
  • The idea that, as Ryan noted, the memo will help “cleanse” federal law enforcement is belied by the fact that Trump has completely overturned the senior leadership of both the DOJ and FBI, and the new leaders believe the Russia investigation is legitimate. 

But the most revelatory is to examine the strategic path by which the memo exercise is supposed to work. The idea is that the empirical truth of how the Trump campaign came to be under investigation can essentially be rendered indiscernible through disinformation.

As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote recently, “Trump is not trying to persuade anyone of anything as much as he is trying to render reality irrelevant, and reduce the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the circus. He’s asserting a species of power—the power to evade constraints normally imposed by empirically verifiable facts, by expectations of consistency, and even by what reasoned inquiry deems merely credible.” The Nunes stunt is part of this same effort.

The best reporting on the memo suggests it is an attempt to scandalize DOJ officials over how they obtained a FISA warrant to wiretap a Trump campaign associate named Carter Page, whose ties to Russia had alarmed the FBI for years. A surveillance court judge would not have granted that warrant without ample evidence, but Nunes and Republicans want people to believe that the sole or main persuasive element of the government’s application for a warrant was the famed Steele dossier. Since Steele’s work was partially financed by Democrats, Republicans would have the public believe that any law enforcement steps taken based on the contents of his dossier are presumptively illegitimate. The dossier can’t have merit because it is tainted by partisanship, and the whole Russia investigation is therefore tainted, too.

But the Steele dossier is itself just a collection of memoranda. And that’s the tipoff that all of the GOP’s hysteria around the Nunes memo is elaborate and witting propaganda. The whole premise of the memo is that partisan memos can’t be trusted. Nunes is not attempting to demonstrate that the Steele dossier is wrong, or that House Republicans have a better handle on the Russia investigation than the rest of us. He is only asserting that Republicans have one truth and Democrats have another, and the question of which truth is correct is inherently unknowable, because both truths are partisan.

This is wildly manipulative and depraved behavior. It also exploits one of the worst mental habits of the keepers of elite discourse. Yes, Democrats indirectly financed the Steele dossier, and yes, Republicans wrote the Nunes memo. But these are not equal and opposite compilations.

It is reasonable for people to treat the contents of the Steele dossier somewhat skeptically. Christopher Steele himself, Britain’s former top Russia spy, reportedly ballparks its contents at 70 to 90 percent accurate. The firm he worked with, Fusion GPS, is a non-partisan research shop that stakes its success on providing its clients the most accurate possible information about their subjects. But because the imperative is also to please clients, the fact that the clients were Democrats in this case could have allowed some bias to seep into the work. Nevertheless, the impulses animating Steele as he set about collecting information were ultimately sound and empirical.

As Fourth Amendment scholar Orin Kerr argued this week, a judge would be well within her rights to credit the preliminary findings of someone with Steele’s pedigree. “In the world of actual law, there needs to be a good reason for the judge to think, once informed of the claim of bias, that the informant was just totally making it up,” he wrote.

What matters is whether, based on the totality of the circumstances, the information came from a credible source. That’s a problem for #ReleaseTheMemo, I think. To my knowledge, Steele was not some random person motivated by an ongoing personal feud against Trump or Carter Page. To my knowledge, he was not a drug dealer facing criminal charges who was promised freedom if he could come up with something for the government’s FISA application. Instead, Steele was a former MI6 intelligence officer and Russia expert. He was hired to do opposition research because of his professional reputation, expertise and contacts. And his work was apparently taken pretty seriously by United States intelligence agencies. Of course, that doesn’t mean that what’s in the dossier is true. Maybe the key allegations are totally wrong. But if you’re trying to argue that Steele’s funding sources ruin the credibility of his research, his professional training and background make that an uphill battle.

Nunes, by contrast, is one of the slipperiest and most distrusted members in all of Congress. He is not paid indirectly by a political party; he is one of his party’s most political animals: a surrogate of the Trump campaign, which is under federal criminal investigation; a member of the Trump transition team, which is also under criminal investigation. 

Irrespective of Nunes’ goals, the notion that the political elite should place his work product on an epistemological par with Steele’s is laughable. The fact that the entire Republican Party has lined up behind the Nunes stunt can’t go unnoticed by people who embed themselves in the scrum of American politics expecting the battling factions to be equally reliable narrators of the truth.

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