Two Candidates, Two Investigations, One Deeply Flawed Agency
CreditCreditJoan Wong. Photograph from John Lund/Getty Images
By Jonathan Chait
Oct. 7, 2019, 5:00 p.m. ET
Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law
By James B. Stewart
During the 2016 presidential election, one of the two major candidates labored under the shadow of a criminal investigation by the F.B.I. That candidate was Hillary Clinton. As we now know, though voters had little reason to apprehend it at the time, there were actually two investigations underway — and, while the probe into Clinton’s mishandling of emails played out in public, the more serious probe of Donald Trump’s secret political and financial connections with Russia remained largely unknown until well after the voting had concluded.
In “Deep State,” James B. Stewart, a columnist for The New York Times and the author of “Blood Sport” and “Den of Thieves,” among many other books, tells the story of both investigations. His account produces few new facts, nor a bold new thesis, that would dramatically alter our understanding of either. Instead, his contribution is to combine the two accounts into a single chronological narrative. He shows how the twin investigations turn out to be closely linked, and not just because an election pitted their subjects against each other.
The F.B.I. agents investigating Clinton’s use of a personal email account realized early on that they would never have a prosecutable case. While Clinton had violated laws pertaining to the handling of classified material, she had apparently done so out of a combination of technical ineptitude and convenience, and the government had never charged an offender without establishing nefarious motives. As a result, the bureau concluded it didn’t “have much on the intent side.”
You might think this decision made life easier for the F.B.I., which would be spared the ordeal of having to insert itself into a presidential campaign. Instead, it made life harder. The reason for this: The bureau contained what some Department of Justice officials considered “hotbeds of anti-Clinton hostility,” especially in the Little Rock and New York offices. Stewart describes how F.B.I. officials encouraged colleagues investigating the Democratic nominee with messages like “You have to get her” and “You guys are finally going to get that bitch.” James Comey, the F.B.I. director during the Clinton email probe, went so far as to tell Attorney General Loretta Lynch, “It’s clear to me that there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton.” Those agents leaked regularly to right-wing media sources that the bureau was turning a blind eye to what they saw as Clinton’s criminality.
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This pressure drove Comey to make two fateful decisions. First, when he announced that the bureau was not bringing charges against Clinton, he denounced her “extremely careless” behavior, as a kind of middle course between what the law dictated and what Republicans demanded. Second, when an unrelated investigation into sex crimes by the former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner turned up more Clinton email 11 days before the election, Comey felt trapped into announcing that he had reopened the investigation.
Image“Deep State” is the product of two years of reporting. Its epigraph is a quote from Mark Twain, tweeted by Donald Trump on January 29, 2014: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”
“Deep State” is the product of two years of reporting. Its epigraph is a quote from Mark Twain, tweeted by Donald Trump on January 29, 2014: “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times
Stewart shows how Comey violated the F.B.I.’s norm of doing everything possible to avoid involving itself in election campaigns, especially at the end. He believed that failing to intervene would lead conservative agents to leak the story — and would result in his own impeachment by the Republican Congress after the election. As a result, Comey told his staff he needed to publicly reopen the investigation lest he create “corrosive doubt that you had engineered a cover-up to protect a particular political candidate.”
This was a catastrophic violation of protocol — and probably a decisive one; as Stewart notes, the new email story led the news in six of the seven days in the final week before the election. But what drove Comey to this error was the refusal of Republicans in the bureau and Congress to accept and follow the rules. Stewart’s narrative shows Democrats still believed in institutions and norms — even after Comey’s extraordinary intervention against Clinton, he was still treated warmly by President Obama and cordially by Loretta Lynch. Comey felt bound to appease the Clinton-haters because they refused to accept any process that failed to yield their preferred outcome.
Notably, the Republican William Barr enthusiastically endorsed Comey’s decision to reopen the case against Clinton, but then — once Comey became a threat to Trump — cited that very decision as grounds to fire him. Barr’s subsequent elevation to attorney general is an ominous development that hangs over the second half of Stewart’s book.
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Unfortunately, his account of the Russia investigation is less satisfying. When Comey briefs Trump on the so-called Steele dossier and its litany of supposed ties between Trump and Russia — including the unproven allegation that Trump had watched prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room urinating on a bed where the Obamas once slept — we see the new president give suspiciously unconvincing denials. “Almost to himself, Trump repeated the year ‘2013’ and seemed to be searching his memory,” Stewart recounts. Trump tells Comey he would not need to pay for sex, and links the charges to other women who have accused him of groping them — charges that have high levels of credibility. He insists his well-known fear of germs would preclude him from enjoying such a performance, even though he could easily have done so at a safe distance.
We also see Trump or his agents dangling pardons before Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, the two advisers who had the closest political contacts with Russia and WikiLeaks, leading to both men refusing to cooperate with the investigation. We come to see Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general and supervisor of the Mueller report, as human Jell-O, losing his composure at times to the point of seeming unhinged. Stewart points out that Rosenstein agreed to meet with Trump privately. “Each time, against seemingly long odds, Rosenstein emerged with his job intact,” he notes. “What did he offer Trump in return? What threats, explicit or implied, did Trump bring to bear?”
Stewart also recounts the harsh treatment dispensed to government officials who, as a result of their involvement in the Russia investigation, became Trump’s targets. The Department of Justice publicized an affair between two agents working on the probe. It demoted the Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr after he spoke out, and ended the career of the longtime F.B.I. agent Andrew McCabe. All of these things, Stewart writes, “raise disturbing questions about their willingness to stand up to a president and preserve the long tradition of independent law enforcement and the rule of law.”
However, for all the suspicious patterns he reveals, for all the dots he connects, Stewart does not manage to produce a smoking gun that proves misconduct. We never learn the depth of Trump’s involvement with Russia, or whether he or Attorney General Barr applied undue pressure on the department. If these questions have incriminating answers, the people who hold them probably have no incentive to reveal them and possibly never will. What “Deep State” does tell us is that there are ample grounds for suspicion that Trump’s well-documented efforts to obstruct justice succeeded. To what end? That remains a mystery.
Jonathan Chait is a writer and commentator for New York magazine and the author of “Audacity” and “The Big Con.”
DEEP STATETrump, the FBI, and the Rule of LawBy James B. Stewart384 pp. Penguin Press. $30.
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