Paul Ryan: It's time to "cleanse" the FBI

His quote is less, shall we say, “Soviet” than it sounds in context but he may have stumbled onto Trump’s endgame here, wittingly or not.

House Speaker Paul Ryan called Tuesday to “cleanse” the FBI as he openly backed the release of a controversial memo that purportedly details alleged surveillance abuses by the U.S. government.

“Let it all out, get it all out there. Cleanse the organization,” Ryan, R-Wis., said.

He added: “I think we should disclose all this stuff. It’s the best disinfectant. Accountability, transparency — for the sake of the reputation of our institutions.”

“Cleanse” in a political context smells like “purge” but Ryan’s not talking about firing anyone, I think. He means it’s time to clean away the suspicions surrounding the DOJ and FBI and get to the truth. If they misused the Steele dossier to launch the Russiagate investigation, let’s settle that. Congress has every right to perform oversight of law enforcement. If they didn’t misuse the dossier, let’s find that out too. Enough with the whisper campaign about abuses of power that may not have happened.

That’s how Ryan meant it. Is that how other House Republicans are approaching the Great Memo Debate, though? According to Rep. Sean Duffy, what’s in the Nunes memo “will be shocking to many Americans and warrant the removal of a number of high [level] FBI and DOJ individuals as well as at least one of those individuals being prosecuted.” Duffy clearly has something more like a purge in mind. This dubious tidbit from Howard Fineman at NBC sounds highly purge-y too:

“I think he’s been convinced that firing Mueller would not only create a firestorm, it would play right into Mueller’s hands,” said another friend, “because it would give Mueller the moral high ground.”

Instead, as is now becoming plain, the Trump strategy is to discredit the investigation and the FBI without officially removing the leadership. Trump is even talking to friends about the possibility of asking Attorney General Jeff Sessions to consider prosecuting Mueller and his team.

“Here’s how it would work: ‘We’re sorry, Mr. Mueller, you won’t be able to run the federal grand jury today because he has to go testify to another federal grand jury,'” said one Trump adviser.

Trump’s deputies allegedly threatened to quit when he proposed firing Mueller last summer, causing Trump to back down, but now he’s at the stage of proposing something as banana-republic as having the special counsel arrested? I doubt it. There’s no reason to think Sessions would go along either, even if it were true. Sessions has enough of a sense of propriety about his office to have recused himself from Russiagate knowing that Trump would completely wig out over it, which he did. If Sessions made a move on Mueller, the likeliest outcome is that confidence in his leadership within the DOJ would collapse and we’d see mass resignations, not mass firings. Although, from Trump’s standpoint, any vacancy at the Department that lets him install one of “my guys” is a good vacancy, however it came about, no?

There are no political truths held more sacred among populists right now than that (a) there is a major, major scandal at the heart of how the Russiagate investigation began and (b) the Nunes memo is going to blow it wide open with an unsparing, objective look at the ugly truth. If you can bear it, though, read this skeptical counterargument from libertarian Julian Sanchez about why the memo is probably overhyped and what its true political purpose likely is. If there’s a smoking gun of malfeasance in the original FISA application to surveil Carter Page, wonders Sanchez, why aren’t Nunes, Gowdy, et al. demanding that that application be produced in redacted form to support the conclusions in their memo? And even if the FBI did use the Steele dossier as *part* of its evidence early on, how is that materially different from what law enforcement does every day?

Let’s stipulate that the FBI did indeed make reference to Steele’s findings in seeking its wiretap on Page. Whether this constitutes any kind of scandal depends almost entirely on what other evidence was part of the supporting documentation. If the bureau simply presented Steele’s unverified reporting as fact, then however credible they might find him personally, that would certainly be a disturbingly thin basis on which to conduct electronic surveillance of an American citizen. But there would be no reason to regard it as inappropriate if the dossier had merely been one of several sources used to corroborate and complement each other. That a historically credible researcher had initially been initially hired with a political motive might justify taking his findings with an added grain of salt, but it would be no reason to disregard them entirely if they appeared to jibe with information gleaned via other channels.

If a tipster calls in to the local PD and says “James Smith is the man who murdered John Doe,” what should the cops do with that? What should they do with it if they discover the tipster is actually Smith’s ex-wife and she bears him a grudge because of their acrimonious divorce? They won’t put much weight in the tip given her motive to destroy him; they certainly aren’t going to claim that it suffices as probable cause to get a warrant to search Smith’s house. But if they treat it as a lead and start sniffing around Smith and discover evidence suggesting that he really was involved in the murder, they’re not going to shelve that evidence just because the original lead was thin and had a vindictive motive. The key question of the Great Memo Debate isn’t whether the Steele dossier factored into the original FISA application but, as Sanchez says, the extent to which it did. Was it a lead that the feds developed into probable cause with their own independent investigation or did some FISA judge rubber-stamp an application based mostly on innuendo in Steele’s document? What if the original lead to the FBI about Hillary’s homebrew email server came from a Republican operative who was digging around in 2015, looking for dirt on the likely Democratic nominee? What should they have done with that information once they sniffed around and discovered there was something to it?

Sanchez thinks he sees the endgame here:

A question worth asking at this point is: To what end? The most obvious answer is that it serves to call the integrity of those conducting the Russia investigation into question, thus casting doubt on any embarrassing findings they might eventually make public. But with the conclusion of that investigation months away, at the least, it seems doubtful how much a media furor now will cushion any such blows—especially if those ultimate findings aren’t themselves critically dependent on Steele’s. The more troubling possibility is that it would serve to provide political cover for Republican legislators to sit silent—or applaud—if Trump were to begin “cleaning house” at Justice or the FBI, or even target Mueller himself. To serve this purpose, the memo wouldn’t need to withstand sustained scrutiny; it would only need to create enough of a penumbra of doubt to justify congressional inaction for the duration of the purge. In the latter case, the threat of the bureau refuting the Nunes memo is rendered conveniently moot by the absence of anyone remaining with motivation to do so.

Trump can’t appoint “my guys” at the “Trump Justice Department” to run interference for him so long as people like Rod Rosenstein are filling chairs there, and he can’t fire Rosenstein for the nakedly political reason that he won’t run interference for him. But if Rosenstein’s guilty of misconduct, or at least accused of misconduct in a hotly anticipated memo? Sure, he could fire him then. It’d be irresponsible not to! As Sanchez puts it, “Trump pretty clearly didn’t understand how things work when he first took office—was basically willing to appoint whomever the Federalist Society assured him was a competent lawyer—then fumed he couldn’t use DOJ as a hit squad.” The president may want a do-over on his DOJ appointees, hoping to choose loyalists next time. But even if his wish came true, could he get them through the Senate? Democrats will go berserk if Trump starts canning people like Rosenstein and tries to replace them with cronies like Chris Christie, and McConnell has only a two-vote margin of error in confirming the new nominees. All it would take to thwart Trump’s plan is for Jeff Flake and Bob Corker, neither of whom has anything to lose politically, to vote no and Trump would be blocked. If things go south this fall, it could be a Democratic Senate charged with confirming his next try at nominees in 2019.

Besides, the James Smith/John Doe analogy I gave works both ways. It may be that the Nunes memo was conceived as a way to run interference for the president by discrediting the Russiagate investigation but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t real misconduct at high levels of the FBI and DOJ in 2016. Maybe Nunes’s guys found something incriminating. Or, more credibly, maybe the DOJ’s Inspector General did for his own forthcoming report. John has a post in the works about this bombshell WaPo story from this afternoon, claiming that the IG is looking at why Andrew McCabe didn’t act immediately to investigate the new batch of Hilary emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop towards the end of the 2016 campaign. Was he just being prudent, or was he attempting to run out the clock on the election for Clinton? If Nunes’s staffers had discovered that, whatever their motive for sniffing around McCabe, it’d be newsworthy and suspicious.

Here’s Ryan this morning defending the Nunes memo. Note how he’s trying to be politic, backing his House Intel chairman and Congress’s oversight role but also noting that the FBI is a crucially important institution in American life, i.e. not a political hot potato to be lightly tossed around. He’s not bombthrowing a la Duffy, despite the implications of his “cleanse” quote. He’s trying to strike a balance, even at one point insisting — falsely — that the Nunes memo has nothing to do with Bob Mueller’s investigation. Uh, of course it does. At a minimum, whether Trump uses the memo as grounds to fire Rosenstein or anyone else, the memo will be cited as proof that the Russiagate probe was ill-conceived from the start, derived from spurious information gathered by a Clinton-funded operative. It’s a “fruit of the poisonous tree” argument on a grand scale. It’s nice that Ryan’s trying to go to bat for Mueller while backing Nunes at the same time but it simply doesn’t work that way. Once the memo is released, Trump and every other Republican official will claim that it’s time to choose. Nunes or Mueller. You can’t have it both ways, as Ryan tries to do here.