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Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Memo: Firestorm over Russia probe intensifies

The release of a Republican memo that alleges misconduct at the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) has thrown fresh gasoline on the firestorm over the Russia probe.
Democrats and others skeptical of President Trump fear a new push to oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or hinder special counsel Robert Mueller.
Mueller is investigating allegations of collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign, as well as the possibility of obstruction of justice. Rumors Trump will fire him have been joined in recent days by speculation that Trump might also fire Rosenstein or that FBI Director Christopher Wray could quit over the memo's release.
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Democratic strategist Robert Shrum condemned the memo as “obviously a piece of political propaganda that omits significant facts.”
But he added, of Trump, “I would not be surprised to see him fire the deputy attorney general, or try to fire Mueller.”
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Republicans who are supportive of the president insist that the memo has provided clear evidence of political bias against him — even though some of them express qualms about how hard Trump should assert himself in the aftermath.
“What remains to be seen is, does the president let public outrage take its course or try to use this as a blunt-force instrument against the ongoing investigation?” mused one source close to the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, Republicans skeptical of Trump have registered their disappointment at the remarkable spectacle that has played out in recent days.
The White House overruled warnings from the FBI and DOJ to allow congressional Republicans to release the memo.
In a Friday statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hit Trump and his allies for “looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows.” McCain added, “If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s job for him.”
The FBI and the DOJ had both urged the White House to block publication of the memo. The FBI charged that it made “material omissions of fact” while the DOJ suggested it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release it. 
Where do things go from here?
All eyes will — as so often — be on the president.
Asked about the memo during a meeting with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office on Friday, Trump replied, “It's terrible. You want to know the truth? I think it's a disgrace.”
When a reporter followed up by asking whether it made him more inclined to fire Rosenstein or whether he still had confidence in the deputy attorney general, Trump responded, “You figure that one out.”
White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah denied on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" Friday that there are plans to oust Rosenstein.
"There has been no change in the president's confidence in the deputy attorney general," Shah said. "We continue to expect him to fulfill his job as attorney general and don't expect any changes."
Rosenstein is of pivotal importance in the Mueller probe, since he could limit the scope of the special counsel’s inquiries and place other restrictions upon him.
Rosenstein has those powers because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any role pertaining to the Russia probe 11 months ago, after it emerged that he had undisclosed contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States during Trump’s campaign.
Speculation that Wray would resign in protest at the decision to release the memo has receded. In an internal message to bureau employees Friday, Wray urged his staff to “keep calm and tackle hard.” 
Wray — a Trump appointee, following the firing of James Comey from that position in May 2017 — also said, “Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure." 
But that was a rare calming statement amid a feverish atmosphere in Washington. The temperature of the rhetoric on both sides of the political divide, already hot, has been nearing a boiling point.
Rep. Paul Gosar (Ariz.), a conservative Republican, said in a statement Friday that the memo amounted to “convincing evidence of treason” on the part of the FBI.
Former Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), a liberal Democrat, tweeted that “congressional Republicans are quite clearly complicit in this White House’s efforts to undermine and obstruct justice.” He added, “Lock every single one of these bastards up. “
Both sides will have more material to get their teeth into soon, it appears.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), whose staff wrote the memo that was released Friday, suggested more revelations could be forthcoming.
In an interview with Bret Baier on Fox News early Friday evening, Nunes suggested that alleged malfeasance on the part of the State Department would be the focus of further investigation.
A Democratic countermemo could also be released in the coming days.
The top Democrat on Nunes’s committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), has blasted the original release. Schiff called the decision to release the Nunes memo “shameful” in a Friday statement in which he also pushed back against several specific accusations.
Schiff took issue, for example, with Republicans’ emphasis on a dossier produced by former British spy Christopher Steele, whose research was being paid for in part by the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
"The [Russia] investigation did not begin with, or arise from Christopher Steele or the dossier, and … the investigation would persist on the basis of wholly independent evidence had Christopher Steele never entered the picture,” Schiff asserted.
As the debate consumes Washington, there are sometimes unusual points of agreement.
The idea of Trump moving directly against Mueller or Rosenstein, for example, is something both his detractors and many of his allies seem to think is a bad idea.
Pro-Trump voices argue that the president can let others make his case.
“If I was advising him, I would say, ‘I think it’s best to let other people carry this water. This case is so strong and so clear that you don’t need to be involved,’ ” said Barry Bennett, who worked as a senior adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign. 
Other observers take a diametrically opposite view of the memo — but they too fear overreach by the president. 
“It is a definite possibility that he will try to move against Rosenstein,” said Harry Litman, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration.
“Will he need more? You would think. But this is another example of his stunning brazenness. He does actually have the right to fire Rosenstein. He could do it on this threadbare effort.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

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