The Memo: DOJ turmoil clouds Trump's big speech

Republicans are hoping that a raft of new controversies concerning President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump Trump speaks to rebel Libyan general attacking Tripoli Dem lawmaker: Mueller report shows 'substantial body of evidence' on obstruction MORE, the FBI and the Russia probe do not distract from Tuesday’s State of the Union address — an occasion that they had hoped would allow the president to highlight the nation’s economic strength. 

It emerged on Monday that Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI who has previously incurred Trump’s displeasure, would step down from his position. 

That announcement was swiftly followed by the leak of an alleged phone conversation between Trump and McCabe in which the president was said to have called McCabe’s wife a “loser.” 

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The McCabe developments come on the heels of reports last week that the president had wanted to fire special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE last June and was only dissuaded from doing so because the White House counsel, Don McGahn, threatened to resign. 

Monday also saw a vote by the House Intelligence Committee authorizing the public release of a memo written by the staff of Chairman Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesTen post-Mueller questions that could turn the tables on Russia collusion investigators Schiff, Nunes pressed DOJ for Mueller briefing The Hill's Morning Report - Mueller report will dominate this week MORE (R-Calif.). The memo is believed to make allegations of malfeasance against the Department of Justice and the FBI in the investigation of a Trump campaign official.

Democrats have countered that the Nunes memo cherry-picks facts. The Justice Department had expressed opposition to its release on national security grounds. 

The Intelligence Committee also voted against allowing a Democratic memo, which rebuts the Nunes memo, from being made public.

Those moves outraged the opposition party, and moved liberal commentators to draw parallels with President Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate scandal.

Some Republicans have their own private misgivings about the accelerating chain of events.

One GOP strategist, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, referred to the push to release the Nunes memo as “utterly irresponsible.” 

This person added that conservatives were in essence deciding “to release a memo that trashes the FBI, which the FBI has not even seen or had a chance to respond to. It looks like a hit job.”

(FBI Director Christopher Wray was finally shown the memo on Sunday. But Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffMueller's done, and Dems should be too — because Trump is no Nixon Trump blames Obama for 'anything the Russians did' in 2016 election Mueller report poses new test for Dems MORE of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters Monday that Wray still had "concerns" after seeing the document.)

Beyond that, the broader hope among Republicans is that the president stays on-message during his State of the Union address and avoids veering off into overly partisan attacks or headline-grabbing defenses of his own conduct.

The importance of the event — State of the Union addresses often garner TV audiences of between 30 million and 40 million people — raises the stakes.

Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee, argued that matters pertaining to the FBI, the Justice Department and the Russia probe “could be a mild distraction, and certainly there could be bigger ramifications” down the road.

But, he added, “nothing overshadows the State of the Union. There is no annual event short of the Super Bowl that dominates coverage like a State of the Union.”

Republican confidence is buoyed by a stock market that continues to climb to new highs, low unemployment and a generally robust economy. 

The extent to which Trump deserves credit for those gains is the subject of intense debate — the same trends were evident during President Obama’s second term — but almost no one doubts that it delivers some political advantage to a commander in chief who has been mired in low approval ratings virtually since taking office.

“I think the tide is starting to turn because people are starting to see results,” said Brad Blakeman, who served on the senior staff of President George W. Bush’s White House. “How can you root against full employment and growth?”

Blakeman is among those who believe — and expect — that the president will ignore the controversial topics of Mueller, McCabe and Russia during his address. 

“Because the president commands the podium, I don’t think you are going to see any of that,” he said. “All the noise that the left would like us to dwell on is not going to happen.”

It seems highly unlikely that the State of the Union can keep questions about Trump’s conduct sidelined for long.  

Some Democrats have floated the possibility of including measures to protect Mueller within the next must-pass government spending bill. There could be more damaging leaks following McCabe’s departure. And Democrats have slammed the Nunes memo repeatedly, with Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) calling it “misleading” and “worse than a nothing burger” in a Monday afternoon interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

The vote to release the GOP memo but not the Democratic version will renew questions about partisan abuses of power.

Republicans also worry about the prospect of the president getting in his own way — if not during the speech itself, then perhaps in a combative tweet or public remark that might soon follow it.

The Republican strategist who criticized the Nunes memo said wearily that he expected “the president to do what he always does. The speech will be fine and then he will send a couple of tweets that undo all the good he did.” 

Still, more optimistic members of the president’s party referenced both his recent speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and his address to a joint session of Congress last February — a State of the Union in all but name — to suggest that Trump can deliver a disciplined performance, even as other distractions cloud the horizon.

“The model for this speech ought to be the one a year ago,” said GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “His 2017 ‘State of the Union’ was the best speech he’s given since he became president and received some of the most glowing reviews. 

“If he can recreate the tone and approach of last year, he is likely to get similar reviews.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.