It is so frustrating to observe news coverage of Thursday’s announcement that the Justice Department’s inspector general will review the conduct of FBI and Justice Department officials tangential to — but, as I’ve explained, not at the core of — the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal. As usual, the Left understands exactly what they are choreographing, beginning with Friday’s screaming New York Times page-one headline that “Comey” is the subject of a new Justice Department probe. As always, the Left is setting the parameters of the controversy and the terms by which it will be discussed.
And as night follows day, Republicans are at sea, not knowing quite what is being investigated. Precisely because of the way Democrats have teed things up, Republicans have been hoodwinked into thinking that they must figure out where to come down on FBI director James Comey’s rollercoaster announcements during the campaign stretch run.
Let me try, again, to help.
Please understand: The charade now underway has nothing to do with determining whether Justice Department protocols were violated by the statements of FBI and Justice Department officials who revealed non-public investigative information — in Comey’s case, to the public at large. That’s the pretext for convening something that can be called a “Justice Department investigation” (which sounds like we’re looking to identify a culprit) by the inspector general (which sounds like the investigation must be non-partisan, even though the IG is an Obama appointee who works with, although often not under the supervision of, Obama’s chosen attorney general).
I use the term “narratives” advisedly. What is going on is not about a search for truth, or getting to the bottom of a complex set of facts and regulations. The real agenda here is to engrave a story on the 2016 presidential election. That story will become the conventional wisdom about the legitimacy of the Trump presidency (or as the Left is determined to have you see it, the lack of legitimacy).
Now that the election is lost, the Democrats see no downside in portraying the Clinton e-mails investigation as its dispositive event — even though they told us during the campaign (which they expected to win and are still shocked that they lost) that the significance of the e-mails had been overblown, and that Director Comey had shown great integrity in clearing Mrs. Clinton of criminal culpability.
If the e-mail investigation is seen as the make-or-break episode in the campaign, then there are two possible narratives:
(1) Director Comey cost Mrs. Clinton the election by making public statements about the investigation that were in violation of Justice Department guidelines, including — critically — a statement just eleven days before the election that appeared to nullify his earlier exculpatory statements, and that could only have misled voters into believing that the FBI had discovered damning evidence against Clinton; or
(2) The Obama Justice Department conducted a sham investigation to ensure that Clinton, though patently guilty of serious national-security crimes, would not be charged — a scheme that included: refusing to open a grand-jury investigation; denying the FBI the ability to compel the production of critical evidence; granting immunity to any suspect who appeared guilty and might otherwise have been incentivized to cooperate against Clinton; imposing ludicrous restrictions on the FBI’s interviews of witnesses and examination of physical evidence; permitting subjects of the investigation who had received immunity agreements to appear as counsel for the main subject of the investigation, in violation of ethical rules and federal law; leaking information to the press that suggested Clinton and her confederates were cooperative and had no intent to harm the United States (which was not the legal standard for criminal liability); and a furtive meeting on an airport tarmac between the attorney general herself and President Bill Clinton, the spouse of the main subject of the investigation, only days before Mrs. Clinton submitted to a perfunctory FBI interview and was proclaimed innocent by Comey.
If those are the two narratives that could most conceivably stick, how do Democrats make sure that Narrative No. 1 prevails? Easy: by framing the public debate in a manner that ensures Narrative No. 1 is the only one that is considered.
The aim is obvious: If Comey’s statements were against protocol, then they will be portrayed as violations that caused Clinton to lose.
The way they accomplish this is by sculpting the inspector-general investigation. Notice the IG’s press release, which I referenced in Thursday night’s column on this subject. There is not a scintilla of reference to anything related to Narrative No. 2. The principal thrust of the IG’s inquiry will be Comey, and the question whether his public statements were against DOJ guidelines. For appearances’ sake, there are a few other areas of inquiry. But make no mistake: The whole ballgame is Comey.
The aim is obvious: If Comey’s statements were against protocol, then they will be portrayed as violations that caused Clinton to lose — the argument will be that Trump’s victory was as razor thin as it gets, Clinton decisively won the popular vote, so surely Comey’s impropriety is what swung the few thousand votes Clinton would have needed in key states to win in the Electoral College. Therefore, the narrative goes: Trump’s victory, and thus his presidency, is illegitimate.
But wait, you’re thinking, this is surely wrong. First, Clinton was simply a terrible candidate — dishonest, corrupt, inept, Benghazi, Clinton Foundation, etc. She lost in 2008 because she was unpopular among Democrats. This time around, she got the nomination by rigging the contest against Bernie Sanders; then, in the general election, she proceeded to lose an overwhelming number of states, accounting for Trump’s seemingly comfortable Electoral College victory.
Second, if the Justice Department had done a fair, impartial investigation, Clinton would have been indicted and would have been replaced on the Democratic ticket. So forget about the election — her candidacy itself was illegitimate.
Right . . . so now do you see how this works?
The Democrats erase your first argument by reducing the whole election down to the e-mails investigation, such that Mrs. Clinton’s many other flaws as a candidate do not matter. The Democrats erase your second argument by making sure the IG investigation focuses on James Comey, not on Hillary Clinton’s crimes and the Justice Department’s outrageous machinations to make sure she was not prosecuted for those crimes.
There you have it. The public’s perception of Trump’s legitimacy may hinge on the public’s understanding of the Justice Department inspector-general’s probe. The Democrats fully grasp this and are lining things up so that they’ll win before Republicans even realize the game is on.
’Twas ever thus.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.