The release of the so-called Nunes memo on Friday was hyped in conservative circles—and by those close to the White House—as the next Watergate, only, well, bigger. It was a scandal that would rock American politics and law enforcement to its core and, at a minimum, raise serious questions about the integrity of the investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.
The memo was released on Friday afternoon. And the White House’s reaction to its release has been conspicuously muted.
Late into Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump had not publicly discussed or tweeted about the memo since fielding questions about 45 minutes prior to its release. The White House did put out a formal statement on the memo. But it was done under the name of the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
The most prominent social media presences in the administration put nothing about the memo on Twitter. White House officials were entirely absent from the airwaves to discuss it. Allies to the administration and friendly Capitol Hill Republicans received little to no guidance from the president’s team about what their spin on the memo should be.
A senior aide to a House Republican close to Trump told The Daily Beast that the White House had issued no messaging instructions whatsoever. “We’ve gotten none,” the aide said. “It’s been oddly quiet actually.”
Another source, a prominent White House surrogate, reported “silence” in the lead-up to the memo’s release early Friday afternoon.
For an administration that was generally expected to exploit the memo in an effort to insulate the president from an ongoing Justice Department investigation, the fact that said exploitation didn’t actually take place was viewed curiously. One interpretation was that the White House was intent on letting the memo speak for itself, convinced that the damage would be clear and indisputable. Another was that it reflected an administration whose press shop is capable of ginning up a controversy but not well versed in managing the fallout.
The memo, authored by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, alleges that the FBI sought a surveillance warrant against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page using a dossier compiled by a former British spy at the behest of an opposition researcher on retainer for the Democratic Party.
House Democrats have vehemently disputed the memo’s conclusions. But within hours of its release, conservative groups were laying the groundwork to use the memo to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged Russian election-meddling on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016.
Trump reportedly hopes that the memo will give him the pretext to rein in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose acquiescence Trump would need to officially sack Mueller. But in the wake of the memo’s release, even the White House’s official response was relatively muted.
In public remarks prior to the memo’s release, the president called the memo’s allegations “a disgrace.” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement saying that the memo “raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the Government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.”
But that was the extent of White House communications about the memo. Staff remained publicly silent about it throughout the afternoon, instead focusing on other major White House issues such as positive economic indicators, immigration reform proposals, and recently codified tax cuts.
White House aides normally active on twitter, such as social media director Dan Scavino and counselor Kellyanne Conway, were entirely silent on the memo’s release.
While those aides were silent, the president’s eldest son was not. Taking to Twitter, Donald Trump Jr. laid out the case that the memo would spark a fundamental overhaul of the top tiers of the entire Justice Department.
Jr. was echoed by conservative media personalities who treated the memo as more explosive than Iran-Contra, Abscam, and the Pentagon Papers all rolled into one.
Ann Coulter, an early Trump 2016 cheerleader, declared that “Rosenstein should be fired for opposing the release of this memo.” Fox News host Laura Ingraham, a close ally to the Trump family who even interviewed for the job of Trump’s White House press secretary, tweeted, “Switch the political parties on this narrative. Imagine if outgoing Repub Admin, & Hillary won. Then Dems discover a Trump-funded ‘dossier’was used to justify #FISA surveillance of Hillary campaign & appt of special counsel.”
Another Fox News star Sean Hannity (who, as The Daily Beast reported on Thursday, had privately advised President Trump on the Nunes memo) posted to Twitter that the memo drop revealed an “unprecedented Government abuse of power and corruption case. Those involved used HRC bought and paid for Russian lies as the basis to obtain a FISA warrant vs an opposition party candidate and Potus elect.”
“And worse, they knew it was full of lies, and not verified,” Hannity added.
On Saturday, Trump went on another kick of early morning tweetstorming and ended his silent treatment on the memo drop.