Politics & Policy

Why Trust the FBI?

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
There is a reason for the crisis of faith in our institutions

The “failing” New York Times Company is earning about $30 million a quarter, and in the third quarter of 2017 alone it added more paid subscribers than either the Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer or the Los Angeles Daily News has in total. National Review, the imminent demise of which President Trump has gleefully proclaimed more than once, is in a stronger position than it has been in years. Media companies less encumbered by print are thriving: There’s a reason Recode calculates Michael Bloomberg’s wealth at just shy of $50 billion. Bertelsmann, the books, media, and printing giant, made nearly $1 billion last year. The old dinosaurs seem to have some life left in them.

One thing about which thoughtful progressives and conservatives generally agree is that institutions matter. It is important to have a First Amendment and other protections for a free press, but you also need the New York Times, National Review, Wired, CNN, and, the times being what they are, In Touch Weekly and its Stormy Daniels coverage — or else the First Amendment is only a hypothetical. The irreplaceable nature of functioning institutions is why we can’t just drop off copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in Somalia and Afghanistan and expect to find thriving constitutional republics there a few years later. The right to a speedy trial doesn’t mean much if your courts are corrupt or inept. The right to petition the government for redress of grievances means nothing if the government is impotent or indifferent.

Like government agencies and political parties, the character and quality of the press matters enormously to the health of public discourse and, consequently, the health of democratic institutions. There are conservative media critics who have been cheering the prospect of the New York Times’ demise for many years, but the more intelligent ones want a better New York Times rather than a crippled one. It is more obvious if you live in New York City, but in spite of the Times’ ongoing bias problems and the partisan stupidity of its op-ed pages, the newspaper does irreplaceable work — work that RedStatePatriotAmericaFirstJesusGunsDerkaDerkaMAGA at Twitter dot com is not going to do in the absence of the New York Times.

Speak of which: The Times reports that Donald Trump tried to fire Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russia-related campaign shenanigans and other possible malfeasance in Trumpworld. That firing was prevented by Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who refused to forward the order to the Justice Department and vowed that he would resign before he did so. (One assumes he did not have a quiet resignation in mind.) Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, argued that the move showed that “the Establishment” maintains some power. He is correct, but another term for “the Establishment” is functioning institutions. Beinart writes that, more than almost anybody else in the Trump administration, McGahn is a member of “the Republican establishment,” which he describes in this way:

Once upon a time, that establishment was an insurgency. Before Ronald Reagan, the Washington establishment consisted largely of people, in both parties, who believed in the legitimacy of federal oversight of the economy. But as the Republican Party began moving right in the 1970s, it grew more and more influenced by what Sidney Blumenthal in 1986 called “the counter-establishment”: a network of think tanks, publications, and business groups that sought to free capitalism from the government’s yoke. By the late 1990s, when McGahn joined this world — after Reagan had been president and Newt Gingrich had been speaker of the House — the adjective “counter” was no longer necessary. Anti-government forces wielded at least as much power in Washington as the pro-government forces that had preceded them.

The binate nomenclature here — “anti-government” vs. “pro-government” — is clunky, inasmuch as Newt Gingrich is not and was not an anarchist; while the Republican party is home to many libertarian elements, including some radical tendencies, there is practically no one in the mainstream of American public life who can be accurately described as “anti-government.” There are many who believe that the federal government is too large, too intrusive, too busy, too arrogant, etc. But that isn’t quite the same thing. To be opposed to the current configuration of government is not to be opposed to government as such. Similarly, to be a critic of American institutions is not to be opposed to those institutions per se. Many of us have spent years boring the world to death with our claims about media bias precisely because we think what the news media do is important — necessary — to the functioning of our republic.

President Trump often is accused of being at war with fundamental American institutions, and that criticism is not without some merit. Trump is not what one would call a nuanced critic. The press that is critical of him is horrible, in his view, and might reasonably be suppressed by various official means, including gutting the libel laws in such a way as to make it easier for the powerful to sue their critics. On the other hand, the president loves the press that is friendly to him, though here “friendly” must necessarily be read “obsequious,” as Breitbart, Fox & Friends, et al. have been. President Trump does not think very much about institutions at all. He thinks of friends and enemies. One of the problems with his bitter, often excessive criticism of American institutions is that such abuse, coming from the president, can have the effect of corroding faith in our institutions. The other problem is that he is sometimes right.

President Trump often is accused of being at war with fundamental American institutions, and that criticism is not without some merit. Trump is not what one would call a nuanced critic.

Another big tranche of missing communications? Really?

When the IRS was in trouble for targeting tea-party organizations and other conservative groups in the run-up to the 2012 election, thousands of emails — evidence under subpoena — went missing. John Koskinen, then acting commissioner of the IRS, lied to Congress about how and why that happened, a fact he was later forced to acknowledge. As a legal question, the result of all that malfeasance — destroying evidence — was precisely squat. Lois Lerner walks the streets a free woman with a fat federal pension, and John Koskinen is perfectly comfortable showing his face in the daylight. And now it is the FBI’s turn. With serious questions being posed about the bureau’s activities during the 2016 election — about whether the bureau protected Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in the matter of their habit of using off-the-books email communications to avoid ordinary oversight — the FBI has suddenly discovered months’ worth of communication between FBI counterintelligence specialist Peter Strzok and his paramour, FBI lawyer Lisa Page. The two exchanged politically charged messages about Trump and the Clinton email investigation, and Strzok wrote darkly of developing an “insurance policy” against Trump’s election, still regarded as highly unlikely at that time.

The texts went missing, and then were recovered. Or some of them were recovered. All of them? Whose word would you take on that? And why would you take the FBI’s word? Aaron Blake, writing in the Washington Post, argued that the “insurance policy” message looked bad, but not as bad as some on Trump’s side insisted. Well. He allowed that “it’s 100 percent true Mueller and his probe aren’t above reproach.”

And that, of course, is really what this is all about.

“Above reproach” does not mean “never made a mistake,” “never got it wrong,” “never had a rogue employee misbehave.” No, “above reproach,” in this context, means that the institution behaved and responded institutionally in a way consistent with its duties, its mission, and its public purpose. That means, among other things, acknowledging forthrightly when bad actors within the agency abuse their offices and their powers for political purposes and tilt the table toward their political friends and benefactors. That means treating such situations with complete and total transparency.

It means, at the very least, not destroying evidence in a federal investigation. And no sane person believes for a nanosecond that those “lost” communications represent anything other than willful obstruction of justice. If you are on the FBI’s radar and you got a parking ticket in Sheboygan in 1983, the FBI knows whether you paid it. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is a federal bureau in the business of conducting investigations.

No one believes that the IRS or the FBI is above reproach. No one seriously believes that the editors of the New York Times would have treated a President Hillary Clinton and a President Donald Trump in the same way. (One likewise wonders what Fox News would have made of partially documented claims that President Bill Clinton had paid $130,000 in hush money to a porn star who says she had an affair with him.) President Obama’s so-called scandal-free administration was in fact rife with abuses of power, from the IRS to the ATF to the EPA to the NLRB. Trump may sometimes attack our institutions without good cause; the Obama administration gave critics good cause to attack our institutions.

We have not yet reached the point of no return, but the diminishing faith in our institutions — the media, the government, law enforcement, the universities, and more — is not the result of Donald Trump’s wounded egomania or talk-radio screeds against the mainstream media and the “deep state.” (Some of those are amusingly daft: Sean Hannity lamented that the mainstream media was sure to ignore a certain story while he was reading aloud on the radio the text of an Associated Press report about that very story — which of course is how he knew about it in the first place.) Yes, conspiracy theories are to be resisted and ridiculed, and the institutions that make possible our free society are to be cherished. But they need not be cherished blindly. In fact, it is essential that we do the opposite, that we keep them under close and aggressive oversight — conducted both by government institutions and by the press — and that we weed out corruption, self-dealing, and political abuses where we find them.

It isn’t up to Donald Trump to see to the FBI’s reputation if the FBI will not see to it itself.

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