At Comey Hearing, GOP Goes Into Full Anti-Anti-Trump Mode

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House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes wants to know who leaked the intel more than he wants to know what it means. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The big news of the morning from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on “Russian Active Measures” was FBI director James Comey’s confirmation of an ongoing investigation into Trump campaign/Russia links, and also his denial there was any evidence of an Obama “wiretap” on Trump or his people.

But a different story is playing out in conservative media:

And that different story is the thrust of what Republicans on and off the Intelligence Committee are pursuing as a coping mechanism for the drip-drip-drip of information and rumors about possibly treasonous activities among intimates of a Republican president: focus on the leaks, not what they reveal.

This approach was clearly signaled by Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes the day before the hearings started, when he told Fox News that the leak to the news media that led to Michael Flynn’s downfall would be central to his line of questioning:

“The one crime we know that’s been committed is that one: the leaking of someone’s name,” Nunes said. “Were there any other names that were … leaked out?”

Senator Rand Paul went further Sunday on This Week:

“It is very, very important that whoever released that go to jail,” Paul said. “Because you cannot have members of the intelligence community listening to the most private and highly classified information and then releasing that to The New York Times.”

The Kentucky lawmaker also noted there are only be a handful of people who could have done this. Therefore, he wants them all to come in and “take lie detector tests” to get the the bottom of this all.

Nunes did not quite go there this morning, but he made clear his belief that the leaks are as important as what was leaked:

Numerous current and former officials have leaked purportedly classified information in connection to these questions. We aim to determine who has leaked or facilitated leaks of classified information so that these individuals can be brought to justice.

And now in the course of the hearing, not only are committee Republicans focusing on the intelligence communities responsibilities for the leaks, but at least one — Representative Trey Gowdy — is wondering aloud if the recipients of leaks might be prosecuted.

So is this just a matter of a different partisan spin on an issue that is inherently damaging to the GOP? Perhaps, but something bigger is going on here: the claim that the “deep state” that is producing the damaging information is a greater threat to civil liberties than the quasi-authoritarian who is being damaged. This claim is psychologically important to Republicans — especially libertarian-ish Republicans like Rand Paul — who cannot bring themselves to defend Trump’s behavior but can happily give him covering fire by attacking his tormentors as being worse.

And in turn this approach is a fine example of the decision of Republicans who are not fully in the Trump camp to make anti-anti-Trumpism a regular M.O. The whole “deep state” line of reasoning is a way to keep Barack Obama in the crosshairs as the alleged ringleader of a cabal that is trying to overturn the 2016 election and assert permanent control over the federal government. It’s absurd, and there’s not much evidence for it, but it is a satisfying way to avoid taking a clear stand for or against the administration of the 45th president. And it establishes its purveyors as, at a minimum, fellow travelers of Team Trump.

At Comey Hearing, GOP Goes Into Full Anti-Anti-Trump Mode