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The press walked right into Devin Nunes’ trap

Somehow, Nunes transformed the most ordinary political tactic into a circus.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It is literally the most banal story in Washington: A Republican congressman wrote a memo defending the Republican president.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), a close ally of Donald Trump, served on the Trump transition team and has consistently attempted to thwart investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. Last year, he labeled the prospect of an independent investigation into Trump’s Russian ties a “witch hunt.” After Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after misleading senior White House officials about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Nunes claimed that Flynn “was doing this country a favor, and he should be thanked for it.”

Now, Nunes has prepared a memo that — SURPRISE! — seeks to discredit a Justice Department investigation into a former Trump adviser’s ties to Russia.

The sun rises in the east. Water is wet. Fire is hot. Everyone dies. Devin Nunes is defending Trump against a Russia investigation.

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Yet, somehow, this memo has become the centerpiece of a major Washington drama. On Tuesday alone, the memo was mentioned on 5 different Fox News shows, 11 different CNN shows, and 14 different MSNBC shows. In a single half-hour of CNN programming, between 6 and 6:30 p.m. eastern time, four different guests and two different hosts all mentioned the memo. CNN’s anti-oracular political analyst Chris Cillizza published a piece entitled “Why the Nunes memo is a very big deal.”

The source of all this drama is that Nunes has managed to turn an extraordinarily routine event — a political ally of the president putting out a brief document defending that president — into a grand mystery. The memo is classified! Will House Republicans release it? But it’s classified!

By holding out the promise of secret information — and by getting his allies in the conservative media world to loudly demand the memo’s release — Nunes transformed the most ordinary political tactic into a circus.

We already have a pretty good idea what the memo says, based on news reports. In the fall of 2016, Justice Department officials sought a warrant from the FISA court targeting Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser that met with Russian officials earlier that year. Nunes claims that DOJ’s warrant application relied on information obtained by a former British intelligence agent in a now-infamous dossier (for a refresher, just google the words “pee tape“). The primary thrust of Nunes’ argument appears to be that the warrant application was somehow flawed, and the FISA court somehow deceived, because DOJ didn’t sufficiently convey that some of the work on the dossier was funded by Democrats.

Meanwhile, experts across the political spectrum have warned the public against taking Nunes’ memo seriously, including a former acting CIA director under President George W. Bush.

The warrant application reportedly drew on other intelligence reports beyond this one dossier, so even if the dossier itself is completely unreliable, DOJ’s claims were corroborated by other evidence.

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So, to summarize: We have a political memo defending the president, prepared by a political ally of the president who has a record of offering dubious defenses of the president. Although it hasn’t yet been released publicly, the broad strokes of the memo’s argument are already known, and a bipartisan array of experts have dismissed this argument.

News outlets typically don’t breathlessly cover press releases issued by a congressional office. Yet, somehow, 30 different cable news shows felt the drama surrounding this memo is one of the most important stories in the nation. After the #ButHerEmails debacle, they should know better by now.