During the last two weeks, one of the major political issues in Washington was that right wing political forces, with Russian reinforcements, launched a campaign to persuade a right wing legislator to release a memo that was claimed to contain explosive revelations that would demonstrate that the Mueller investigation, and indeed the entire Trump-Russia scandal, was the product of a craven and partisan deep state plot built upon the FBI and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The memo ultimately was released and turned out, as many expected, to be a patched together collection of shoddy research, accusations and dramatic overstatement.
In Trump’s America, this is the no longer out of the ordinary, but it reveals that the erosion of American political institutions and the American people’s confidence in those institutions is not a peripheral effect of the Trump presidency, but is indeed the goal of the Trump presidency. The Nunes memo was an effort to discredit the FBI, Robert Mueller and indeed the rule of law in America. This may be essential for the survival of the Trump administration, but the impact on American democracy, and the American state, will be profound.
The noise around this memo, and the politics of recent months have put progressives in the uncomfortable position of supporting the FBI, an organization that has been complicit in everything from supporting McCarthyism, to spying and harassing civil rights activists, and for years was run by J. Edgar Hoover, an authoritarian personality who sought to turn the organization into a kind of domestic secret police force. While those who know American history are right to consistently question the FBI, we also know that the culture of the FBI leans conservative and Republican. Everything we know about the FBI suggests that if they were going to take political sides, even in the 21st century, it would be against the Democrats, as James Comey did in October of 2016. The Bureau’s ongoing investigation of Trump and Russia should be understood in that context.
The memo does not tell us anything new, but that was not the point of the memo. The #releasethememo campaign and the predictable reaction from the right wing media, that this poorly researched, to use that term very loosely, memo, is convincing evidence of the partisan nature of the Trump-Russia investigation, make it clear that the Trump administration, and its enablers in the Republican Party will continue to do whatever is possible to discredit the Mueller investigation in advance of any findings, reports or indictments.
This gets to the heart of why the scandal in which the Trump administration has been enmeshed since it was still the Trump campaign is sui generis in American history. In previous scandals, most prominently Watergate, embattled President’s lied, sought to conceal the truth, engaged in ever-growing cover-ups and even tried to fire investigators. However, they did not work assiduously to destroy the integrity and credibility of American institutions and processes. That has been the approach of Donald Trump and the people around him for at least a year and a half now.
For this reason, the crisis has moved beyond simply the likely collaboration between a presidential candidate and a foreign power. The crisis is now one of weakened institutions and a political climate where the investigative processes that have been central to reigning in executive power for decades have, in the eyes of the third or so of the American people who still support Donald Trump, become simply partisan operations whose findings should be ignored. This political climate has been abetted by a congressional majority and right wing media echo chamber.
The biggest revelation in the memo is that the FISA warrant was granted to the FBI based, in part, on the Steele dossier is neither significant nor revelatory, but the fact that for about a fortnight the American political class was sidetracked by a pointless debate over whether or not the memo should be released demonstrates that, at least in this regard, Trump has succeeded. Trump, Nunes and other co-conspirators in Congress, the Department of Justice and the White House have helped create a political environment where the Mueller investigation has been largely defanged by what amounts to political partisanship. This is an awful precedent from which the country will not easily recover.
While progressives and other critics of the President continue to hope for the Mueller investigation to save our democracy, it is increasingly evident that is not going to happen. Regardless of what Mueller finds, Sean Hannity, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other White House surrogates will gleefully point to the Nunes memo as “proof” of the political nature of the investigation. While some in Congress will be outraged there will not be enough votes, even after the midterm election, for impeachment or other powerful consequences. Moreover, over time, support for American institutions will continue to be erode, due in large part to the efforts of the President, so the next scandal or dangerous violation by President Trump may likely escape scrutiny altogether.
Lincoln Mitchell is a scholar, consultant and writer based in New York and San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell