Trump and the House GOP face an uphill battle against the FBI and the Justice Department

Key Points
  • Some Trump aides fear the evidence will fall flat under scrutiny that began Friday with release of the so-called "Nunes memo."
  • They have good reason to worry. A series of House Republican malfeasance claims against Democrats in recent years have fallen flat. Now they're targeting fellow Republicans, too.
  • The public has a much more favorable view of the FBI than it does of either Trump or congressional Republicans, according to a recent NBC/WSJ poll.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-CA)(C) stands with Rep. Peter King (R-NY), (L) and Rep. Don DeSantis (R-FL) as he announces that his committee and the House oversight committee are starting the investigation into Russia and Obama Administration uranium deal.
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Once again, House Republicans have offered what they consider explosive evidence of malfeasance by top government officials — this time, at the Justice Department and FBI.

President Donald Trump authorized its release, insisting the claimed malfeasance targets him. Yet some Trump aides fear the evidence will fall flat under scrutiny that began Friday with release of the so-called "Nunes memo."

They have good reason to worry. A series of House Republican malfeasance claims against Democrats in recent years have fallen flat, one high-profile case after the other. Now they're targeting some fellow Republicans, too.

Beginning in 2011, Republicans targeted Attorney General Eric Holder and President Barack Obama over a law enforcement initiative involving guns and drug-running linked to the murder of a U.S. Border Patrol agent. In a letter to the then-president, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., suggested that "you or your most senior advisers were involved in managing Operation Fast and Furious."

A Justice Department inspector general later found no evidence that Holder, much less Obama, knew about Fast and Furious until after it had ended.

Later, House Republicans homed in on the IRS for delaying applications for nonprofit status from politically conservative organizations. They singled out civil servant Lois Lerner for allegations of criminal wrongdoing.

The Treasury inspector general found the IRS had used inappropriate criteria in vetting some nonprofit applications but said they affected both conservative and liberal groups. The Justice Department – first under Obama, then under Trump — declined to prosecute Lerner.

The longest, loudest malfeasance claims sought to discredit Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the 2012 Benghazi attack. Allegations included politically motivated explanations for the attack, CIA involvement in arms shipments from Libya to Syria, and a "stand-down" order preventing rescue of four Americans who lost their lives.

The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee debunked those allegations. Unconvinced, another committee, chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., investigated Benghazi for two more years without uncovering new evidence of wrongdoing.

Gowdy did, however, discover Clinton used a private email server as secretary of State rather than the unclassified State Department email system. The revelation triggered claims that dominated the 2016 presidential campaign, with then-candidate Trump and other Republicans accusing Clinton of crimes jeopardizing national security.

After investigating, the FBI declined to recommend charges. "Not a cliffhanger," then-director James Comey declared, since "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring such a case.

That Comey was a Republican who rose to prominence under President George W. Bush did not keep Gowdy and other Republicans from assailing his decision. Last year, Trump fired Comey over the separate FBI investigation of Russian interference on his behalf in the 2016 campaign.

Now that the Russia investigation threatens Trump's presidency, House Republicans have new targets. They extend beyond familiar partisan lines to include Republicans who Trump himself put in their jobs.

The memo released Friday was written by Republican staffers on the intelligence committee, now chaired by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. It seeks to discredit the government's decision to wiretap ex-Trump campaign advisor Carter Page, whom U.S. intelligence officials have considered a potential Russian spy since 2013.

In addition to Comey, the memo cites involvement by Sally Yates and Dana Boente, at different points named by Trump as acting attorney general. It cites Andrew McCabe, who became acting FBI director after Trump fired Comey, and Rod Rosenstein, the veteran Republican prosecutor Trump made deputy attorney general.

Rosenstein and Christopher Wray, the Republican Trump chose as FBI director, opposed release of the memo as misleading and dangerous to national security. House Republicans released it anyway.

For years, the common thread to their claims has been distrust of government. Their partisan objectives have shifted, from undercutting a Democratic president to shielding a Republican who commands loyalty among GOP voters they depend on.

The memo quickly triggered speculation that it would give Trump a pretext for firing Republican former FBI Director Robert Mueller, whom Rosenstein appointed as special counsel last year. Trump declined to rule out firing Rosenstein.

But House Republicans face an uphill fight turning most Americans against the FBI. In last month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, the agency was rated positively rather than negatively by a 53 percent to 19 percent margin — far better than Trump or GOP congressional leaders.