The nearly Nixonian Nunes memo

There have never been events just like those already uncovered by the Trump-Russia probe. Russians promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump’s eldest son, son-in-law, and campaign manager in Trump Tower. In 2013, Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page wrote he was an “informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin” and the FBI warned him the Russians were trying to recruit him to be a spy. Another Trump advisor, George Papadopoulos, who’s since pled guilty to lying about Russia ties under oath, told an Australian diplomat Russia had thousands of Clinton’s emails it would later release to help Trump.

At the same time, the fake transparency by the Trump team is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s attempted coverup of the Watergate scandal. In both cases, information so incomplete it was misleading was revealed to thwart investigations rocking a presidency.

For Nixon, false openness came after special prosecutor Archibald Cox and congressional investigators tried to get tapes of White House conversations and Nixon dramatically resisted their requests.

Most dramatic was the Saturday Night Massacre. Nixon ordered the firing of top Justice Department officials who would not fire Cox, creating massive political blowback. Criminal, congressional and journalistic investigations continued.

Switching from open resistance to partial cooperation, Nixon pledged to release transcripts of the tapes. But his promise of transparency produced fragmentary and faulty information.

A tape transcribed by Nixon’s longtime secretary Rose Mary Woods had an 18 1/2 minute gap. Woods claimed she caused this accidentally when she answered the phone while transcribing.

After the House Judiciary Committee sought tapes, Nixon spoke with bound volumes arrayed next to him, saying, “To anyone who reads his way through this mass of materials I have provided, it will be totally, abundantly clear that as far as the President’s role with regard to Watergate is concerned, the entire story is there.”

But when investigators looked through the volumes, portions of conversations were missing and blank pages were sprinkled here and there. After the committee got tapes, made its own transcripts and compared them to what Nixon provided, Rep. William S. Cohen of Maine noted that “some key words were omitted in some instances that are potentially important.”

Pretend transparency also happened when the Nunes memo was released last week after being cleared by Trump. This was a step by an administration that hasn’t released Trump’s tax returns or even White House visitor logs.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-California, released a controversial memo to discredit the Trump-Russia investigation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

With the Nunes memo, the gaps weren’t moments of missing audio or empty pages. Instead, there were missing facts and context. The FBI warned about this partiality before the memo’s release, noting its “grave concerns there were “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

The memo misrepresented the information for FISA warrants to surveil Page by leaving out sources besides a 2016 dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. In fact, Page had been on the FBI’s radar for years before work for the dossier began and new information had to be provided each time the warrant was renewed.

The memo left out legal context by suggesting it was inappropriate for the warrant application to include information in the dossier. As legal expert Orin Kerr explains, “In the world of actual law, there needs to be a good reason for the judge to think, once informed of the claim of bias, that the informant was just totally making it up.” The court was told the dossier was funded by a partisan source and Steele had a truthful track record.

Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, promoted this partial, misleading memo and leaked it to friendly media while Republicans on his committee voted against simultaneously releasing Democrats’ memo.

Basic logic was missing in Trump’s response. Despite the memo saying nothing about major questions being probed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Congress, Trump claimed it “totally vindicates” him.

Meanwhile, Trump refused to implement sanctions, passed 517-5 by Congress to punish Russia for election interference and reportedly suggested prosecuting Mueller.

After the Saturday Night Massacre Cox’s aides declared, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”

Those words resonate today, as we again have a president who tries to block investigators from probing what was done by him and those who worked on his behalf.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.