One of the clearest marks of an unhinged critic of a public official is that they react with rage when anyone corrects or disputes attacks on that official, even attacks that are false or exaggerated. I suppose there’s something to be said for the idea that, say, lying about Hitler is a good thing, because he’s Hitler.
But not everyone you disagree with is Hitler.
This is the problem facing Jonathan Chait, currently of New York Magazine. Chait has committed to a narrative: that Trump is conducting a Stalinist-style “purge” of the FBI that will leave America bereft of safeguards against tyranny. Moreover, his real target is never Trump, but rather normal Republican elected officials and conservatives writers and intellectuals, against whom Chait wishes to deploy Trump. Let’s review his latest jeremiad on the topic, helpfully entitled “Trump’s Law Enforcement Purge Is Now Republican Policy”.
Chait leads off his parade of horribles by complaining that “the FBI pushed out its deputy director after Trump had subjected him and his wife to verbal abuse in public and private, and demanded his ouster.” It is inconvenient for Chait’s argument that Andrew McCabe himself has for months been under investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General for his role in the 2016 Hillary Clinton investigation, so Chait does not disclose that fact to his readers, and for good measure, carefully avoids even naming McCabe, lest any of his readers Google to find out why. In fact, McCabe failed to recuse himself from joining that investigation after his wife received $700,000 in campaign donations – the bulk of her financing – for her Virginia State Senate race as a Democrat in 2015 from Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe, the Clintons’ longtime campaign bagman, made those large donations after the public announcement of the email investigation, when it was obvious that Mrs. Clinton would need all the friends in the FBI she could get. (McAuliffe was under separate FBI investigation himself at the time). Now, investigators are probing whether McCabe dragged his feet on that investigation in the run-up to the 2016 election, and the Washington Post (which must be part of Trump’s vast conspiracy, under Chait’s theory) reports that McCabe left the FBI “following a meeting with FBI Director Christopher A. Wray in which they discussed the inspector general’s investigation, according to people familiar with the matter.”
Next, Chait goes after Paul Ryan:
House Speaker Paul Ryan today took to Fox News and said of the FBI, “Cleanse the organization.” This is the language Fox News personalities have been using for months to demand the FBI be purged of officials deemed insufficiently loyal to the president.
Ryan is not, at the moment, endorsing any move to fire Mueller….Ryan has already refused requests by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to restrain his attack dog, Devin Nunes. His endorsement of the plan to “cleanse” the Bureau indicates a willingness to follow the strategy through to its conclusion.
If you actually read the Fox News report on Ryan’s comments, rather than just Fox’s headline, you can see for yourself what he’s talking about, and it’s not exactly the stuff of Lavrenti Beria:
House Speaker Paul Ryan called Tuesday to “cleanse” the FBI as he openly backed the release of a controversial memo that purportedly details alleged surveillance abuses by the U.S. government. “Let it all out, get it all out there. Cleanse the organization,” Ryan, R-Wis., said. He added: “I think we should disclose all this stuff. It’s the best disinfectant. Accountability, transparency — for the sake of the reputation of our institutions.”
Disclosure? Accountability? Transparency? Why, he’s practically goose-stepping!
There are fair debates over the approach House Republicans are taking in attempting to satisfy those goals by releasing a memo by Devin Nunes criticizing the FISA court’s reliance on the “Steele dossier” (a Democratic-funded oppo-research product) during the campaign without releasing either the underlying documents or the Democrats’ rebuttal memo. As our own David French has argued, the better course at this point is for the voters to trust nobody and review the primary sources for themselves. But as Politico reported, Ryan’s remarks included a careful warning to his own caucus not to overplay their hand:
Speaker Paul Ryan urged Republican colleagues Tuesday to avoid overstating the findings of a classified House intelligence committee memo that alleges misconduct by FBI officials investigating Trump campaign contacts with Russia. In a closed-door meeting with House Republicans at the Capitol, Ryan (R-Wis.) also urged lawmakers not to connect the findings of the memo with the probe being run by special counsel Robert Mueller…Ryan pleaded with members not to oversell the memo and to distinguish it from Mueller’s investigation.
“This is a completely separate matter from Bob Mu[e]ller’s investigation, and his investigation should be allowed to take its course,” Ryan said at a news conference following the GOP meeting….Ryan also indicated to reporters that he saw no cause for firing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe….”I think Rod Rosenstein is doing a fine job. I see no reason why [Trump] should do that,” Ryan said when asked about the prospect of firing Rosenstein.
So much for Ryan carrying a pitchfork and a torch down to the J. Edgar Hoover Building. But you’d never know any of this if you only read Jonathan Chait.
Now, there are serious problems with Trump’s approach to the FBI and the Justice Department. Trump’s background is in closely-held corporations he ran as personal fiefdoms in which personal loyalty to the head of the company is a legitimate demand; he’s never before run a publicly-traded corporation, let alone a government tasked with enforcing laws. From the outset, he has viewed DOJ and FBI in the same terms, and reacted with frustrated incomprehension at the idea that people answerable to him might conduct independent investigations of his conduct.
At the same time, Trump has some legitimate grievances. Throughout Jim Comey’s tenure as the head of the FBI, he reassured Trump (accurately) in private that Trump was not under FBI investigation, yet stubbornly refused to state the same thing in public, while scores of Democratic leaders, liberal pundits and left-wing activists were citing Comey’s own statements to falsely claim that such an investigation was ongoing. Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, after having been told the truth by Comey, nonetheless freely retailed the lie as supposedly legitimate grounds to stop the Gorsuch nomination. So far as I can tell, Chait never had any problem with any of this; all for the cause, after all. But it seems to have been the main reason why Trump fired Comey…which ironically led to Trump becoming the subject of an FBI investigation under Mueller. Admit it, you’d be pretty angry if that happened to you.
Trump’s campaign against the handful of people who headed the Clinton investigation and seamlessly transitioned to the Russia counterintelligence probe and then the obstruction investigation has been ugly and improper. It has not, however, been some sort of existential threat to democratic self-government. We had a democracy long before we had a Justice Department or an FBI. All of these agencies properly report to the president, and if the voters don’t like how the president handles them, they can remove him from office in 2020, as they very well may. Moreover, Trump has shown very little interest in the FBI’s rank and file, or in its conduct of any investigations of anyone but him and Hillary Clinton; his entire beef is with four or five people over a very narrow range of topics that, naturally, relate to Trump himself. As is often the case with Trump, the rhetorical stakes may be high, but the reality is petty.
Had Chait wanted to criticize this, rather than sound like Captain Queeg trying to show with geometric precision who stole his strawberries, he would have had something to work with. But of course, that’s not as satisfying as taking down the entire Republican Party and the whole of the conservative commentariat in one shot, so caution must be thrown to the wind. Chait is so devoted to this theme that just last week, he described Yuval Levin, of all people, as “a case study in ideological collusion.”
At this point, Chait turns his guns on me, for having made some of the above points on Twitter:
The pinned tweet on McLaughlin’s Twitter feed, written in April 2016, reads, “20 years from now – maybe 2 years from now – everyone in the GOP will want to say they were against Trump now.” It is now almost two years later, and McLaughlin himself can’t even honestly say that anymore.
That Tweet is still pinned at the top of my Twitter profile for a reason: because I am, in fact, still convinced of its truth. I wrote it on April 28, 2016, at the point when the Indiana primary was the last chance for Republicans to turn aside from nominating Trump to lead the party and unite behind Ted Cruz. I thought we would all eventually regret picking Trump, and I still do – for many reasons, among them his ham-handed approach to the rule of law. And I backed that up by publicly declining to vote for Trump in November 2016, even against a ghastly opponent. I’ve not been shy about criticizing him since, and published just this week my predictions of why Republicans and conservatives will yet regret being lashed to Trump even though the accomplishments of his first year have been real and valuable.
Chait, by contrast, was writing columns during the Republican primary like “Why Liberals Should Support a Trump Republican Nomination,” which concluded that “If he does win, a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a [Ted] Cruz presidency. It might even, possibly, do some good.” (Other progressive writers like Matt Yglesias, Jamelle Bouie, and Amanda Marcotte were singing from the same hymnal at the time). Of course, once Trump had obtained that nomination and it was no longer in Chait’s interest to say such things, he conveniently claimed a conversion that he blamed on not having been adequately informed (while writing for a New York-based magazine 35 years into Trump’s public career) what sort of fellow Trump was.
I have little doubt that, if you were able to get a candid answer out of Chait today, he’d admit that he’s still happy that Trump is the president rather than a more competent, more principled, more effective, less error-prone, less scandal-prone, more legally cautious Republican like Rubio or Cruz. But it serves his purposes today to claim that Trump is on the verge of destroying democracy. Maybe if he had been straighter with his readers from the beginning, we’d agree on more about the reality of Trump, instead of veering from one hyperbolic claim to the next. But then, reality is not as much fun, nor as useful.