Week 54 of President Trump's tenure brings us back to where we started — the president fighting with national security agencies over claims of illegal surveillance.
The fight comes after a period of relative calm in which Trump's public standing rose. The public’s approval of his job performance and forecasts of his party’s chances in the midterm election have improved from slipping-under-the-waves status to hanging on. The improvement came during a period in which Trump got somewhat out of the way and let good economic news dominate headlines.
Most presidents would draw a lesson from that. But calm seldom lasts with Trump.
I'm David Lauter, Washington bureau chief. Welcome to the Friday edition of our Essential Politics newsletter, in which we look at the events of the week in Washington and elsewhere in national politics and highlight some particularly insightful stories.
#RELEASETHEMEMO — THEN WHAT?
Led by House Intelligence Committee chair Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who has proved to be an untiring warrior on behalf of Trump’s riskiest instincts, Republicans have waged a campaign for weeks to focus public attention on a classified memo that alleges wrongdoing by the FBI and senior Justice Department officials.
On Friday, the House committee released the classified memo that Republicans say reveals improper government surveillance during the 2016 presidential campaign — and that the FBI warned was inaccurate. (We will be updating this story throughout the day.)
As Chris Megerian and Joe Tanfani wrote, the memo provoked an extraordinary response from the FBI, which on Wednesday issued a public statement that accused the committee staff, who wrote the document, of trying to mislead people.
“We have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo's accuracy," the statement said.
A few days earlier, the Justice Department’s top national security official, Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd, had sent a letter to Nunes calling plans to release the memo “extraordinarily reckless.”
On Monday, in the meeting at which the committee voted to release the memo, the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), asked for a pause to allow FBI Director Christopher Wray and Justice Department officials to brief the members about their concerns, which Wray had already expressed in private.
“We are not going to be briefed by people that are under investigation by this committee," Nunes shot back.
Both Wray and Boyd are Trump appointees.
Because the memo relies on classified information, the White House had a five-day period in which to review the document and potentially block its release. But Trump made clear from the start that he favored release.
On Tuesday night, as he left the House chamber after his State of the Union speech, he assured one member “100%” that he would approve the memo’s release — a comment caught on a C-Span microphone. On Thursday, officials said the decision to release had been made, despite objections from Wray and Dan Coats, the director of National Intelligence.
THE RISK OF BACKFIRE
Friday, shortly after noon, the House committee released the memo. With that, Nunes and his allies, who, at least on this matter, include House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), won a victory.
Or have they?
The campaign has been a peculiar one. The memo, after all, is not a document that Nunes’ aides discovered; it’s one they wrote. It’s a four-page committee report — not the sort of publication that normally has huge impact on public opinion.
The Republicans — helped along on social media by thousands of automated accounts linked to Russian bot operations — have waged a highly successful effort to attract attention to the document in advance of publication. But when the public reads it, the impact may not be what they hoped.
The central allegation is that when the Justice Department sought a classified warrant to conduct surveillance of Carter Page, a one-time Trump campaign official, they relied in part on allegations contained in a now-infamous dossier prepared by an opposition research firm that had been paid by Democrats.
Trump believes that the memo will help him build a case, as he said on Twitter on Friday morning, that “the top leadership and investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.”
But the opposition from his own, Republican, appointees complicates that argument. FBI officials say that the dossier, written by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, provided only part of the evidence on which the surveillance was based. A federal judge reviewed all the evidence before approving a warrant to monitor Page, and that evidence was reviewed again when the warrant was renewed, officials say.
Moreover, FBI investigations of Page’s Russian ties go back to at least 2013, long before Trump became a candidate and picked him as an advisor. Focusing public attention on Trump’s connections to Page and his Russian ties seems a questionable strategy for the White House.
Trump thinks the memo controversy — and his growing fight with the FBI — will rally the public to his side. Perhaps so. But, of course, he thought the same thing about his decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey.
STATE OF THE UNION — DIVIDED
The fight over the memo bracketed Trump’s State of the Union speech, which White House aides wrote and advertised as an attempt at bipartisan appeal.
To some extent, they succeeded — for 24 hours, at least. Trump stuck to his text, presented a calm, non-threatening demeanor, and in the opening parts of the speech, devoted considerable time to touting economic growth, rising wages and the benefits of the Republican tax cut.
Don Lee took a close look at one of Trump’s claims — his boast about lowered unemployment among African Americans.
As Mark Barabak noted, for the length of the speech, a “presidential Trump vied with pugnacious Trump,” and for at least a time, the presidential version won out.
But as the speech moved past the 45-minute mark, darker notes began to prevail. As Cathy Decker described in her analysis, Trump’s tone was milder, but his substance remained divisive.
That was especially true on immigration, the issue that is once again preoccupying Congress.
HOPES FOR DACA DEAL FADE
Trump’s speech framed the immigration debate primarily as an issue of crime. That infuriated many Democrats and their allies.
As Brian Bennett wrote, the anger increased the risks for any lawmaker who might be tempted to try to strike a compromise with Trump.
The problem, as Democrats see it, is that Trump not only is attacking many of their constituents as potential criminals, he also wants them to agree to all the major elements of his agenda in exchange for only one item on theirs — permanent legal status for the young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.
The biggest non-starter for Democrats is Trump’s insistence on reducing not just illegal immigration, but legal entries as well. His plan would cut legal immigration by more than 40%, independent analyses indicate, by preventing U.S. citizens and legal residents from petitioning for visas for their parents, siblings and adult children.
In the Senate, talks continue on a narrower bill that would legalize at least the roughly 700,000 young immigrants covered by the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump wants to end, in exchange for more money for border security.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has promised to allow an immigration bill to come to the floor this month. But even if such a bill passes the Senate, prospects in the House appear dim.
House Republicans know that any immigration bill has potential to alienate conservative, anti-immigration constituents. Facing a midterm election in which they need every possible Republican vote, they’re loathe to consider any bill that might split their party.
House Democrats, meantime, see the possibility of winning back a majority this fall. That reduces their incentive to strike a deal now, when they have less leverage.
A NEW BATTLE OVER THE MOJAVE
The administration is preparing to scrap a major agreement negotiated under the Obama administration that brokered a truce between two Democratic constituencies — renewable energy developers and conservationists — over the California desert.
As Evan Halper reported, administration officials want to reconsider the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which covers more than 10.8 million acres of California desert.
The plan aimed to steer solar- and wind-energy projects to certain parts of the desert, keeping them away from more environmentally sensitive areas.
The administration’s move could unravel a series of agreements brokered by California officials to protect the desert while still spurring development of renewable energy.
TILLERSON STILL THERE, CDC CHIEF NOT
A lot of people thought that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be gone by now. But Tillerson hasn’t quit.
Thursday found him at the University of Texas, delivering a speech on Latin America policy as he prepared to head off on a trip to the region, wrote Tracy Wilkinson, who is traveling with Tillerson.
Trump’s choice to head the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t fared as well.
Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald already had been required to step aside from several public health issues, including testimony about opioid abuse, because of her investments in companies that potentially stood to benefit from government actions. But, as Noam Levey wrote, the disclosure by Politico that Fitzgerald had invested in tobacco stocks crossed a line.
Fitzgerald, a former Georgia health official, had served under the previous secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, a former Georgia member of Congress. The new HHS secretary, Alex Azar, who was confirmed late last month, may have been less willing to live with her potential conflicts of interest. After meeting Azar, she announced her resignation on Wednesday.
We’re keeping track of the notable hirings and firings here.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S TWEETS
Twitter has long been Trump’s favored means of pushing his message. We’re compiling all of Trump’s tweets. It’s a great resource. Take a look.
That wraps up this week. My colleague Christina Bellantoni will be back Monday with the weekday edition of Essential Politics. Until then, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration with our Essential Washington blog, at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.
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