Vladimir Putin might get tired of winning.
Ever since the U.S. intelligence community discovered the Russian operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and aid President Donald Trump’s victory, some Republicans have been laboring to undermine investigations into the attack and discredit the intelligence agencies that discovered it.
Those efforts reached a new crescendo on Friday, when House Republicans released a partisan memo alleging anti-Trump bias at the FBI with approval from Trump, who declared on Twitter that both the FBI and Department of Justice are corrupt.
But that turmoil, some were quick to point out, is exactly what Putin wanted all along.
“The latest attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice serve no American interests – no party’s, no president’s, only Putin’s,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement Friday. “Our nation’s elected officials, including the president, must stop looking at this investigation through the warped lens of politics and manufacturing partisan sideshows. If we continue to undermine our own rule of law, we are doing Putin’s job for him.”
For more than a year, Trump has consistently cast doubt on the assessments of intelligence agencies he now leads, arguing that “the deep state” is stacked against him. Facing an investigation that reached into his own administration, and potentially into the Oval Office, the president chose to fire his FBI director, James Comey last May, and since then has repeatedly hinted that he might try to do the same to others.
That may include deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, who oversees special Russia counsel Robert Mueller. “You figure that one out,” Trump said when asked Friday if he still had confidence in Rosenstein after reading the memo.
The cumulative effect of it all, intelligence veterans said, was to diminish trust in government institutions—thereby weakening the U.S.
“We have to remember what Putin’s goal in this whole endeavor was,” said Ned Price, a former CIA officer and NSC spokesperson under President Barack Obama. “It was at its core to divide the American people and pit us against each other.”
“This is exactly what he had hoped and it has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations,” he said of the memo. “This memo just play right into that… This is exactly what Putin had in mind.”
The memo “is simply an attempt to cast aspersions on the whole investigation,” said Robert Litt, a former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who now works for Morrison and Foerster.
“To the extent that Putin’s goal is to weaken us an emphasize our internal division, which was certainly one of the conclusions that the intelligence community reached, yes absolutely [he succeeded],” Litt added. “This is increasing partisanship and division and making it more difficult to bring to light what they’re actually doing. … I would’ve thought that there would have been a considerably greater level of bipartisan concern about what the Russians have done.”
But for Trump, House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes and other Republicans, Friday was a day of triumph.
“The Committee has discovered serious violations of the public trust, and the American people have a right to know when officials in crucial institutions are abusing their authority for political purposes,” Nunes wrote on Friday, accompanying the release of the memo his staff drafted.
“I think it’s a disgrace what's happening in our country,” Trump declared.
The memo, however, showed little that was new. A dossier compiled by a former British intelligence operative, who was funded in part by Clinton’s campaign, was part of the basis for the investigation, the memo says. But that was already known. And other elements of the investigation were underway independent of the dossier, the memo acknowledged.
Nonetheless, conservative media — including some outlets which were handed the memo before it became public — rejoiced.
Former House Speaker and Trump confidant Newt Gingrich suggested that the memo would ultimately undermine Mueller’s investigation.
“This memo will lead to more releases of more material and it will go on and on,” Gingrich told POLITICO. “We will be shocked at how deep the sickness was. … Why would you think Mueller is anything different? He’s just part of the same mess.”