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GOP Onslaught Seeks To Shape Russia Story, While Keeping Clear Of More Firings

President Trump and his allies in Congress are taking the offense in order to shape the story of the Russia imbroglio.
Aaron P. Bernstein
Getty Images
President Trump and his allies in Congress are taking the offense in order to shape the story of the Russia imbroglio.

Updated at 1:52 p.m. ET

President Trump and his allies are harnessing their control over the levers of power to lean harder than ever into their narrative about the FBI, the Justice Department and the Russia imbroglio — while stopping short of actually replacing any more top leaders.

Republicans went on offense Monday by voting to authorize the release of a much-discussed memo that alleges the FBI and Justice Department abused their authority while investigating the Trump camp's connections to Russia.

And they hailed the resignation of Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, long a target of partisan ire. His retirement had been expected, but what looked like an abrupt departure played well with critics who have been taking aim at the FBI.

So far, the actions by the president and his supporters have been about turning up the volume on the storyline they say should be the focus in Washington, as opposed to actually shaking up the leadership of the FBI or Justice Department.

The question now is whether Trump will be satisfied with this progress or whether he might try to replace incumbents with friendlier leaders who'll lean on special counsel Robert Mueller, or get rid of him entirely.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., tried to thread that needle in a news conference on Tuesday.

Ryan said that Congress has a job to hold law enforcement to account but that in the case of the memo prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., "this is a completely separate matter from Mueller's investigation. His investigation should be allowed to take its course."

In other words, the attorney general, his deputy, the FBI director and the special counsel all are safe in their jobs — but should expect the sandblasting to continue.

"Collusion" vs. the "biased bureau"

Mueller has brought two indictments of former Trump campaign aides and has concluded plea agreements with two others. He is looking into whether the Trump camp conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 presidential campaign and whether Trump might have tried to frustrate an investigation into that.

Republicans offer their own theory of the case. In their telling, partisans within the FBI used the infamous, unverified Steele dossier — put together by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and partly underwritten by Democrats — to dupe a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge into authorizing a scurrilous investigation of Trump.

That is what has been described as the thesis of the Nunes memo. And Ryan — who has stuck by Nunes throughout his work defending Trump — endorsed the premise again on Tuesday.

"There are legitimate questions about whether an American's civil liberties were violated as part of the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] process," Ryan said. The Intelligence Committee has a job to look into such matters and Americans deserve to know about them, he said.

The Justice Department says it knows of no wrongdoing in asking for FISA warrants and called releasing the Nunes memo "extraordinarily reckless." But the White House has overruled the department because it wants the Nunes memo out.

The Intelligence Committee sent the document to the White House for review on Monday after voting to declassify it. The memo is expected to appear in the next few days, although it's unclear precisely when.

Trouble for Rosenstein?

The release could shift the dynamics of the Russia imbroglio again, in part because it has been described as singling out Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

According to early descriptions, the document says Rosenstein gave insufficient evidence when asking the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to reauthorize the monitoring of Trump's onetime foreign policy adviser, Carter Page.

The work of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is among the most secret process in the national security world. Neither it nor the agencies involved with counterintelligence work, including the FBI and National Security Agency, will discuss what evidence they might have presented to a judge and how they obtained it.

But the politics, at least, are transparent: Nunes, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and others can talk about the work of the FISA court knowing they almost certainly won't be contradicted in public.

Republicans' case for bias also is strengthened by thousands of text messages between an FBI attorney and a senior investigator whom Mueller has since removed from his Russia unit. The messages mock or criticize Trump and have embarrassed the FBI.

One reason for McCabe's early departure on Monday might be his connections to the agent who sent the messages, Peter Strzok. The Justice Department's inspector general has been looking into the FBI's handling of the 2016 inquiry into onetime Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email server and discovered Strzok's texts as part of that.

The IG report has been in the works for months, and Rosenstein has said it would be released early this year. If FBI Director Christopher Wray got an early copy and found that it included new details about McCabe and Strzok, Wray might have asked McCabe to move into a different job — effectively a demotion, The New York Timesreported.

That would allow Wray to announce that he had resolved any issues with McCabe by the time the IG report became public. Between McCabe's unwillingness to move and the nearness of his retirement date, he evidently elected to simply step down now.

On the back foot

Neither Rosenstein nor Wray defends the Strzok messages, but they've insisted to Congress that the majority of investigators leave their politics at home when they come to work.

And there is more evidence about possible collusion than that contained in the Steele dossier.

Former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the overtures he received from Russian agents offering dirt on Hillary Clinton or "off the record" meetings with campaign leaders.

Donald Trump Jr. hosted a delegation of Russians at Trump Tower after he received an email that described an offer of support for Trump's campaign from the Russian government.

Democrats say they tried to rebut the points in the Nunes memo with their own secret memo, which is on file behind closed doors in the Capitol. But Republicans used their majority on Monday to block its release along with the Nunes document, meaning the Republican memo can stand alone for some days or weeks as Republicans press their case about the abuse of power by the FBI and Justice.

Ryan and Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, who has been leading the Intelligence Committee's Russia work, both said they supported the Democrats' memo coming out eventually.

Until it does, depending on what it says, the klieg lights may fall next squarely on Rosenstein. Trump has reportedly been angry with the leadership of the Justice Department for months. And replacing Rosenstein, who supervises Mueller, is one way he could try to get more control over the special counsel's work.

So far the White House isn't going there; press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that wasn't in the cards. And Ryan said Tuesday that he thought Rosenstein was doing a "fine job" and that he saw no reason for him to be replaced.

The strategy the GOP appears to have chosen, in short, is to make the strongest political case it can about bias in the FBI and Justice while not going along with more dismissals. Trump's firing of then-FBI Director James Comey was what prompted Rosenstein to appoint Mueller, whom Trump also sought to fire, until White House counsel Don McGahn refused.

Critics complained bitterly about how much oxygen was being sucked out of Washington by another Nunes detour, following the earlier skirmishes over alleged abuse of "unmasking" and the "wiretap" that Trump said President Barack Obama ordered on him in 2016.

For one thing, they argued, if it's true that Rosenstein asked the FISA court to reauthorize surveillance on Page, it meant that even Rosenstein, a Trump appointee within the Trump administration, thought there was sufficient evidence that Page might be a Russian agent. Page has denied that his travel to Russia or other contacts with Russians were inappropriate.

For another, the Nunes memo kerfuffle had changed the subject completely from what was described as Trump's failure to impose new sanctions on Moscow as he was required.

"Congress voted 517-5 to impose sanctions on Russia," Sen. Claire McCaskill wrote on Tuesday. "The president decides to ignore that law. Folks that is a constitutional crisis. There should be outrage in every corner of this country."

Another thing that Washington is not doing amid its knife fight over the Nunes memo is working to safeguard this year's election from another foreign attack. Russia's campaign of "active measures," as spies call them, has not stopped since the 2016 election. In fact, its trolls and bots have been agitating online as part of the campaign to release the Nunes memo.

Schiff and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have called on Twitter and Facebook to investigate the uses of their platforms by Russia's influence campaign.

It doesn't appear likely to stop. CIA Director Mike Pompeo warned Monday in an interview with the BBC that he fully expected another full-scale interference campaign this year.

But he, at least, did not appear worried.

"I have every expectation that they will continue to try and do that, but I'm confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won't be great," Pompeo said.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.