The systematic mishandling of the FBI’s investigation into the charge that candidate Trump colluded with Russia in order to win the 2016 presidential election suggests more than administrative sloppiness combined with routine government incompetence. One need not be a Trump admirer—and there are few people who have a lower opinion of the man than I do—to recognize that the behavior of the FBI was egregiously out of bounds and that the mainstream press shielded the FBI from critics.
Consider the findings of Inspector General Michael Horowitz. In an exhaustive review of the FBI’s handling of the Trump collusion investigation Horowitz detailed appalling errors of judgment and violations of FBI rules—by the FBI. These were not small scale or trivial errors. And that assumes they were merely errors. In this respect it should be noted that Horowitz found evidence a relatively low-level FBI lawyer actually tampered with documents related to the probe.
The report on the Crossfire Hurricane investigation includes examples of what Horowitz describes as threats to constitutionally protected activity, including First Amendment activity. To be sure, Horowitz did not find the proverbial smoking gun proving the existence of a deep state conspiracy that Trump and Company are busy whipping up. But neither did it “debunk” anything of substance.
The party line among Democrats and their cheerleaders in the press has been that the IG found no political bias so that we might as well get on with the business of impeachment.
Not so fast.
What the IG actually said was “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative actions we reviewed.” He went on to say that “While we did not find these decisions were the result of bias on Comey’s part, we nevertheless concluded that by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice”. The IG said that while he could find no documentary evidence that the mistakes were the result of political bias rather than gross incompetence, he was not satisfied with the explanations he was given. Finally, referring to his report he said “ It doesn’t vindicate anybody at the FBI who touched this, including the leadership”.
So how plausible is it that there was no political bias, when according to the evidence:
- The FBI systematically committed egregious violations of its norms and policies;
- An FBI lawyer altered relevant documents;
- Two FBI agents (Peter Strzok and Lisa Page) involved in the inquiry were texting each other about “stopping” Trump and creating an anti-Trump “insurance policy” ;
- That Andrew McCabe was fired for lying about his role;
- That McCable’s sworn testimony directly contradicts James Comey’s sworn testimony;
- That Bruce Ohr’s wife was being paid by Fusion GPS, a fact that Ohr conveniently neglected to include on his financial disclosure forms
The obvious questions are: Was this FBI behavior unusual? Does the FBI routinely botch investigations this way? Or was this a special case, and if so, what is the explanation for it?
If you parse the IG’s statement what he effectively said was (1) there is a low threshold for starting an investigation, which the FBI met and (2) nobody wrote a memo to the file outlining bias, so (3) let’s go with gross incompetence even though the explanations received are unsatisfactory.
The idea that the top echelons of the FBI were not politically motivated is a tough sell, especially when you consider the Lois Lerner episode. That fiasco is starting to look like a dress rehearsal for the Russia collusion story. In the Tea Party episode the IRS targeted conservative Tea Party organizations to stop them from fundraising for the upcoming 2012 Presidential elections. Needless to say, the bureaucracy dug in its heels and claimed that no such thing happened before finally admitting it. Attorney General Eric Holder put the FBI—yes that FBI—in charge of investigating the incident. Not surprisingly, nothing serious came of it. But lots of relevant IRS email files mysteriously went missing. And Lois Lerner, who was formerly a Democratic Party operative before going to the IRS, took the 5th before Congress, collected a bonus and retired.
The FBI Collusion investigation would not be the first time, and it certainly won’t be the last when an Administration turns to Executive Agencies to punish political enemies. Richard Nixon did it, so did Lyndon Johnson, and J. Edgar Hoover wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout either. It increasingly looks like the Obama Administration was not a lot different, just better at it.
Political bias is not the main or only issue. It is possible, however unlikely, that gross incompetence is the sole explanation, in which case we have a huge structural and institutional problem. A more likely explanation is that this whole sorry tale is really about the corruption of power and the threat an ever growing federal bureaucracy poses to the civil liberties of American citizens regardless of political viewpoint. The power of corruption is an equal opportunity employer.