the national interest

Republicans Are Using the Russian Playbook on the FBI

Republican senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has some theories about FBI text messages.

Odds are, you don’t remember any of the particular revelations contained in the stolen emails from John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee. But when WikiLeaks published them two years ago, they created a furor. The snippets of conversation, wrenched out of context, seemed to supply hidden evidence of what Hillary Clinton’s critics on both the left and the right already suspected. Here was Clinton scheming, using crass political logic and language, deriding Bernie Sanders, and acknowledging her weaknesses.

One of the reasons Clinton’s left-wing critics dismissed charges of Russian hacking was that they feared the crime would overshadow the apparently revelatory emails. “The ‘outrage’ over Russia’s ‘hidden hand’ is being used to outweigh the damning substance of the leak itself,” complained Adam Johnson. “Neo-McCarthyism now threatens to derail a vital debate over the substance of the 20,000-plus e-mails, made public by WikiLeaks on July 22, that reveal the purportedly neutral Democratic National Committee’s derision and contempt for Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign — as well as several aborted attempts to tip the scales against him,” asserted The Nation.

The email hacks did not actually reveal anything nearly so incriminating. What the episode showed was that, if hostile actors are allowed to peek into a vast trove of their target’s private thoughts, they can usually find something that sounds shady. This is exactly the method Republicans are now using to discredit the FBI.

Republicans didn’t steal messages from the FBI. They happened upon them because two FBI agents, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, happened to be having an affair, and since they used their phones to communicate (to avoid detection by their spouses), the messages they sent fell into the laps of Congress. For weeks, Republicans have followed the WikiLeaks formula with these texts, selectively leaking snippets of conversation to feed a distorted story line to the media.

The first wave of stories revealed that Strzok and Page had criticized Donald Trump and referred to their investigation as an “insurance policy.” It sounded extremely suspicious. In fact, a reporter who reviewed the entire context explained that they were referring to an FBI policy favorable to Trump. The bureau was concealing its counterintelligence investigation of the Republican candidate, while making known its email-server investigation of the Democratic candidate, on the assumption that Hillary Clinton was certain to win. Strzok used the insurance metaphor — “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40” — to describe the folly of treating an unlikely event as though it had no chance of happening.

Another pseudo-controversy arose when conservative reporter John Solomon broke the news that Strzok and Page had advance knowledge of a Wall Street Journal story. Here was proof of the Deep State leakers of which Trump had warned. “Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are two of the deep state sources planting lies and false stories in the Wall Street Journal and other places,” cried a breathless Rush Limbaugh. In fact, as Ryan Reilly and Nick Baumann later explained, the story in question was harmful to Clinton, and elsewhere they expressed concern about unauthorized leaks.

Republican senator Ron Johnson highlights a text of Strzok expressing reluctance to join Robert Mueller’s team, because “my gut sense and concern is there’s no big there there.” Johnson told a conservative talk-show host that this “jaw-dropping” comment amounted to a confession that Strzok knew that Trump was innocent and joined Mueller’s investigation to smear him. But maybe Strzok simply had an open mind and thought Mueller’s probe stood a strong chance of clearing Trump. Another Strzok “scandal” grew out of a text he sent expressing the opinion that Clinton would not be charged in the email investigation. The text “suggests they knew and, in turn, believed Loretta Lynch knew, that no charges would be brought against Hillary Clinton, even before the FBI had interviewed her over her unauthorized private email server,” reports Breitbart.

They knew! The fix was in! Or maybe they simply knew that the evidence of the private email server did not amount to a plausible federal case against Clinton.

Note that a Strzok text expressing his view that Trump would not be charged over Russia became evidence of a nefarious plot against Trump, and another Strzok text expressing a view that Clinton would not be charged over the emails became evidence of a nefarious plot to help Clinton. If Strzok had expressed a belief that Clinton or Trump were guilty, those messages would become scandals, too. This is the way the game works. When you begin with a suspicious of nefarious intent, a captured expression of candid thought can be turned into devastating evidence.

When they hacked Democratic emails, Russians were counting on a gullible mainstream news media and an unprincipled right-wing echo chamber to transform a bunch of trivial  internal communications into a pseudo-scandal by wrenching them from all context. It is ironic that the current Republican effort to dismiss the very real scandal that arose from those hacks is using the exact same method.

Republicans Are Using the Russian Playbook on the FBI