It’s hard to imagine a more fitting illustration of the biggest crisis in U.S. political discourse than this:
- On Thursday Afternoon, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a 500 page report concluding that the FBI’s former director, James Comey, violated department norms and usurped the attorney general’s authority by inveighing against Clinton repeatedly during the election.
- The report also concludes that Comey’s violations—and his recommendation that Clinton should not be prosecuted—weren’t politically motivated, but cites multiple witnesses saying Comey was effectively bullied into excoriating Clinton because he feared right-wing criticism.
- And yet in awaiting the report, and upon its release, political reporters turned with bated breath to President Trump and the GOP, awaiting what they knew would be a bad-faith effort to misconstrue the report as evidence of FBI and DOJ bias against Trump and his campaign.
That effort will apparently turn on a one-line text message exchange between a former FBI lawyer named Lisa Page and an FBI agent named Peter Strzok, who were engaged in an extramarital affair during the election. In August 2016, she texted him “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” and he responded, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
The IG report draws no conclusion about whether the “we” in Strzok’s text message refers to the FBI or the broader voting public. It draws no conclusions about the integrity of the Russia investigation, which will be the subject of a subsequent internal inquiry. The report only notes that, in the aggregate, the Clinton email investigation was conducted without bias.
And yet the unwritten rules of political discourse hold that the strained Republican fixation on the Strzok text must be accepted as if it were offered in good faith. The truth is there is essentially no good-faith way for Trump’s allies to interpret the findings, because for them to interpret the findings in good faith would require them to own up to many uncomfortable but obvious truths about how Trump became president, and how he has conducted himself in office.
Imagine for argument’s sake—and contrary to the report’s findings—that Strzok did abuse his law-enforcement powers in an attempt to stop Trump from winning. If so, then the institution resisted his efforts, and he failed, because, as the report shows, the FBI’s mishandling of the Clinton investigation harmed Clinton, while the bureau managed to keep the public in the dark about its concurrent investigation of the Trump campaign.
So even if Trump supporters’ professed concerns about Strzok’s “we’ll stop it” text were offered in good faith, they are moot.
Having failed to stop Trump’s election, might Strzok have then sought to sabotage Trump’s presidency by improperly influencing the Russia investigation? In theory, yes. In practice, DOJ removed Strzok from the investigation a year ago, when his text messages surfaced; even many of Trump’s allies have already conceded, based on classified briefings, that the Russia investigation was properly predicated; and Trump’s hand-selected deputy attorney general, who oversees the investigation, has testified that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting it appropriately.
So all Strzok-related deflections are just that: deflections.
But even if Strzok had never sent any text messages, it would be folly to mediate a debate over a document like this IG report by throwing its meaning up for grabs to people with a vested interest in inverting its findings, and a willingness to operate in bad faith.
The report, at bottom, takes us behind the scenes of events that played out publicly. It dispels the notion that Comey gave Clinton a pass, and confirms arguments that Comey acted improperly (though not corruptly) in a way that harmed Clinton. These findings are good to have, but they were blindingly obvious, and there is just not much to say about them that is of political value to Donald Trump.
To the contrary, they expose deep cynicism and opportunism in conservative politics. Conservatives, including Trump, were thrilled Comey publicly announced he’d reopened the Clinton investigation days before the election, greasing the skids for Trump’s victory.
When Comey then refused to pledge loyalty to Trump, and continued investigating Trump’s campaign, conservatives applauded (or made peace with) Trump’s decision to fire Comey, using the same mistreatment of Clinton they had previously celebrated as a pretext.
The people who played along with this farce of situational ethics are now beginning a third act, in which they cite the same FBI misconduct—misconduct that they celebrated—to impeach Comey’s credibility as a witness against Trump.
In reality, Comey’s handling of the email investigation and the integrity of the Russia investigation are unrelated issues, and Trump supporters are the last people who should be allowed to claim deeply held views about Comey’s behavior. To treat their arguments with credibility requires presenting a distorted view of events we all bore witness to. Indeed, that is their arguments’ ultimate purpose.
This article has been updated for clarity.