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White House

Trump’s FBI Problem Is a Character Problem

President Donald Trump speaks to the news media before boarding Marine One to depart for travel to New Orleans from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., January 14, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

There’s a great debate between David French and Rich Lowry on the latest episode of The Editors about the bombshell earlier this week that was eclipsed by the BuzzFeed story. The New York Times reported that the FBI initiated an investigation into whether Trump was a Russian asset of some kind.  Rich thinks the real outrage is that the FBI launched such a probe in the first place. David thinks the probe was legally justified.

But there’s a missing ingredient in the debate.

As someone who thinks it’s an outrage that Congress has gelded itself by outsourcing its responsibilities to the executive branch over the last century, I agree with many of Rich’s frustrations. If our constitutional system were operating properly, much of what Mueller is doing would be done by Congress. Having an employee of the justice department conducting a crazy hybrid investigation that is equal parts a criminal probe, a national-security review, and an impeachment inquiry is no way to run a railroad — or a republic.

But I side with David. Congress established the FBI and has empowered it to do many things in its stead. In a sense, the FBI is run by the executive, but it works for Congress, which created it and pays for its operation. I may sympathize with Charlie Cooke that the FBI is constitutionally problematic, but one can also have such arguments about paper money, the income tax and countless other entities. The fact is that they exist and have a long tradition of existence. Retreating to constitutional objections about the operation of longstanding laws and institutions is always interesting and sometimes fruitful, but it also threatens to descend into Ron/Rand Paulism — a way to absolve yourself from the pressing question of the moment by invoking a rhetorical Kobayashi Maru that lets you off the hook from making a no-win decision.

This is why military planners war-game various scenarios, pelting decision-makers with imperfect information in real-time, demanding best-guess choices in the heat of the moment. It’s one thing to condemn the bombings of Dresden or Nagasaki in retrospect, it’s another to put yourself in the position of people making the call in the moment.

Rich objects to Trump’s general approach to Russia, but he defends the president on constitutional, republican, and democratic grounds. Trump is the president and he can make the policy calls he wants without being subject to investigatory gainsaying by his own FBI. In theory, that’s a perfectly cogent and defensible position.

But if you put yourself in the real-world situation of the FBI, you can forgive people for having a “What the Hell is going on?” response to Trump’s actual behavior. I won’t belabor you with the litany of reasons we know about — from his Putin sycophancy, the DNC hacking, his firing of Comey and using a pre-textual memo to justify it and so on. But if you get a chance you should read this whole thread:

Yes, yes, many of the FBI officials involved in the decision to investigate were undoubtedly victims of the motivated reasoning that comes with excessive and inappropriate partisanship, but that doesn’t mean only partisans could come to the conclusion something smelled very fishy. And as David argues at length, the FBI was acting with legal authority to figure out what was behind the odor. This is partly why I wrote earlier this week that the story, if true, is both “simultaneously understandable and outrageous.”

This points to something I’ve been writing about for two years now. Trump defenders want to defend everything Trump does outside of the lines of normalcy on the grounds that he is a disrupter. There are several problems with this argument, but I’ll focus on two. The first is that much of Trump’s disruptiveness is characterological, not programmatic or ideological.  If you want to defend the president’s prerogative to question the value of NATO, that’s fine. That’s one kind of disruption, to be sure. But his personal behavior from his pettiness, impulsiveness, and constant mendacity is disruptive, too. And you can’t expect people un-besotted with him to compartmentalize the two the way you do. Trump’s erratic behavior is endearing to some and worrisome to others. Expecting those endeared to find it troubling is as foolhardy as expecting the worriers to find it charming, particularly if the worrier has a responsibility to act.

Second,  Trump supporters simultaneously celebrate his disruptiveness, and even his violation of democratic norms, but are scandalized when he provokes equally disruptive or norm-violating responses. When I hear Kevin McCarthy complain that Nancy Pelosi’s quasi disinvitation to deliver the State of the Union is “beneath” the office of the speaker, or when I hear praetorian pundits denounce the profane language of his opponents as if they shock the conscience of Trump supporters, I want to resort to the international sign-language gesture for Onanism.

If you are going to anoint a Cincinnatus who lays down his golf bag to save the Republic for being willing to break the rules and fight for ends heedless of traditional means, you should probably avoid clutching your pearls when partisans and even non-partisan institutionalists alike behave as if there are no guard rails for them either.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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