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Commentary: Grow up about #MemoGate

To all the overgrown children in Washington politics, please note that this is what a grown-up sounds like:

"Look, Russia tried to interfere with our election in 2016 with or without a dossier. So you need an investigation into Russia. You need an investigation into Trump Tower and the Cambridge Analytica email, separate and apart from the dossier. So those are not connected issues to me. They may be for other Republicans, but they're not for me. I say investigate everything Russia did, but admit that this was a really sloppy process that you engaged in to surveil a U.S. citizen."

That's soon-to-be-former (alas) Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, on CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday playing his role as one of the few adults in the RussiaGate vs. MemoGate room. His message is simple: Bad actions by Trump haters doesn't equate to good behavior by Team Trump. It is possible—indeed probable—that people on both sides of this fight participated in problematic behavior. 

Unfortunately, few people on either side want to hear that. So they continue their partisan tantrums: "Trump and Russia stole the election!" on one side, and "Russiagate is just a #DeepState conspiracy!" on the other. And so MSNBC's Donny Deutsch responded to the release of the GOP memo by declaring "Our democracy is under siege! People need to take to the streets. [Trump] is a dictator!" While on Fox News, Sean Hannity was demanding that the charges against Paul Manafort and Mike Flynn—which are unrelated in any way to the memo--be dropped entirely.

Both sides start with the same assumption: if the source of information or an investigation is partisan, it is illegitimate. Not only is this obviously untrue, it's a rejection of our constitutional system. Our founders understood that people tend to act in their own self-interests, so instead of hoping for a utopia where politicians put aside their partisan leanings, they put those forces in competition: different branches of government to oversee and sometimes oppose each other. Obama fans in the media may be scandalized by members of Congress demanding documents from Loretta Lynch's Department of Justice, but Hamilton and Madison would be delighted. Trump supporters may hate having the press digging into every detail of the president's political life, but that's just what Thomas Jefferson was counting on.

What our founders didn't foresee was the childishness into which our democratic debate has devolved. From cable TV to Twitter, there is a demand for WWE-style story lines: Heroes and villains, good guys and bad. And so the FBI must either be above question or a cabal of Clintonian conspiracies, while the Trump White House is a haven of populist purity or a headquarters of a rising dictatorship.

Children see the world this way. Adults understand that events are far more complex.

And so it's indisputable that members of Obama's Department of Justice, namely the FBI's Peter Strzok and his girlfriend Lisa Page, disliked Donald Trump and openly discussed their desire to see him lose the election. People at the Justice Department and FBI also appear to have brought the FISA court information from sources they knew were hyper-partisan at best and demonstrably untrustworthy at worst. It's hard to imagine a non-partisan, neutral observer who knew about Christopher Steele's anti-Trump animus and the unvetted information in his dossier still using it to help justify spying on an American citizen.

At the same time, it's also indisputable that the Trump campaign wanted dirt on Hillary Clinton and was willing to meet with people connected to the Putin regime in order to obtain it. That fact that it appears no such dirt was forthcoming doesn't change the fact that President Trump and his team concocted a false story to cover up the motive of their most infamous meeting with a Russian player, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in June of 2016.

All of which means….what? To tantrum-throwing partisans, it means that the republic is in peril! Our democracy could be doomed!  

To grown-ups, it's a reminder that nobody is perfect, that the people charged with enforcing our laws sometimes misbehave themselves, that politicians play politics to avoid accountability. In other words: Business as usual.  

If Trump supporters really want to play their best political hand, they would be working harder to get this entire story off the front pages. While pundits obsess over what's in or not in the GOP memo, Trump's polls have inched upward. His RealClearPolitics polling average is around 42 percent, and he's consistently polling in the 40s rather than the 30s.  Sean Trende, who analyzes polls for RCP, says that 43 POTUS approval is the political "Mendoza Line" for the GOP in the midterms: They need Trump at that level or above to have any hope of holding onto their House majority. Keeping the House is still a longshot for Republicans for all sorts of historic reasons, but it's hard to see how fighting over Mueller and memos helps the GOP get there.

And if Trump's opponents want to keep Trump's poll numbers from rising, they'll stop declaring his every action an affront to American democracy and instead re-focus on policy debates they believe advance their cause. Because the more they feed the notion that America is in a unique moment of crisis, they more they advance the premise of Trumpism. Namely that things in America are so off track we need an extreme, non-traditional leader to set them right again.

No, kids, we don't. To partisans on both sides, I recommend the words of that great political philosopher Joan Rivers: Oh, grow up.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.