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The big questions before the Nunes memo is released

After days of anticipation, President Donald Trump is expected to signal to the House Intelligence Committee on Frida...

Posted: Feb 2, 2018 2:27 PM
Updated: Feb 2, 2018 2:27 PM

After days of anticipation, President Donald Trump is expected to signal to the House Intelligence Committee on Friday that he wants a memo written by GOP staffers faulting the FBI over the Russia investigation released.

Republican lawmakers who have seen the memo, drawn from classified sources, say it shows that senior law enforcement officials abused surveillance laws in obtaining a warrant to eavesdrop on Trump campaign foreign policy aide Carter Page.

Trump supporters believe the episode will show that the bureau was biased all along against the President, think it reveals corruption at the top of the FBI and believe it will ultimately cast doubt on the credibility of the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump moves toward releasing memo he hopes will undermine Russia probe

Critics say this is nothing more than a coordinated attempt by Trump and allies on Capitol Hill to selectively misuse intelligence to malign Mueller's investigation and to give a pretext to remove senior officials overseeing the probe. The showdown, meanwhile, between Trump and FBI Director Christopher Wray over the memo has dragged the incessantly simmering tension between the White House and national security institutions back into the open.

Trump slammed the leadership of the FBI -- led by a man Trump himself appointed -- and the Justice Department in an early morning tweet Friday.

"The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans - something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!" he said.

Here are five questions that may be answered once the report is released.

Will Wray quit?

Senior White House officials fear that Wray could quit if the memo is released over his vehement, and unusually public, objections, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation tell CNN.

If that were to happen, Trump would have effectively forced out his second FBI director over political differences, after removing James Comey last year. The post is supposed to carry a 10-year term to shield its holder from the political fray.

Were Wray to go, it would presumably be on the grounds that he has lost the confidence of the President who appointed him, since his advice, and pleadings, would have been disregarded on an issue of national security. Another rationale for him to quit might be to highlight an attempt by Trump to politicize the FBI and the case he is making that the nation's premier law enforcement agency, charged with keeping Americans safe from terror, is corrupt.

Alternatively, having made a stand, Wray might reason that the memo, essentially a political document, is not the issue on which to resign, given the likely future confrontations between the bureau and the White House that could center on even more serious matters. Another reason for Wray to stay is that if he goes, the President could seek to insert a more pliable replacement.

Will the memo live up to the hype?

After days of blaring news coverage, leaks and hints from lawmakers who have seen the memo, there must be some concern that the public release of the document will fall flat and not have the explosive impact that Trump allies hope.

CNN reported on Thursday that Trump is hopeful that the memo will undermine the Mueller investigation by revealing that the intelligence community was unfairly targeting him and his campaign.

Other Republicans have less expansive yet significant concerns, arguing that the memo will show that top FBI officials erred.

"There's a problem with several people in some of the highest levels in the bureau and that needs to be investigated, and the American people need to understand why," Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told reporters.

But given the expectations around the document -- not least because of the warnings about its content by the FBI and Democrats, it will have to contain some stunning disclosures to justify the buildup. If the wow factor is not there, it could quickly fade as a political issue. Another danger for Trump and his supporters is that the days of ventilating could actually undercut his claims that the FBI is corrupt, if the memo fails to deliver.

In a potential warning sign for the President, House Speaker Paul Ryan on Thursday appeared to indicate the memo could fall well short of Trump's hopes.

"This memo is not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice. It does not impugn the Mueller investigation or the deputy attorney general," the Wisconsin Republican told reporters at a GOP retreat in West Virginia.

Does the memo damage Mueller or Rosenstein?

Democrats believe the memo has one purpose: to undermine Mueller.

"It was our assumption all along that their path here was to discredit the Mueller investigation," Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said on CNN on Thursday.

Another theory is that the release of the memo could also give the Republicans a pretext to attack and possibly remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Mueller probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself, much to Trump's fury.

Rosenstein renewed the warrant against Page, so he could find himself exposed to attacks by Trump allies, even though he appears to have been simply doing his job.

Should Trump remove Rosenstein, he may pick a replacement who might be more amenable to undermining the Mueller probe, assuming that person could be confirmed by the Senate.

Does the memo furor have political legs?

The investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice and his campaign aides colluded with Russia is a legal proceeding. But its ultimate fate will end up being a political question, especially if Mueller finds conduct that he believes merits a referral to Congress for possible impeachment proceedings.

So the larger story of the last few days is not just a tussle over the memo, it's about the wider issue of whether its release will change the political terrain. It's already clear that the President and his cheerleaders in conservative media are leveling searing attacks against the FBI, Justice Department professionals and the special counsel in order to shape political opinion among Republican grassroots voters -- that would weigh on GOP lawmakers should they be called upon to consider whether to open an impeachment process.

Generally, when Trump takes stands that target the establishment in Washington, he pleases his loyal base of voters, who voted precisely for the kind of disruption he is engineering in this episode.

Yet the spectacle of the President apparently politicizing the justice system, feuding openly with the FBI director and straining at the limits of his powers also gives Democrats yet more ammunition to build a case against Trump and stir engagement among their voters in the midterm elections.

Given the tempestuous times, however, it's just as likely that when voters trek to polling places in November, the memo furor will be just another incident in the age of Trump that is superseded by newer political storms.

What is the long-term damage?

While the political fallout from the memo feud may be short-lived, the long-term damage from the constant state of warfare to some of the nation's most critical institutions may not be. One fears that public trust in the FBI will be badly undermined by a President who has said its credibility is in "tatters."

The role of the House Intelligence Committee, under California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, apparently working hand in glove with the White House against the FBI and the Justice Department, raises serious questions, meanwhile, about the constitutional separation of powers and the role of the panel in conducting oversight of intelligence operations.

The standoff over the memo also raises fresh doubts over whether House Republicans are prepared to take any eventual recommendations by Mueller seriously and hold the President to account if necessary.

"What we are seeing is a coordinated attack by two branches of our government on the independence of the FBI. We have never seen this before," said CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali.

"This should be a matter of grave concern for every American. This is a test whether in this country we can have an independent investigation of the powerful when the powerful are not happy about it," Naftali said on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront."

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Ohio Coronavirus Cases

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