The immediate result of President Donald Trump’s decision to block the release of a Democratic memo on the Russia investigation is to expose him to charges of hypocrisy.
But the deeper question – one that has huge implications for the fate of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation – is whether Trump is using his power to thwart any attempt by Congress to hold him accountable.
Trump on Friday declined to release the Democratic rebuttal of a Republican memo he inaccurately claimed “totally vindicates” him in the Russia probe, warning that the new document compromised intelligence sources and methods. The move intensified extreme partisanship surrounding the Russia investigation that is sparking suggestions that Trump is coordinating with Republicans to discredit Mueller’s work.
Trump’s decision drew Democratic outrage since the President upheld objections of the FBI and Justice Department over publishing the Democratic memo, but last week ignored the bureau’s calls for him not to declassify the GOP memo that was politically advantageous to him.
The dueling memos relate to claims by Republicans that the FBI abused its powers in obtaining a warrant for the surveillance of Trump campaign foreign policy aide Carter Page in the secret FISA court process.
One interpretation of events is that Trump, in a flagrant move, used his authority to declassify selective intelligence that could undercut the Russia probe, then used it again to keep secret information that does the reverse.
Democrats warn this does not just amount to a double standard, but also reflects a pattern of attempts by the President to frustrate the investigation because he has something to hide.
“This is hypocrisy at its worst,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, calling the GOP memo, coordinated by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes “misleading.”
“If the president really believes the Nunes memo vindicates him, as he has said, what is he hiding by blocking the (Democratic) memo?” Feinstein said in a statement.
Trump: It’s Democrats who are playing politics
Trump, after overriding the FBI’s rare public remonstration that the GOP memo contained “material omissions of fact,” is now posing as a sober guardian of classified information. In retrospect, it looks as though the White House prepared the ground for his decision by saying all week that he was of a mind to release the memo – dampening expectations that his motivations were political. So far, the FBI has not publicly objected to the release of the Democratic memo, though Director Christopher Wray signed a letter to White House counsel Donald McGahn saying that portions of the document could harm national security if disclosed.
Trump tweeted Saturday that the Democrats deliberately sent a “very political and long response memo” which they knew would have to be heavily redacted, so they could blame the White House for lack of transparency.
“Told them to re-do and send back in proper form!” he wrote.
The President’s gambit is possible because the public has yet to see the details in the Democratic memo and so cannot judge his motives. But were it possible to elevate the argument out of the political storm, his argument could also have the merit of being partly true.
It does appear that the Democratic memo contains details that could be reasonably said to endanger national security.
In a House hearing this week, Texas Republican Rep. Will Hurd, a former CIA officer, suggested changes to the document, including omissions of a country location of a cited source and details of FBI capabilities, that could overcome objections to its release. His comments raise the issue of why the FBI and the committee could not take those steps during the five days the memo was with the President.
A devaluing effect on Dems’ memo?
Yet Trump is not going to get the benefit of the doubt because of his record of fogging the narrative about the Russia investigation. Moreover, critics say, he has repeatedly abused his powers to try to kill the probe, including by firing FBI Director James Comey and by heaping pressure on the FBI and Justice Department.
There are also suspicions the White House is working with Nunes to politicize the committee’s oversight of the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with a Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election or whether the President obstructed justice.
Trump’s delaying move could have the effect of devaluing the impact of the Democratic memo, even if a redacted version is eventually released.
By then, the whirlwind news cycle will have rolled on and the Republican version of the Page episode will have been touted by pro-Trump media for days, solidifying conservative opinion.
The controversy also illustrates the relative impotence of Democrats trying to hold Trump’s feet to the fire. Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, wants to show the Nunes memo is misleading, but also has to walk a fine line by not disclosing intelligence and more about the FISA process - a tightrope walk the White House can exploit.
The week’s events will fan fears that should Mueller produce findings that allege wrongdoing by the President or his campaign, his Republican allies on Capitol Hill will be reluctant to act.
Given that the GOP controls the House, where any impeachment proceedings would start, that raises questions about the integrity of the political system itself, and the assumption that a sitting President can be held to account under the separation of powers enshrined in the Constitution.