There are times when you watch what’s happening in American politics and come to believe you’ve fallen through the rabbit hole, to a place where everything is upside down. Today was one of those times, as FBI agent Peter Strzok testified in a public hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, the latest chapter in the saga of Republican attempts to prove that any and all investigation into Russia’s attempt to manipulate the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s eager cooperation with that effort is a “witch hunt.”
As you know, Strzok was one of the key agents involved in investigating Russian interference and, in 2017, he was assigned to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into the Russia scandal. However, when Justice Department officials saw texts he exchanged with Lisa Page - an FBI lawyer with whom he was having an affair - in which they disparaged Donald Trump, Mueller removed him from the investigation. To Republicans, those text messages are the smoking gun that proves Trump is utterly blameless and the entire investigation into him was tainted from the start and must be shut down.
But there’s one very important fact that we have to keep in mind, one that Strzok made in his prepared statement today:
“In the summer of 2016, I was one of a handful of people who knew the details of Russian election interference and its possible connections with members of the Trump campaign. This information had the potential to derail, and quite possibly, defeat Trump. But the thought of exposing that information never crossed my mind.”
This is the core of what makes the Republican effort to discredit the Russia investigation so utterly insane. They want us to believe there was an FBI conspiracy to prevent Trump from being elected president, and what did that conspiracy do? First, it mounted a cautious investigation of what nearly everyone now acknowledges was a comprehensive effort by Russia to help Trump get elected, an effort that people on the Trump campaign and even in Trump’s own family tried to cooperate with. But then it kept that investigation completely secret from the public, lest news of it affect the outcome of the investigation in any way.
You will notice that Republicans have not been able to produce any evidence that Strzok or anyone else took any official action that was biased, unfair or inappropriate in their investigation of Russian interference and the Trump campaign.
Even if you were to set aside the fact that the director of the FBI quite possibly threw the election to Trump when he violated FBI protocols and announced 11 days before the election that the bureau was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, the idea that the bureau attempted to hinder Trump’s election isn’t just unsupported by any evidence, it is contradicted by everything they did.
And that’s what you have to keep in mind as you watch these ludicrous hearings, and everything else the Republicans do with regard to this issue. They’ve proven that Strzok didn’t think highly of Trump. Fair enough. We should note, however, that while we have seen Strzok’s private text messages - because they were released by the Justice Department - we have no idea what other FBI agents were texting each other, say, about Hillary Clinton. We do know, on the other hand, that as one report said just before the election, “Deep antipathy to Hillary Clinton exists within the FBI, multiple bureau sources have told the Guardian, spurring a rapid series of leaks damaging to her campaign just days before the election.” As one agent put it at the time, “The FBI is Trumpland.”
So that’s an example in which FBI agents actually did things to help Trump during the election. But that’s not what Republicans are investigating, which might suggest - and hold on while I blow your mind - that the GOP isn’t aren’t actually concerned broadly with the integrity of FBI investigations.
So today we saw, for instance, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., badgering Strzok about the meaning of individual words in his late-night text messages to his girlfriend, using Gowdy’s patented prosecutorial technique of shouting a question at a witness, and then when the witness begins to answer, interrupting and shouting a different question at a louder volume. Unsurprisingly, the hearing quickly devolved into a circus, with members yelling at each other, overlapping points of order, and a general sense of chaos.
At one point, when he was finally allowed to give a complete answer to a question, Strzok somewhat angrily explained why not only didn’t he do anything to unfairly twist the investigation into Russian meddling, he couldn’t have even if he wanted to. He began by referencing a text he sent after Trump had started a fight with a Gold Star family, one of the low points of the campaign predicting that Trump would lose:
“You need to understand that was written late at night, off the cuff, and it was in response to a series of events that included then-candidate Trump insulting the immigrant family of a fallen war hero, and my presumption based on that horrible, disgusting behavior that the American population would not elect someone demonstrating that behavior to be president of the United States. It was in no way, unequivocally, any suggestion that me, the FBI, would take any action whatsoever to improperly impact the electoral process for any candidate. . . .
“I can assure you, Mr. Chairman, at no time in any of those texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took. Furthermore, this isn’t just me sitting here telling you. You don’t have to take my word for it. At every step, every investigative decision, there are multiple layers of people above me - the assistant director, executive assistant director, deputy director and director of the FBI - and multiple layers of people below me - section chiefs, supervisors, unit chiefs, case agents and analysts - all of whom were involved in all of these decisions. They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them. That is who we are as the FBI. And the suggestion that I, in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI, would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen. And the proposition that that is going on, that it might occur anywhere in the FBI deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive.”
You don’t have to like Peter Strzok, or James Comey, or Robert Mueller, or anyone else involved in these various investigations. But you have to ask, and you have to keep asking: What do Republicans think the FBI actually did to effectuate this anti-Trump conspiracy they say existed to deny him the presidency? Because the facts, here on Planet Earth, show that they did what they were supposed to do: They began an investigation into this profound threat to American democracy, but kept quiet about it so it wouldn’t affect the election.
Especially in contrast to how Clinton was treated, that was either an extraordinary gift to Trump, or it was them doing their jobs precisely how they should have. But it can’t be anything else.