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Nunes ‘memo’ drama proves it: Republicans can’t govern, they only campaign


Republican House members are driving a bus toward the credibility cliff. On board are obsequious staff, a couple senators, the president, and FOX News, colluding to stop those who threaten to expose Trump. Any guesses how this will end up? I might have the answer. I know the history of Republican congressional oversight. I’ve seen this cartoon before.

This is typical House Republican hijinks. It’s unfortunate that it’s occurring with such a serious matter. Newt Gingrich used to say, the Founding Fathers wanted one house of Congress to always be running for their political lives every two years. Here they go again. Another credibility meltdown is inexorable.

{mosads}Let’s review. First, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) last year made a “midnight run” to the White House, having “discovered” unmasking evidence that the White House had already discovered and given to him. As a result of that stunning caper, Nunes caused his own alleged non-recusal from House’s Russia probe.


Second, the White House, three House chairmen and one Senate chairman announced they would investigate or look into the Uranium One issue because new information had appeared out of thin air. Just as the Russia investigation was heating up.

Third, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department for an alleged discrepancy in testimony by dossier author Christopher Steele. This is at a time when Graham was cozying up to the president via golf and Grassley joined the Uranium One investigators. That political gamesmanship is what led Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to release the transcript of Steele’s employer. I would have advised her to do the same.

Fourth, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) declared there is a “secret society” within the FBI, plotting a coup d’etat against the Trump presidency. He later recanted as absurdity engulfed him. The senator is still plunging, Wile E. Coyote style.

In 1996, after the Gingrich Revolution, several oversight colleagues and I were asked by the speaker and the Senate majority leader to teach the tsunami of incoming staff how to conduct legitimate government oversight. Republicans, especially in the House, had been roaming in the wilderness for 40 years before that. As the perennial minority party, they didn’t know oversight from overlook.

Kolesnik’s First Law of Oversight was and is: Construct a wall between campaigning and governing. In a campaign, you can knock yourself out playing politics. But once you’re in government, you can only go as far in successful oversight as your credibility takes you. That means, check even the whiff of politics at the door. Guess what. That advice went over like a lead balloon. They could never get the campaign model out of their heads. That culture of political oversight by Republicans started then, and it has metastasized ever since.

What we are seeing now from Congress in the Russia probe is exactly what my colleagues and I warned our mentees to never do if they wanted to establish and maintain their credibility. And that brings me to “the memo.”


I was surprised the House actually went through with their plan to release the Nunes memo. Tactically, it’s so much more useful to them to bloviate about its contents rather than risk revealing the chicanery behind it. How long do you think it’ll take for an enterprising reporter to blow its credibility out of the water? Not to mention the FBI and DOJ in subsequent reports.

They had a monopoly on the information. Fox News and the amen corner are already in the tank for them. So are the Russians. Why risk a good thing? If history is a judge, I’ll bet that memo is so full of cherry-picked “dots” that it looks like one of their gerrymandered districts.

Why do grown men and women play games with such an existential matter? My answer: Whenever someone stood in the way of the truth in my career, it was usually for one of three reasons: 1) they were hiding wrongdoing or something embarrassing; 2) they thought they stood to gain politically; or, 3) they were looking for a job from whomever they were defending.

I’ll leave it up to whomever to judge why these antics are being done. I’m sure a congressional player in the Russia probe is having discussions with the White House about a possible job. That’s not good. These actions by members of Congress and their staffs are running right up to the line of possible obstruction of justice. At a minimum, they show breathtakingly improper collusion.

And that brings me back to the fix: The wall.

People who come to Congress need to understand that, once you get here, you’re obliged to govern. The campaigning is over. A friend once told me his boss had just knocked off a sitting powerful chairman in an election based on a misleading stratagem: The chairman had always voted for a certain weapon system built in his district dozens of times. But once, on a procedural motion, he voted against it. The challenger bombarded the chairman’s campaign with the charge that the chairman was against the weapon. That won the election for the challenger.

That is considered fair in political campaigns. But you can’t bring that nonsense into the realm of governing. That friend, once in office with his boss, left politics at the door and together our bosses made history on issues chronicled by the Library of Congress. The issue was defense reform under Ronald Reagan. We were all Republicans. We did what was right for the country, not for the party.

In 1980, when Grassley won a Senate seat, he campaigned on a huge defense budget build-up. A year later, when I went to work for him, the economic slowdown caused tremendous deficits as far as the eye could see. We discovered the huge influx of money by Reagan and Congress into defense was being squandered. We exposed the over-priced toilet seats and hammers to make the point. We froze the defense budget in two years in the middle of the Cold War.

Defense contractors and Grassley’s political staff were fuming over our efforts. They tried to undercut what we were doing. But Grassley kept that wall up, between politics and governing. He did it instinctively. He was right, and the country was better off for his courage.

That’s the kind of big, beautiful, huge wall that’s needed to bring credibility back to Congress as an institution and to congressional oversight. It’s not the kind of wall that has occupied the nation’s debate. But it’s the kind that costs nothing and is more effective in preserving our democracy in these turbulent times. If we can build it high enough, some who are inclined might be dissuaded from climbing up. That would be good for the country.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight.  He spent 19 years as Senior Counselor and Director of Investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley. Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the Associate Inspector General for External Affairs. 

Tags Carter Page Charles Grassley Chuck Grassley Chuck Grassley Devin Nunes Devin Nunes Dianne Feinstein DOJ Donald Trump FBI FISA Lindsey Graham Lindsey Graham Memo Newt Gingrich nunes memo Republicans Ron Johnson

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