The Greater of Two Evils: Weaponized Investigations

Many deep ideological fault lines have formed in the American political landscape over the decades; issues ranging from tax policy to immigration have set brother against brother to a degree unseen in recent memory. But no matter how strongly people disagree on these topics, they can disagree while still acting and arguing in good faith. Sometimes, however, such benign interpretations are simply not viable. When two factions radically diverge in behavior, it may not be out of differences in vision; it may be that one is just plain worse than the other—more authoritarian and hungrier for power, less honest and easier to corrupt. When a wave of sex scandals broke in late 2017, there was consistently more evidence of worse crimes against Republicans when compared to Democrats, though right-wing partisans relentlessly muddied the water by claiming false equivalency between the two parties. There was wrongdoing on both sides, but that certainly did not make the two sides equal.

This trend continues with one of the more frequent political spectacles of the modern era: governmental investigations. Not since Iran-Contra and possibly Watergate has the country’s attention been focused so intently on congressional committees and internal probes, with Hillary Clinton’s two investigations concerning the Benghazi attack and her private email server taking up gargantuan amounts of media attention in the early- to mid-2010’s, and the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russian government potentially turning into the biggest scandal in American history. As with the accusations of sexual misconduct, it’s easy at first glance to draw parallels between the two parties and how they’ve handled their members being investigated, but a closer look reveals a deep asymmetry in how far each party has gone to protect their own.

The ongoing investigation of Trump has raised many hackles in the Republican Party and its associated media outlets, with some saying it was an attempt to discredit the President by the Democrats, the Deep State, or other forces aligned against the Trump agenda. Trump himself went even further:

This echoes what people said in defense of Hillary Clinton during her investigations. Writers in outlets ranging from The New Republic to The New York Times to The Huffington Post used the phrase “witch hunt” to describe the inquiries into both Benghazi and the private email server. As with the accusations of sexual misconduct covered in the previous installment in this series, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” applied to both sides. But to twist the metaphor a bit, the investigations into Clinton’s conduct produced a lot of heat and not a lot of light—and the investigation into Trump has done the exact opposite.

In the wake of the 2012 attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Clinton accepted responsibility for the attack, saying “I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world.” In May 2014, the House of Representatives voted 232-186 to create a Select Committee on Benghazi chaired by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). For the next two and a half years, the Committee investigated the events surrounding the attack and placed special attention on the role played by Hillary Clinton, who appeared before the committee in October 2015 and was questioned for more than eight hours about her role in the Benghazi attacks. By the time the committee wrapped up, it had spent more time investigating the Benghazi attacks than Congress had spent investigating 9/11, Watergate, the JFK assassination, and Pearl Harbor.

However innocent or sinister Clinton’s conduct in the Benghazi affair may have been, the investigation into it was anything but a pure search for truth. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), on the friendly turf of Sean Hannity’s FOX show, let slip an ulterior motive on September 29, 2015:

“What you’re going to see is a conservative Speaker, that takes a conservative Congress, that puts a strategy to fight and win. And let me give you one example. Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?

 “But we put together a Benghazi special committee. A select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known that any of that had happened had we not fought to make that happen.”

McCarthy later insisted he hadn’t really meant that the committee was politically motivated, but another GOP Congressman, Richard Hanna (R-NY), agreed that the investigation was designed to attack Clinton and suggested that McCarthy was only walking back his statement because he had committed “the biggest sin you can commit in D.C.”—telling the truth.

When Clinton became embroiled in yet another scandal—this time surrounding her use of a private email server while serving as Secretary of State—it occurred in conjunction with her ferocious race for the Presidency against Donald Trump. While the FBI ultimately recommended against filing charges, the issue dogged her entire campaign, with the Columbia Journalism Review finding that her private server scandal, as well as other email-related scandals such as the DNC and Podesta hacks, accounted for more sentences of news coverage than all of Trump’s scandals combined. A particularly harsh blow was dealt when FBI Director James Comey, with less than two weeks to go before the election, publicly announced he was re-opening the investigation in light of new evidence. Clinton’s lead diminished from 11 points to 4-5 points after the announcement. When Clinton supporters complained of the effect this announcement had on the campaign, Sarah Huckabee said of them on November 3:

In the following months, Sarah Huckabee (now Sarah Huckabee Sanders) found her new boss doing exactly what she decried in that tweet. Donald Trump called the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with the Russian government a “witch hunt” no less than five times on Twitter between January 10, 2017 and Jan 10, 2018, escalating that criticism on the latter date by calling it “the single greatest Witch Hunt in American history…”

While the Republican Party maintained some distance from the investigation for most of 2017, it began to circle the wagons in early 2018 with the controversy surrounding Devin Nunes’ memo alleging abuses of the national surveillance apparatus by the FBI against the Trump campaign. Nunes’ memo was privately doubted by many of his Republican colleagues and ended up containing virtually nothing of substance, but that didn’t stop a Republican (and Russian) hype campaign from pushing the narrative that federal law enforcement had been illegally and unethically attacking Trump since he had started campaigning.

Meanwhile, the FBI actually came under scrutiny during the election for supporting the Trump campaign, with multiple FBI personnel publicly backing Trump and sometimes offering inside knowledge of information that ended up damaging Clinton (such as the Comey announcement). Comey himself was a Republican who worked for administrations of both parties in various roles. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, the other major figure in the Russia investigation, is the last person one would expect to be a Democratic partisan—he is a registered Republican, a George W. Bush appointee, and a USMC veteran with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart from the Vietnam War.

None of this has stopped Republicans or their media mouthpieces from undercutting the investigation at every turn. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is controlled by the Republicans, has only assigned seven full-time staffers to the task, far fewer than were assigned to many other major intelligence investigations, including the one on Benghazi, which had 46. Newt Gingrich initially called Mueller a “superb choice” for the special counsel, only to reverse his position once the investigation made progress and call him “the deep state at its very worst” on Sean Hannity’s show. Hannity himself has attacked the Special Counsel and become one of the most commonly cited sources for Russian botnets aiming to control the narrative of the investigation.

The use of internal investigations to punish political opponents shouldn’t be a political issue—it’s not as though we’re discussing taxes or drug policy, where there may be legitimate ideological disagreements between different factions that otherwise act in good faith and agree on the importance of fairness and objectivity. This is about the abuse of a powerful tool in the governmental arsenal, one that is intended to correct injustice but can be wielded to crush enemies. One can naturally expect bias to seep into any investigation, because all investigators are human. For instance, the ongoing debacle surrounding disgraced FBI agent Peter Strzok has been framed by many conservatives as clear-cut evidence that the inquiry into the Trump campaign has been irreparably tainted by partisanship and personal antipathy toward Trump, but while Strzok’s texts certainly show his distaste for Trump, one element that’s been suspiciously absent from this whole discussion is any evidence that Strzok’s personal feelings actually influenced the investigation in a substantial way. Indeed, Strzok was removed by Mueller immediately after the texts were released, and Strzok reportedly even pushed for the reopening of the Clinton investigation, which pushed the election in Trump’s favor.

In contrast, we have clear evidence from top officials in the Republican party itself that their investigations into Hillary Clinton were designed to drag her down in the public eye, and indications that, intentionally or otherwise, the Congressional investigation into Trump has been denied the resources granted to other operations of much lesser significance. When it comes to the government’s power to investigate, the Republican Party has consistently and openly weaponized it against its enemies, and no amount of comparatively trivial examples from the Democrats can counteract that evidence of systematic abuse.

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