Nothing is more fashionable these days on the Republican right than to trash America’s law enforcement and intelligence services. Legislators like Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, and Francis Rooney, R-Fla., broadcast accusations about “major corruption” within the Federal Bureau of Investigation and demand a “purge.” Tom Fitton, who runs the right-wing legal outfit known as Judicial Watch, has even called for the FBI to be “shut down.”
And of course Donald Trump himself has led an unrelenting assault on the bureau, with his trademark screeching tweets and verbal outbursts, repeatedly suggesting that the nation’s premier law enforcement agency is “tainted,” its reputation “in tatters.”
Behind these angry accusations, coming from politicians who claim to be law-and-order conservatives, are unfounded claims that the FBI became “politicized” under President Obama and former FBI director James Comey.
Yet there is no evidence to support such charges, beyond a few text messages between an FBI agent and an FBI lawyer who privately criticized Trump (as well as former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, Chelsea Clinton and others). Before anyone outside the bureau ever saw the offending texts, special counsel Robert Mueller removed those officials from his ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, possibly colluding with Trump.
Mueller’s prudent pruning did nothing to silence his critics. Having served as a straight-arrow FBI director for a dozen years, he provokes deep fear on the right. Who knows what he will uncover about the president, his aides, his family, his donors and his allies? Even the National Rifle Association, which appears to have used money from Kremlin-linked sources to bolster Trump in 2016, could be in deep trouble.
Although Republicans’ partisan concern is understandable, their attempts to disrupt the Russia investigation and discredit the FBI are disturbing. Why would patriotic elected officials thwart a probe of what we now know was a sustained attack on our democratic system by a foreign adversary? Why would they seek to disable and even destroy our primary counter-intelligence defense against all foreign adversaries, which is one of the principal functions of the FBI?
Their answer is that the FBI exhibited bias in its handling of two matters that arose from the 2016 election: Hillary Clinton’s private email server and the “dossier” on Trump’s Russia connections compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. According to Fox News and like-minded conspiracists, those cases prove that the bureau is part of a “deep state” plot to boost Clinton and oust Trump.
Looking back at the 2016 election, however, it is clear that the FBI didn’t favor Clinton at all. The Justice Department found no basis for charges against her, but FBI director Comey inflicted the maximum possible damage to her campaign with his two public pronouncements about the case, both of which violated department guidelines. (Meanwhile, the New York FBI office was reported at the time to strongly favor Trump.)
If anything, Comey appears to have protected not Clinton but Trump, by withholding the fact that his campaign had become the subject of a counter-intelligence investigation as early as July 2016. That probe was opened following advisories received from allied governments, well before any FBI officials saw the Steele dossier.
Republican officials have also expressed outrage that the FBI obtained surveillance warrants on individuals associated with Trump under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes, R-Calif., reportedly has prepared a confidential memo, including highly classified material, which outlines the alleged FISA missteps. This cued Trump supporters on the far right to promote #ReleaseTheMemo as a hashtag social media campaign, suggesting that Nunes will disclose explosive proof of FBI abuses “worse than Watergate.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the ranking member of the intelligence committee, describes the memo as a mishmash of errors and distortions. Whatever Nunes says, however, there was ample reason for counterintelligence surveillance of certain Trump aides — notably Paul Manafort, who worked for Kremlin-linked figures in Russia and Ukraine, and Carter Page, who showed up four years ago in a case that concluded with the imprisonment of one Russian spy and the expulsion of two others. (Page was not indicted.)
Perhaps the Republican officials who attack the FBI are so blinded by partisanship that they have forgotten the Russians engage in constant hostile behavior, including every kind of espionage. Or perhaps they are what the Soviets used to call “useful idiots,” now mesmerized by Vladimir Putin’s nationalist authoritarian style.
But like Trump’s depredations against the CIA, which he compared to the Nazi regime, and the State Department, which he has damaged permanently, the question raised by the Republican campaign against the FBI is cui bono: Who benefits?
Here’s a clue. The Twitter accounts most fervently pushing #ReleaseTheMemo — aside from white nationalists and other neo-Nazis — are Russian bots.