February 5, 2018
TSC IntelBrief: The Investigation of the Investigators
The current environment in the U.S. body politic is the most tense it has been in recent memory. The investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election by several Congressional committees, as well as the Special Counsel, led by former FBI director Robert Mueller, are still ongoing. They are being overtaken, however, by a concerted effort to shape the narrative and public perception of facts—as well as to impugn the integrity of the career civil servants in the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Department of Justice (DOJ).
On February 2, President Trump took to Twitter to smear the leadership of two agencies under the Executive Branch: the FBI and DOJ. He tweeted ‘The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans—something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago.’ This line of attack mirrors that of numerous Republican senators and members of Congress, in a breathtaking pivot from previous stances. It has become commonplace for senior U.S. politicians to speak openly of ‘purging’ the FBI, of impugning the loyalty of FBI investigators and DOJ staff, and of suggesting a ‘Deep State’ is attempting a coup of sorts against a sitting president.
Also on February 2, the White House cleared the way for a highly controversial three and a half-page memo produced by the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, an effort led by Congressman Nunes. The memo—which the DOJ and FBI called misleading, and attempted, in vain, to stop its release—accuses the FBI of misconduct and malfeasance in obtaining a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant against Carter Page, a Trump supporter and advisor. Page has been of concern to the FBI since 2015 over his ties to Russian intelligence officials who appeared to have been grooming him as a possible influence agent. Those in favor of releasing the memo state that the FBI obtained the FISA warrant using information from a politically-driven dossier; this charge is without basis and is undercut by the fact that Page was under investigation well prior to the ‘Steele Dossier.’
On February 3, President Trump declared on Twitter that the memo ‘totally vindicates’ him and is evidence that there was no collusion or obstruction. The memo, which Democrats and others claimed cherry-picked facts to present a one-sided story, was written by Republican congressional aides. It did not include what those in favor of releasing it promised. Instead, it unintentionally showed that the investigation into the Trump campaign was not based on Steele but was triggered back in July 2016 by George Papadopoulos. Still, the question of whether the memo addresses substantial matters about Russian interference in the 2016 election, and is not just a referendum on American’s intelligence communities, still seems to be a matter of debate in Washington. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are hoping to release their own ten-page memo, an effort led by Representative Adam Schiff, and are receiving support from some prominent Republicans to do so.
Of abiding concern in the alt-fact age is that there is no clear—or even opaque path—from this crisis. A classic authoritative tactic is to relentlessly attack not just the issues at hand but also make the public question the integrity of existing institutions. By calling into doubt the conclusions of the investigation and the intentions and integrity of the investigators, the White House is essentially burning down a pillar of the republic and discrediting the firefighters tasked with saving it.
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