Tuesday night, officials from the Department of Justice invited reporters to see something scandalous: text messages by FBI agents sent during the presidential campaign expressing … opinions about the political campaign. One message called Bernie Sanders “an idiot like Trump. Figure they cancel each other out.’’ Another read, “God, Trump is a loathsome human.” “I cannot believe Donald Trump is likely to be an actual, serious candidate for president,” read yet another text.
Republicans in Congress spent the day expressing indignation at the horror and bias of it all. Here, finally, was evidence of the sinister deep-state conspiracy of which Trump had warned. Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — the two authors of the offending texts, who were reportedly in a romantic relationship — have already been removed from the Trump investigation, but the mere fact they ever had any involvement strikes Republicans as fatally suspect. “This is not just political opinions. This is disgusting, unaccountable political bias, and there’s just no way this could not affect a person’s work,” cried Representative Louie Gohmert, a Republican from Texas. Senator Lindsey Graham called for a full investigation. It has become the centerpiece in the argument circulating throughout the party media that the FBI is the equivalent of an anti-Trump secret police and which must be purged of enemies.
The notion that a person who considers Trump an idiot has no business judging him is a novel one. Rex Tillerson referred to Trump as a “fucking moron” yet has continued to serve as secretary of State. Graham himself has called Trump a “kook” and “unfit for office.” This is not even a controversial opinion among Trump’s handpicked staff. That Trump is ignorant, emotionally fragile, and unable to learn or handle his tasks is the stated and unstated premise of the endless stream of leaks emanating from scores of people who work for him. It is the conventional wisdom not only in Washington but within the White House.
Obviously, law-enforcement agents have a duty to segregate their opinions from their work. But the idea they cannot express political viewpoints is a standard invented in recent weeks for the purpose of discrediting the people investigating the Trump administration. As Representative Ted Lieu pointed out, acting FBI director Christopher Wray has donated $39,000, and Deputy Attorney General Rachel Brand $36,000, both exclusively to Republicans. These are public donations, not text messages to a romantic partner that were never intended for public consumption.
The notion that the FBI has been harboring a bias for Democrats is especially rich. Like most law-enforcement agencies, the FBI tends to attract people who lean right. While the politics of its leaders and agents can’t be quantified, it is disproportionately white and male. To some extent this is probably unavoidable. Getting good staff means attracting people who are especially enthusiastic about their mission, and law enforcement will tend to draw from the right of center just as the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Health and Human Services will tend to draw from the left of center.
There is relatively strong evidence that the FBI’s conservative bias influenced its behavior during the election. Reporting indicated Republican-leaning agents were agitating for a prosecution of Clinton. Agents leaked damaging stories to Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani, who — not anticipating that his party would decide the next year that politically opinionated FBI agents were scandalous — boasted openly about his contacts. This pressure culminated in then-director James Comey’s extraordinary decision, in the final ten days of the campaign, to publicly announce a reopening of the investigation into Clinton on the basis of the flimsiest evidence — some old Anthony Weiner emails that predictably amounted to nothing.
At the same time, Comey refused to disclose that the FBI was in the midst of investigating Trump’s web of ties to a hostile country that was attempting to intervene in the election on his behalf. Unlike the email investigation, the Russia probe has already produced multiple indictments and two guilty pleas to date. Yet the FBI created a news environment in which Clinton was portrayed as under investigation and Trump was not.
Indeed, if you recall, when Trump fired Comey earlier this year, his pretext was that Comey had treated Clinton unfairly. (“We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of declined criminal investigation,” noted the letter from Rod Rosenstein, which the administration waved around to justify replacing Comey.) Now the charge is that the agency was unfairly biased in her favor.
This background is helpful for understanding the most putatively explosive text between the two agents. “I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” wrote Strzok. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
In the absence of the context of the discussion, there is no way to tell precisely what he meant. But the Bureau’s mind-set at the time does provide a context that would seem to explain what he wrote. The FBI was internally justifying its disparate treatment of the two candidates on the grounds that Trump stood no chance of success. That was the conclusion of the New York Times’ deep dive from April explaining why Comey allowed Clinton to be treated as a putative criminal but not Trump. “In my mind at the time, Clinton is likely to win,” Comey aide Michael Steinbach told the paper. “It’s pretty apparent. So what happens after the election, in November or December? How do we say to the American public: ‘Hey, we found some things that might be problematic. But we didn’t tell you about it before you voted’? The damage to our organization would have been irreparable.”
That assumption, “there’s no way he gets elected,” is the one Strzok criticized in his offending text. The policy he appears to have been arguing against is one of treating Clinton more harshly than Trump on the grounds that Trump was bound to lose anyway. Of course, we now know Strzok’s concern about a Bureau strategy premised on Trump losing for sure was completely correct.
The notion that two FBI agents exchanged opinions about the election is not evidence of political bias. What is evidence of political bias is the Department of Justice using these texts to fuel the administration’s campaign of state-sponsored paranoia. The department has plucked and disseminated a handful texts out of any broader context of what those agents did or said, as well as any context of other beliefs within the conservative agency. Last year, Strzok was afraid of what would happen if the Bureau’s calculation of treating the allegedly doomed Trump with kid gloves was misplaced. He may not have been afraid enough.
Update: Del Quentin Wilber reports for the Wall Street Journal that the context of the “insurance policy” texts was exactly what I suggested:
An FBI agent’s reference to “an insurance policy” in a much-debated text message was meant to convey that the bureau needed to aggressively investigate allegations of collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, according to people familiar with his account.
The agent didn’t intend to suggest a secret plan to harm the candidate but rather address a colleague who believed the Federal Bureau of Investigation could take its time because Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was certain to win the election, the people said.
Surprise! The numerous conspiracy theories circulating in the conservative media, speculating that Strzok was describing some secret “insurance policy” to undermine Trump, do not appear to be real.