Follows a four-part essay, written over four evenings this week.
Webster and Douthat disagree about FBI, 12/18
I wanted to write about Achilles tonight, but I don’t have time.
I wanted to write about FBI foolishness tonight, but I don’t have time.
I wanted to write about personal experiences tonight, but I don’t have time.
Well I guess I do have time to write about FBI foolishness, one of my favorite subjects. To warm up, read or skim articles below, both from the New York Times, to see what you think.
The rule of law is the principle that protects every American from the abuse of monarchs, despots and tyrants.
By William Webster
The great drama of the Russia investigation has turned out to be a dark Coen brothers farce.
By Ross Douthat
I honestly try not to let my prior judgments about the FBI influence the way I assess new evidence. I’ll say, though, that no matter how low the bureau sinks in one’s estimation, it finds some new way to impress you with its stupidity and incompetence. How can you maintain a balanced assessment of an institution that not only bungles its way through every single job it is supposed to do, but also preens itself over exactly the things that make people laugh, jeer, sneer, snicker, or just shake their heads?
These people named their headquarters building after J. Edgar Hoover, for God’s sake. You might as well put Benedict Arnold on the one dollar bill. Instead, William Webster suggests that Hoover and the other jag-offs who make up the FBI pantheon of patriotic individuals actually deserve our praise and gratitude because they keep us safe. How do they keep us safe? They uphold the rule of law! Like they did when they murdered Ibragim Todashev, correct? I feel so grateful and secure that when an interrogation doesn’t go well, FBI agents on the scene pull out pistols and execute their prisoner. That goes over so well with the rest of us citizens.
I tried to give James Comey benefit of the doubt during that tumultuous summer of 2016. Every week, or every day brought a new head-scratching headline, sort of like every turn brings you to a new surprise in a house of horrors. As Comey made one dubious decision after another, I thought, “Well, he sure has a difficult job,” or, “You can see he’s not a politician, though he tries.” Then the more I learned about his so-called investigations, the more I thought, “Man, this guy may look upstanding, but he totally doesn’t know what he’s doing!”
After Trump fires him, not for incompetence, interestingly, but for lack of respect, he goes to a university to teach a course on leadership. He even writes a memoir about his career, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, sold on Amazon next to Andrew McCabe’s The Threat and Rachel Maddow’s Blowout. Good company there, as you write about your higher loyalties, or should I say loyalty in the singular. I don’t even know if his higher loyalty is to the FBI itself, one of the most corrupt agencies ever to besmirch our history, or to his country, which is more defensible.
Where in heaven’s name does government find people who think so well of themselves? You might think the FBI placed a classified ad in the Washington Post:
WANTED: FBI Director. Must be biggest fuck-up among your colleagues, but have good looks and grooming. Looking for strong record of mistakes, inability to learn, self-righteousness, and constant attention to image. Submit cover letter and resume to attorney general, with three letters of reference from fellow incompetents.
Department of Justice considers applications from all through the federal bureaucracy, until it finds someone capable of James Comey’s extraordinary level of self-regard to mask no ability. Since most applicants try to impress you with both their modesty and their competence, it’s hard to find someone with Comey’s combination of traits.
Thus FBI goes for someone who looks right for the job. Forget about knowing what the job requires. Pity poor Hillary. With Comey looking out for himself, and blathering his way from one blunder to the next, she could have used someone with a more professional touch. She could have used an FBI director who just kept his mouth shut.
Tell us why you don’t like the FBI, 12/19
As I finished yesterday’s post, I thought, “Man, another rant about the FBI, but it’s a satisfying way to end the day.” I realize, though, that I do not explain these criticisms, as you can do only so much in one post. Other reasons: ridicule is easier than analysis, and it’s more entertaining, at least for the author.
The problem with the FBI extends way back, as you know from a post I wrote about the agency’s role in Jack Kennedy’s assassination. Their overwhelming incompetence was on display in that crime and its aftermath as well, more than fifty-five years ago. If government officials wanted to know, “What more can we do to make this whole series of events – crime and cover-up – look more like a goverment plot?” the answer would have to be, “Well, I can’t think of anything.”
I suppose they thought they could rely on primitive communications and benefit of the doubt, but from appearances, FBI and their cronies in local law enforcement seemed creative in the ways they sought to implicate themselves. Who would march their patsy – I mean prisoner – in front of television cameras and a passel of journalists, so he could announce to the world, “I’m a patsy!”? They probably did not think he was going to say that, but that’s the point, they don’t think.
So what do you do for people who think so much of themselves, but are actually laughable? You make fun of them. You make them subjects of satire. That is the only sane response. If you don’t do that, you go nuts. You can’t stay sane when people act like clowns, but you take them just as seriously as they take themselves. You think, “If they want to entertain me with their stupidity, let them do it. I’ll tune in occasionally. When you try to tell me that this law enforcement enterprise is not about entertainment – it’s about rule of law, and that’s serious – I’ll try not to laugh even more, bitter though the occasion may be.”
We still have not touched on roots of incompetence in 2016. I have not made myself an expert on that campaign, and in fact a lot occurred during that season that no one knows. I can, however, tell you one simple rule: the FBI should not involve itself in domestic political campaigns. No matter who the candidates are, it will do grievous damage to itself.
FBI involvement in 2016 election, 12/20
Last night I planned to set out reasons for my attitudes about the FBI. The bureau prompts questions like, “Who would you compare these people to, the Three Stooges, or Laurel and Hardy?” Keystone Cops do not count.
Now I think to myself, “You set out to explain reasoning behind your rant. Instead you talk about why ridicule is so satisfying.” At some point, I have to get down to work!
Here is the key point. We may not have a democracy any longer, but we still have elections and some measure of free speech. I can still call the FBI director an idiot or some other uncomplimentary name, and he does not send his people out to give me trouble. Similarly, we have no-holds-barred elections in the United States. No matter how much we try to circumscribe elections with rules and laws, our political traditions say, “All’s fair.” All’s fair in love, war, and political battles.
If you needed a reminder that we have wild, woolly, and yes, weird elections around here, the 2016 campaign comes around. We had not seen one like that for a while. Part of our tradition for political campaigns is that the FBI – in fact, no law enforcement or intelligence agency – gets involved. The tradition is just as solid as the one that says the military does not get involved in our domestic politics, certainly not in elections. We leave elections to politicians, and people who work with them.
That’s why FBI’s involvement in the 2016 election campaign, for an entire year before the vote, strikes us as so egregious. Just as the Supreme Court’s appointment of President Bush after the close vote in Florida struck us as inadmissible, the FBI’s deep dive in political affairs in 2016 appears not only to discredit the bureau once and for all, but as an actual attack on our democracy. Just as they tell us they have to surveil us constantly to keep us safe from terrorists, they seem to think they have to police our elections to keep us safe from foreign powers.
The FBI appears to defend its actions during the last presidential election. As an antidote, someone must tell the story of what happened during the 2016 campaign, a story that accurately brings together all of its threads. The Mueller report does not nearly do the job, for obvious reasons: its purpose is to determine if crimes were committed, in a highly partisan political context, and within a Department of Justice that keeps all valuable information secret. Good luck telling a revealing, rich story with that charter, no matter how many resources you have.
The FBI will never acknowledge that it did anything wrong in 2016. Moreover, politicians and public leaders of all persuasions and in all positions insist they protect our democracy, when we have so little to preserve. You can justify so much for the sake of a lofty ideal, but how can you justify anything when the thing you want to protect no longer exists? How do we know it does not exist? One good indicator: the FBI says it wants to protect it. We have other ways to tell, but if the FBI claims a motive like that, look again.
When people tell you they want to protect democracy, you immediately have to look for their real motives. No one in Washington, in this environment, wants to protect democracy. If they did, they would not be in Washington. You do not go to the capital because you believe in representative government. You go to the capital because you want the government to represent you. That is, you want to use government’s power to advance your party’s interests. If you had other interests to pursue, you would stay as far away from Washington as you could.
In retrospect, we see both political campaigns in 2016 thought they still operated under the old model: all’s fair, FBI stands aside. Instead they found the FBI right in the middle of it, sort of like a monkey climbing all over two boxers in the ring. People will say, “Yes, we had Russia in the middle of it, too,” but that’s not the case. Moscow’s ability to influence an American election is limited. Those limitations did not stop the FBI. They are an activist bunch. Give them a bit of a window, and they will barge through it. You can’t be too vigilant.
FBI and the Democratic party, 12/21
Tonight we compose our fourth installment. I expect I will finish this essay tonight. It is, after all, Friday.
Today you grabbed Wednesday’s copy of the Wall Street Journal as you made your way home from work. In that issue, Jason Riley writes about Michael Horowitz’s report about the FBI, released last week. Riley concludes his commentary, The Democrats Could Re-Elect Trump in 2020:
What the report showed was that FBI officials deceived a court into obtaining warrants to wiretap Carter Page, a U.S. citizen and former Trump adviser, during the 2016 campaign. It also showed that a discredited “dossier” compiled at the request of Democratic operatives was “central and essential” to the FBI’s warrant application, something anti-Trump media had long disputed. In a hapless effort to demonstrate that Mr. Page was working for the Russians, the agency manipulated documents and hid information that could have exonerated him.
Democrats are playing down these findings because, however badly the FBI behaved, it was in the service of taking down Mr. Trump. But voters might see things differently, and I don’t suspect that the president will stop talking about how his opponents in the government and the media have spent the past three years using lies and deception to portray him as a White House squatter.
That’s pretty pointed language. It also illustrates the fundamental dynamic at play since November 2016: the more Democrats try to “get” Mr. Trump, the more they create a situation favorable to his continuation in office. Trump won in 2016 not because he won so many votes – he lost by three million – but because Clinton failed to win votes in states where it mattered. Here’s what Riley has to say about Trump’s victory and Clinton’s defeat:
Mr. Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 came as a surprise to so many people because journalists consistently played down his chances of winning. Thinking Mrs. Clinton was a shoo-in, many Democrats stayed home on Election Day. Much has been written about the millions of voters who switched from supporting Barack Obama to backing Mr. Trump in important battleground states like Iowa and Wisconsin. But Democratic nonvoters, who either couldn’t stomach pulling the lever for Mrs. Clinton or didn’t think she needed their support to prevail – were also a decisive factor. In Michigan, for example, Mrs. Clinton received 300,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012, and Mr. Trump won the state by just 11,000 votes.
With their never-ending campaign to eject Trump before the 2020 election, Democrats give voters no reason to turn out for their candidate next November. They have ten and a half months to go, and they have wasted the last thirty-seven and a half. They focus so exclusively on getting their man, they actually side with a corrupt FBI in their efforts. If your organization is in a tough battle against an incumbent president, the last ally you would want on your side is the FBI. It has totally discredited itself, in a million and one ways. People judge you by your friends, and nowhere does that rule hold more unforgivingly than in political battles.
If the Democrats want to win next year, they have to forget about Trump for a while. After Labor Day, of course, they can think about him again. Having wasted almost three and a half years dithering around, they have some ground to make up. With their impeachment sideshow, their Mueller delusions, their FBI surveillance chumminess, and their total inability to articulate a direction for the country that has any chance of attracting support from more than, say, a third of voters, they are headed for ignominy again.
When you lose to a person like Donald Trump, ignominy and feckless fumbling drape your party for a long time. Even worse, the party descends toward dishonesty as it tries to find any means to unseat their White House troll. When you stand proudly with the foremost agency of an outlaw security state, you gain something else that guarantees defeat: scorn. So shake it all off, Democrats. You still have time, if you act now.