Nunes Memo Aftermath Could Stifle Legislative Agenda

Democrats worry Trump could set off Watergate-like crisis

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, left, chats with Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner at a lunch featuring a speech by President Donald Trump on Thursday at the GOP retreat in West Virginia. The release of Nunes’ controversial memo could cloud the 2018 agenda. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, left, chats with Ohio Rep. Michael R. Turner at a lunch featuring a speech by President Donald Trump on Thursday at the GOP retreat in West Virginia. The release of Nunes’ controversial memo could cloud the 2018 agenda. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 5, 2018 at 5:05am

The release of the House Republicans’ memo charging Justice Department officials with nefarious actions at the start of the Russia probe further threatens to overshadow a 2018 legislative agenda that was already slow to take shape and jeopardize long-shot bipartisan opportunities.

President Donald Trump on Friday cleared for release a document by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes questioning the “legitimacy and legality” of DOJ and FBI tactics to obtain a surveillance warrant of a Trump campaign adviser. Democrats and some Republicans reacted angrily to the California Republican’s memo, saying it left out key information about what led to the request.

The memo’s release and the Democrats’ fiery response adds a flammable dispute to an ever-growing pile of political kindling only weeks into a midterm election year with control of both chambers in play.

The Nunes memo flap joins the parties’ disagreements over immigration, defense and domestic spending levels, qualifications of federal court nominees, and what could have been a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

[Nunes Memo Alleges Law Enforcement Misled Surveillance Court]

G. William Hoagland, a senior aide to former Senate GOP leader Bill Frist, suggested the Republicans’ decision to release such a document significantly lessens the odds of major bills passing this year.

“The political waters were pretty turbid before the memo issue,” said Hoagland, who is now at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “This makes them even murkier. It will be difficult for Democrats and Republicans to come together on spending caps, infrastructure, DACA, etc.”

What’s more, the firestorm set off Friday came just days before the two parties — and Trump — face a Feb. 8 deadline on the latest government funding bill.

Watch: Debate Over Sanctions Misses Real Issue: Lax Funding for Enforcement

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Gathering storm

Some Democrats warn that while Friday’s action will not help legislative horse-trading, Trump’s reaction could poison any lingering chances for deals on those issues.

“The memo itself is a complete dud; it’s what the president decides to do with it that could send Washington into a tailspin,” one senior Democratic aide said.

That was a reference to Trump using the memo to seek to terminate the Russia investigation, including by removing DOJ personnel.

“You figure that one out,” the president replied Friday when asked about the chances he would fire Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia probe and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, however, warn that such an action would be the equivalent of Richard Nixon’s Watergate-era Saturday Night Massacre and careen the country into crisis; top Democratic leaders wrote to the president Friday urging him against doing just that. Legislating in that kind of toxic environment would be nearly impossible, according to congressional aides and former officials.

“There’s not really a 2018 agenda anyway so I’m not sure what they think they can get done — even before this,” one senior House Democratic aide said of Republican leaders. “We’ve been waiting on an infrastructure plan for more than a year. … They are even talking about skipping doing a budget.”

The scene likely would resemble the atmosphere in 1998 as impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton grinded Washington sausage-making to a halt.

Watch: Trump Touts Party Unity, Year One Accomplishments in Speech to GOP Retreat

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Several senior Republican congressional aides did not respond to inquiries seeking comment on the memo’s impact on the 2018 agenda.

William Galston, a Clinton White House aide now with the Brookings Institution, described the aftermath of the memo’s release this way: “At times like this, the heat to light ratio is pretty high.”

“This is not the apocalypse, but it is just one more piece of evidence of how polarized the parties are and how much members are frustrated with one another,” Galston said.

Still room for a deal?

Though the harsh back and forth before and after the memo’s release suggests 2018 could be a legislative dud, Hoagland pointed to one thing that could salvage some deal-making: lawmakers’ interest in securing federal funds for projects back home before they face voters in November.

“The only saving grace is if there is money to be spent — by Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “That seems to calm the waters and may allow for the caps and infrastructure to survive.”

Consider also that even after Trump had made up his mind about releasing the Nunes-crafted document, he was adding to the bad blood by taunting Democrats two days after he, at times, called for bipartisan cooperation during his State of the Union address last week.

[Republican Retreat Heavy on Boasting, Short on Strategy]

“We’re getting very little help from the Democrats,” Trump said Thursday at the GOP lawmakers’ retreat in West Virginia. “You know, they talk a good game. We have to get help from the other side, or we have to elect many more Republicans. That’s another way of doing it.”

Trump once again boasted about the African-American employment level, using it to needle the Democratic lawmakers he needs to pass spending, infrastructure and immigration bills.

“When I made that statement [during the State of the Union], there was zero movement from the Democrats,” he said Thursday. “They sat there, stone cold, no smile, no applause. You would have thought that, on that one, they would have … at least clapped a little bit, which tells you, perhaps, they’d rather see us not do well than see our country do great. And that’s not good.”

Galston, who noted he has been in Washington for a while, said, “I can’t think of much that would help things at this point.”

“I have a feeling,” he said, “that 2018 is going to make 2017 look pretty productive.”