Clinesmith, the Russia Lie, and the Deep State

FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
A scandal barely exists if the leading news outlets unite to draw a veil over it.

Picture a lawyer you know. Fairly persnickety with details, no? Covers all bases. Doesn’t mess up the easy stuff. Rarely messes up the hard stuff. This is a person who knows the rulebook. Now picture that same person working for the FBI. Doubly careful, in this gig. It’s the big time. Now picture that same person working for the FBI on a major political issue — no, the major political issue. The one the whole world is talking about. Belt and suspenders, right? Make that six belts and four pairs of suspenders. This person is not going to get caught with his pants down, ever. Every t will be crossed, crossed again, then crossed again in the presence of a notary public.

So when you cast your eye over what former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith did to earn himself a criminal record as a felon during the Trump–Russia fiasco, your mind should reel. Clinesmith, like others in the FBI, knew that former Trump adviser Carter Page had done some work for the CIA that involved contacts with Russian intelligence. But Clinesmith wanted permission from the FISA judge to continue to conduct clandestine surveillance of Carter Page. Clinesmith knew Page was spying on the Russians, not spying for the Russians, but he needed to keep this under wraps so the court might think Page was talking to Russians as part of a nefarious collusion effort between Russia and the Trump campaign. So when Clinesmith’s superior at the FBI asked whether Page was a CIA contact in 2017, because he or she needed to be able to swear under oath that Page was not, Clinesmith forwarded an email from the CIA — but altered the email to reverse its meaning. The email said Page had been in touch with the CIA, but Clinesmith added the words “and not a source.” The lie that Page wasn’t briefing the CIA was critical to winning court approval for trying to dig up dirt on the Trump campaign via spying on Page.

You need not be a ranting Alex Jones-Pizzagate-Q-Anon freak to recognize why the term “Deep State” has caught on. If the label sounds silly to you, think of it as merely a spy-movie label for that most boring of institutions, the entrenched bureaucracy. The permanent Washington class has its own interests, interests that tend to align with those of the party of government, which is another way of saying that “nonpartisan” federal employees have a tendency to be ardent Democrats. Clinesmith is a Trump hater to such a degree that he once wrote “Viva [sic] le [sic] resistance” in an email. Why would a lawyer working for the FBI on the biggest case in politics be so indiscreet as to create a record of altering a document in the course of making a false statement of huge importance? Either Clinesmith was so confident in being surrounded by allies in the anti-Trump resistance that he believed he would never be caught, or he was so blinded by Trump loathing that he was willing to do something breathtakingly out of character for a trained, experienced Washington lawyer.

The press that spent two years on the shaggy-dog story of the nonexistent Trump–Russia conspiracy has been extravagantly bored by the new development. CNN’s coverage of the matter on its website has been limited to two pieces, one a news item meant to downplay the guilty plea and one a column by Chris Cillizza meant to downplay the guilty plea. Cillizza focuses on Trump’s typically hyperbolic and imprecise comments on the matter and concludes, of the case, “What it doesn’t prove is that Trump’s wild claims that there is a ‘deep state’ conspiracy that tried to keep him from being elected and has worked against him since he got into office actually exists. The facts just aren’t there.”

No, a Trump-hating FBI member who said he was part of “le [sic] resistance” simply falsified a document as part of a months-long play to obtain and renew FISA court approval, under false pretenses, to unleash all of the levers of state surveillance to spy on a Trump aide. It strains credulity to believe such a nobody as Carter Page was the actual target; he was just the tool the FBI used to wedge its way into Trump’s inner circle. Nothing deep-statey about that at all.

Cillizza even suggests that Clinesmith falsified the email inadvertently: “there were significant screw-ups in the way the FBI went about making its case . . . in the case of Clinesmith, a crime was committed in regard to these FISA applications — whether or not he meant to.” Whether or not he meant to? According to the “criminal information” statement in lieu of an indictment, Clinesmith “did willfully and knowingly make and use a false writing and document, knowing the same to contain a materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statement.” Cillizza is promoting a PR talking point Clinesmith’s lawyer made to the media and ignoring the actual substance of the case.

New York Times coverage of the matter, buried on page A16, also read as though it were vetted by Clinesmith’s lawyer: Reporter Adam Goldman cast the matter as a distraction from the much larger issues raised by the (wet-firecracker) Mueller investigation and claimed, “Republicans have seized on a narrow aspect of the inquiry — the investigation into Mr. Page — in a long-running quest to undermine it.” Goldman added, “By changing the email and then forwarding it, Mr. Clinesmith misrepresented the original content of the document, which prosecutors said was a crime.” Funny people, those prosecutors: They also said breaking into the DNC headquarters at the Watergate to dig up dirt on political adversaries was a crime.

As to whether the texts Clinesmith sent that identified him as a vigorous opponent of the GOP and referred to its leaders as “crazies” might be relevant hints at motive, Goldman wrote, presumably while stifling a hearty chuckle, “Mr. Clinesmith told the inspector general that he was expressing his personal views but did not let them affect his work.” Among Clinesmith’s texts were remarks such as “I just can’t imagine the systematic disassembly of the progress we made over the last 8 years,” which he sent the day after Trump was elected.

Goldman also wrote a warm-up piece that framed the exposure of a spying-related crime at the highest levels of government as merely a meaningless episode of palace officials flattering the king with a technicality: “An expected guilty plea in the review of the Russia inquiry pleases Trump.” Apart from two duplicative bare-bones wire stories that ran on the Times’ site, Goldman’s pooh-poohing coverage was it: None of the Times’ dozens of opinion columnists deemed the matter fit for attention, and so the paper’s readers can be forgiven if, having not thoroughly perused page A16 on the day in question, they have heard nothing whatsoever about the story. It barely exists if the leading news outlets unite to draw a veil over it.

For the media, this is the usual playbook when Democrats are caught in a shocking scandal: minor breach of the rules, nothing to get excited about, dutiful story on page A16, no follow-through. For Americans who actually care about how ideologically hostile members of a government bureaucracy were working to gather dirt on a presidential campaign, then a presidential administration, the story ought to inspire outrage. Or would CNN and the Times think it was no big deal if agents of Donald Trump’s FBI were currently spying on members of the Biden campaign based on a spurious pretense while sending each other texts saying, “Let’s stop those libtards! MAGA!”?


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