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Roundtable Discussion: The Nunes Memo


We're going to continue our discussion of the Nunes memo in the Barbershop. That's where we gather a diverse group to talk over the news of the week. So joining us for a shapeup today are Bridget Johnson. She's Washington bureau chief and managing editor of Homeland Security Today for PJ Media. That's a conservative online publication. She's here with me in our Washington, D.C., studios once again. Good to have you back, Bridget.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Good to be back.

MARTIN: From San Diego, We're joined by Ruben Navarrette. He's a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group and an education reform fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. He's with us via Skype. Hi, Ruben, good to have you back.

RUBEN NAVARRETTE: Michel, great to be back with you.

MARTIN: And last but certainly not least, Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University and a former federal prosecutor. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Hi, Paul. Good to see you as well.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Michel, what's up? Go Eagles. Woof, woof, woof.

MARTIN: OK. Well, we will get to that, I hope. Now, we already spent the first part of the program talking about this Nunes memo, but just to recap for those who may not have been with us, this is a document written by staffers for California Congressman Devin Nunes, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, Republican. It argues that the FBI used a flawed process to get a warrant to undertake surveillance of members of the Trump campaign, both before and after the 2016 election.

So there was - all this week, there was this buildup of, will they or won't they release it? The FBI director, who I may add was appointed by President Trump, asked the White House not to, but yesterday, it was. So now that we've had a day to digest it, I wanted to ask you. Bridget, I'll start with you. This is your beat. So did we learn anything? What's the importance of this?

JOHNSON: I mean, I kind of feel like what Comey tweeted about - that's it? You know, it was a lot of buildup. And the the memo itself had some little, you know, some fallacies in it too. You know, Comey, for example, did not call the entire dossier salacious. He was just referring to parts of it. The dossier did not mention other evidence on Carter Page. And if you're getting, you know, three FISA warrants, you've got some other evidence going on. And also, the intelligence community is also saying this is a supplemental dossier. And, you know, raw intelligence that came across in the Steele dossier also, that's not submitted directly to the FISA court. You know, they're going to go through it. They're going to, you know, clean it up and get what they need. And former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has already said some of it has been verified and some of the stuff in the dossier has not either been verified or discounted.

NAVARRETTE: So take it all together. Does this mean anything or does it not mean anything?

JOHNSON: I mean, it helps Republicans run interference a little bit on the Mueller investigation as far as, you know, shoring up the base. You know, there they were pretty you know on fire and, you know, defending President Trump, and he of course is running with it on Twitter. Of course not all GOPs are on board, as we saw with Senator John McCain saying stop working for Putin. But, you know, whatever kind of distracts Trump actually works for Robert Mueller on time. You know, if Trump gets going on the national anthem in the NFL for about a week, that's a week where he's not thinking about firing Bob Mueller and, you know, that investigation can go on unimpeded.

MARTIN: That's an interesting idea. So, Ruben, I'm interested in what you think about this because you're not, you know, here in the swamp, as it were, you know, with us. How does this strike you? Ruben? Did we lose him? All right. Then let me go to Paul. Let me go to Paul Butler and say...

NAVARRETTE: I'm still here.

MARTIN: Your still here, OK. So, you're thinking about it. OK, so tell me, what do you think?

BUTLER: Wake up.

NAVARRETTE: It's problematic. It's not really, you know, as definitive. It doesn't do as much as Donald Trump says. It does not end the Russia investigation. It does not vindicate him. But it's not quite the nothingburger the Democrats are trying to portray. I was troubled by, for instance, the fact that if you're an investigator and you talk to a reporter that you can then turn around in a circle and go back and include what the reporter may have put out in the story in a formal FISA request. I didn't realize you could do that. I thought that was cheating. There does seem to be some cutting of corners here that's troubling in terms of how the folks at Justice, and particularly Rod Rosenstein, got to where he wanted to go. I think he cut some corners that ultimately may be problematic for him.

MARTIN: Paul Butler, curious to know your thoughts as a former federal prosecutor. And I'm also interested in your thoughts because, you know, it wasn't so long ago that progressives were mainly the people who were criticizing the FBI and also Democrats who were angry at the role that they believed that the former FBI director, James Comey, played in damaging Hillary Clinton's electoral prospects by reopening or at least publicly saying that he was reopening an investigation into her email. So what are your thoughts on this?

BUTLER: So basically, we have a grand conspiracy to obstruct justice. And Congressman Nunes' role was to put this memo out, which is supposed to make Rod Rosenstein look bad. That gives Trump a pretext to fire Rosenstein and put his own stooge in place to oversee the investigation and maybe fire Mueller or limit his authority. The problem is Trump's partisans are so inept, they can't even obstruct justice right.

The memo actually reads like a primer about how many hurdles the FBI has to go through to get a warrant to spy on an American citizen. And that structure is in place, Michel, because the FBI has this long sordid history of spying on Americans, including civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, people in the Black Panther Party. But the bureau learned from that. When James Comey was the FBI director, he required rookies to go visit the Martin Luther King Memorial. So the FBI was doing much better on these issues but we know what happened to James Comey, right?

MARTIN: Well, so what do you think this means at the end of the day? I mean, what do you think the result of this - and I just can't help but - forgive me, I have to - this - I can't help myself. I have to read this headline from a satire column - a satire column, I do want to emphasize this - from the New Yorker called "The Borowitz Report." It says, former hippies put into horrible position of rooting for FBI.

BUTLER: I don't know if I'm a hippie but I'm, you know, in this situation, I think that the FBI actually did what folks are supposed to do which is to learn from history and do better. The American law enforcement community learned that when investigations are politically driven, it's not a good look. And I think folks learned that until Mr. Trump came along and he thinks that - like there's a Trump hotel in Trump Tower, there's a Trump FBI and a Trump Department of Justice. And that's just not the way it works.

MARTIN: Well, Bridget Johnson, I have to ask you about this because the Republican Party has typically seen itself and has campaigned as the party of law and order. And I cannot help but note that during the State of the Union, the president made a big point of, you know, acknowledging and thanking members of various agencies except for the FBI. So I'm curious about this. And I'm also curious about the people you talked to on the Hill, particularly, you know, your sources as it were. What did they think of all this?

JOHNSON: I mean, yeah, it's an awkward position as far as supporting law enforcement. You know, you think that, you know, Republicans are just trying to run interference for Trump. But, you know, we also don't know how deep the Russia estimation runs within the party that drove the Trump campaign. You know, after all, you know, Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, was at the RNC at a sidelines event. You know, there are a lot of questions hanging out there.

But I think that, you know, first of all, lawmakers just renewed FISA with nary a debate. So, you know, if they really wanted to get into this, they had an opportunity to do that. And also what's being lost here is that, you know, say someone goes - breaks into a gallery, steals a priceless painting and the sole witness who led police to the thief and the painting has a checkered personal past. It doesn't negate the fact that a crime happened that the person who stole the painting is guilty of doing it. So I think that this strategy that they're doing of trying to discredit people who are connected to sort of lateral investigations on this is - kind of a, you know, not very good strategy of trying to say, well, it doesn't matter if you commit a crime.

MARTIN: Ruben, what do you think about that?

NAVARRETTE: So I don't think the Trump administration has to work too hard to discredit some of the folks at the FBI. They're doing a great job all by themselves. At the top of the list is Jim Comey, who I'd remind you either cost Hillary Clinton the election if you listen to Hillary Clinton or, had she won, he would have been fired anyway because he almost cost her the election in that case.

He tried to play politics with the election. And I think what was interesting was there were a lot of folks who, until he was fired by Trump and became a martyr, there were a lot of folks on the left who were incensed at Comey, hated Comey because of the stunt he pulled. How dare you announce the investigation is reopened so close to the election. You're costing her the election.

MARTIN: In fact, when he spoke at Howard University last year - he was asked to give a lecture - he was heartily booed by the students there for precisely that reason. So I guess just very briefly, Ruben, if you would, what effect do you think all of this is having, particularly given your perspective being, you know, where you are not in the day-to-day here? Is this having any effect? Do people you talk to - are they paying attention?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. I think they're paying attention but to both dramas, both the Trump-Russia drama which he would like to go away - it's not. Going away - and also just how free and loose the folks at the FBI and DOJ have been with the FISA court. I think that's not going away either. So both stories continue on.

MARTIN: OK. You know I can't let you go without asking. OK, I have to ask. OK, Ruben, Eagles-Patriots?

NAVARRETTE: Yeah. Eagles all the way. Oh, God, I hope so.

MARTIN: OK. Paul, Eagles-Patriots?

BUTLER: Eagles. In the words of Fat Joe, nothing can stop us, we're all the way up.

MARTIN: I think something can stop them but I'm just asking. I'm just reporting here. Bridget, what do you say?

JOHNSON: The non-Tom Brady team is the one I'm voting for.

MARTIN: Oh, OK. See, that's what's up. Look. I promised a diverse panel, but I didn't check for diversity on the Super Bowl picks. Well, thank you all so much. That was Bridget Johnson, Ruben Navarrette, Paul Butler. Thank you all so much for speaking with us. And, you know, we'll check back next week and see if your hopes and dreams were realized. And there's always wings if they weren't. OK.

NAVARRETTE: Thanks a lot. Thanks.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Michel.

BUTLER: Woof, woof, woof. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.