02 February 2018

The memo

The dreaded "Nunes Memo" was made public today by the House Intelligence Committee, with the approval of the President and over the protests of many in the FBI and the Democratic party. Having skimmed the thing over, it struck me that there really was little for anyone to worry about. It protests against a single incident that on the evidence given definitely deserves scrutiny, but can hardly be said to discredit the entire investigation into Russian ties to the 2016 Trump campaign. The specific complaint is that a surveillance warrant was sought against a Trump campaign worker on the basis of the so-called Steele dossier -- that's the one that inspired ribald speculation about the President's kinks last year -- without the application acknowledging that Christopher Steele had an avowed political bias against Donald Trump. As I understand it, critics of the Nunes Memo contend that it misrepresents the application, and that the Steele dossier was the sole basis for suspicion of the campaign worker. For all I know they may be correct, but even if that's a conscious omission by the committee chairman it would not justify the hysterical reaction against the Memo any more than the Memo itself justifies the hysterical claims from the Trump camp that it obliterates the entire rationale for the Mueller inquiries. In simplest terms, it claims that the Bureau fell short of due diligence on one front in a way that regrettably shouldn't surprise us. First, this is the FBI we're talking about. Second, the widespread perception that the Trump movement is evil certainly has inspired a "witch hunt" in terms of rushed and sloppy intensity if not in terms of ultimate baselessness. History has shown us what can happen when the FBI jumps too quickly to conclusions on perceived conspiracies, and none of that suddenly becomes OK just because today's alleged conspirators are hateful poltroons rather than social revolutionaries. Americans of all persuasions have a long-term interest in discouraging the FBI from overreach that outweighs anyone's short-term interest in proving Trump a villain. Many Americans clearly see reason for suspicion that Trump or his people colluded in some inappropriate way with foreign interests, but as Thomas More says in the play, you don't want to chop down all the trees in the forest to get at the devil, only to have none left to hide behind when he turns on you. Beyond that, I think too many in the opposition still see this line of inquiry as a shortcut to discrediting the Trump movement preferable to the hard work of persuading working-class voters that Trump isn't the answer to their legitimate grievances. If Democrats are hoping that Robert Mueller will win the midterms for them with little extra effort on their own part, they may be in for a rude surprise this November.

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