Analysis: The president’s decision follows a pattern of seeking to undermine institutions, and his views are no longer on the fringe
Donald Trump is seeking to discredit and delegitimise those investigating him. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA The release of the “Nunes memo” confirms Donald Trump’s willingness to burn down America’s institutions to save his own skin. But unlike in the era of Richard Nixon , the Republican resistance to such tactics is all but dead.
On Friday, the US president approved the release of a classified memo commissioned by the Republican chairman of the House intelligence panel, Devin Nunes, that alleges bias against Trump within the FBI and justice department.
It is surely no coincidence that the extraordinary move – denounced as reckless by the justice department – coincides with the special counsel Robert Mueller reaching at least the end of the beginning of his investigation into alleged collusion between Trump and Russia during the 2016 election.
What is the Nunes memo?
The memo was written by aides to Devin Nunes , chairman of the House intelligence committee and a member of the Trump transition team.
The committee is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election but the inquiry has devolved into a fight about the separate FBI investigation, now led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
On Friday, Nunes published the memo after Donald Trump declassified it.
The memo revolves around a wiretap on Carter Page, an adviser to the Trump campaign, alleging the FBI omitted key information when it applied for the wiretap. The findings “raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DoJ and FBI interactions” with the court that approves surveillance requests, the memo says. It also claims “a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses”.
The memo criticizes investigators who applied for the wiretap, saying they used material provided by an ex-British agent, Christopher Steele, without sufficiently disclosing their source. The memo says Steele was “desperate that Trump not get elected”.
The memo also says texts between an FBI agent and FBI attorney “demonstrated a clear bias against Trump” and says there is “no evidence of any co-operation or conspiracy between Page” and another Trump aide under investigation, George Papadopoulos .
The memo casts deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein in a negative light. Rosenstein could fire Mueller. The president, said to dislike Rosenstein, could fire and replace him.
The FBI argued against the memo’s release. Democrats wrote a rebuttal and sided with the bureau. The president reportedly told associates he believes the memo will help discredit the special counsel.
Mueller is reportedly seeking an interview with the president, who has branded the exercise a “hoax” and “witch-hunt” and is deploying his usual playbook: deflect, distract and hit back harder. That this drags America ever closer to its worst constitutional crisis since Nixon’s “Saturday night massacre” appears a secondary consideration.
On 20 October 1973, Nixon ordered his attorney general to fire the special prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate the break-in at Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington.
Both the attorney general and deputy attorney general quit rather than enforce the order, but eventually Nixon found someone to do the deed. It ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment, thanks in part to Republicans willing to take a stand against a Republican president.
In 2018, it seems, history rhymes: Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, last year, then, according to media reports, ordered the firing of Mueller, only to be blocked by his White House legal counsel, who threatened to resign. “Right now, we are living through our very own, slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre, and it is up to us to stop it,” wrote the progressive organisation MoveOn.Org in a fundraising email this week.
Like Nixon, Trump is seeking to discredit and delegitimise those investigating him, painting the FBI, like the press, as enemies of the people. He does not necessarily need to oust Mueller or be totally cleared of wrongdoing. He must hope that throwing enough sand in the gears to claim reasonable doubt will be enough to rally Republicans and popular opinion.
This fits a destructive pattern designed to undermine institutions. Last August, on the day it was revealed that Mueller had convened a grand jury, Trump told his supporters at a rally in Huntington, West Virginia: “They’re trying to cheat you out of the leadership that you want with a fake story that is demeaning to all of us and most importantly demeaning to our country and demeaning to our constitution.”
And it is all amplified by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, where talk of “a coup” against Trump fills the airwaves. According to the Daily Beast, the president’s decision to declassify the memo came about after he consulted the Fox News host Sean Hannity. In recent days, Hannity’s colleague Tucker Carlson called the allegations contained in the memo “more troubling than the underlying crime in Watergate”. Another presenter, Jeanine Pirro, has called for investigators to be “taken out in cuffs”.
What you need to know about the Trump-Russia inquiry
How serious are the allegations?
The story of Donald Trump and Russia comes down to this: a sitting president or his campaign is suspected of having coordinated with a foreign country to manipulate a US election. The story could not be bigger, and the stakes for Trump – and the country – could not be higher.
What are the key questions?
Investigators are asking two basic questions: did Trump’s presidential campaign collude at any level with Russian operatives to sway the 2016 US presidential election? And did Trump or others break the law to throw investigators off the trail?
What does the country think?
While a majority of the American public now believes that Russia tried to disrupt the US election, opinions about Trump campaign involvement tend to split along partisan lines: 73% of Republicans, but only 13% of Democrats, believe Trump did “nothing wrong” in his dealings with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.
What are the implications for Trump?
The affair has the potential to eject Trump from office. Experienced legal observers believe that prosecutors are investigating whether Trump committed an obstruction of justice. Both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton – the only presidents to face impeachment proceedings in the last century – were accused of obstruction of justice. But Trump’s fate is probably up to the voters. Even if strong evidence of wrongdoing by him or his cohort emerged, a Republican congressional majority would probably block any action to remove him from office. (Such an action would be a historical rarity.)
What has happened so far?
Former foreign policy adviser George Papadopolous pleaded guilty to perjury over his contacts with Russians linked to the Kremlin, and the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and another aide face charges of money laundering.
When will the inquiry come to an end?
The investigations have an open timeline.
Such opinions, once on the fringe, have been mainstreamed by Trump’s Republican party. On Friday, Ari Fleischer, a former spokesman for George W Bush, drew comparisons with the FBI director J Edgar Hoover’s abuses of authority. “Donald Trump is in the clear and the nation needs to know that,” he told Fox News.
Landing that message is what the publication of this memo is all about.