As he was exiting the House chamber after the State of the Union, President Trump was approached by a Republican congressman who urged him to “release the memo.” “Oh, don’t worry, 100 percent,” Trump said of the four-page document drafted by House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes’s staff. Now, the Washington Post reports that Trump did not actually read the memo until Wednesday afternoon, nearly a full day later.
So, how did the president know that the document — which purportedly paints an inaccurate picture of anti-Trump bias in the FBI — should be released, despite the objections of Justice Department officials and many of his own advisers? He’d already learned all he needed to know from his friends at Fox News, and interviews with various GOP lawmakers and pundits on other cable news outlets.
Trump was only vaguely aware of the memo when Republican representatives Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows raised the possibility of declassifying it during a January 18 phone call, according to the Post. That discussion was mostly focused on the impending government shutdown, but the memo piqued his interest. By January 22, he’d been briefed on the House Intelligence Committee’s process for declassification.
White House officials were determined to at least pretend that they were seriously considering whether the document should remain classified, partly to placate intelligence officials, and partly to ensure that Congress would take the blame if it turned out to be, as one White House official put it, “a dud.”
A number of senior administration officials argued against its release — which appears to be happening on Friday — but they knew they had little chance of convincing the president to keep it under wraps. “There was never any hesitation,” said one presidential adviser. “The president was resolved on this. He was not going to be persuaded [otherwise]. He wanted it out.”
Trump had already been swayed by cable news frenzy stirred by GOP lawmakers and pundits — and according to the Daily Beast, his phone calls with Sean Hannity. For weeks, the Fox News host has been telling his viewers that the memo reveals an abuse of power within the Justice Department and FBI that’s “far worse than Watergate.” Three sources tell the site that Hannity has been making the same pitch directly to Trump, who was able to reference specific #ReleaseTheMemo segments on Hannity. (The host dismissed the entire report as “fake news.”)
Of course, the president of the United States isn’t being influenced by one right-wing TV host. He has a diverse cable news diet, and paid close attention to other Republicans interviewed on the topic as well. The Post reports:
At one point, just before he departed for Davos, Switzerland, Trump became particularly excited watching Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) argue on CNN that the public deserved to see the memo and that some of the FBI agents involved in the probe had displayed an anti-Trump bias in a series of text messages, a White House official said.
In fact, he was so taken with the #ReleaseTheMemo story line that he invited some of its biggest stars to the entrance hall in the official residence on Monday to express his appreciation. From the Daily Beast:
The meeting included a who’s who of pro-Trump surrogates and media commentators, including cable-news regulars Jason Miller, Larry Kudlow, and Jack Kingston.
“Man, are you a warrior—you’re a warrior!” Trump told a person in the group, according to three sources present. “We’re all warriors in this fight.”
As the meeting wound down, President Trump made sure to approach people one-on-one to commend them for their performances and appearances on live TV. In some cases, he cited specific TV interviews and segments from the past weeks that he found particularly compelling and fun to watch. Some attendees were surprised at how closely the president of the United States had been watching them. For others, it was simply additional confirmation of “how much of a [TV] addict” Trump is, according to another person at the White House meeting.
Trump would probably be passionate about releasing the Nunes document even if he hadn’t been devoting “executive time” to following the memo saga on TV. The memo seems designed to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, and Nunes was previously caught colluding with White House officials on how to use classified information to defend the president from the alleged malfeasance of the intelligence community.
Nunes refused to answer questions about whether the White House aided his staffers in drafting the memo, but the latest reports suggest that Trump, at least, was not initially part of any scheme to distract from Mueller’s investigation. The president just got swept away by promises of a bombshell memo, along with other devoted Hannity viewers.