Was Donald Trump Above Suspicion?

The WSJ Editorial Board seeks to turn the tables on the FBI

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Posted in 2020 elections, US politics Tagged with: , ,

I read the three papers Friday. The Washington Post gave over its front page to five stories, eleven bylines, with the best single story I read all day, by Dan Balz, as the centerpiece; an editorial (“The Opposite of Exoneration”), and eight op-ed columns arrayed across two full pages, plus a sixteen-page special section. Twenty pages altogether.

Likewise The New York Times – four stories and a lengthy graphic filling the front page, nine bylines; eight more full pages inside (nine stories, fifteen bylines, and a two-page graphic); a full-page editorial, a David Brooks column and an op-ed piece; plus a very effective special section – thirteen pages from the report reproduced full-size and lightly annotated below.  Twenty five pages altogether.

The front page architecture of The Wall Street Journal was, I thought, the most compelling: two stories (“Trump efforts to block probe detailed” and “Congress grapples to find next step,” four bylines, and a large graphic above the fold; below, three more stories about other matters: Girl Scout cookie season, Boeing 737 MAX trainer disputes between the US and Canada, and years of deferred maintenance at Notre-Dame Cathedral; and with two more Mueller Report stories, two bylines,  and some excepts  on two full pages inside, plus a Gerald Seib column.

Three and a half pages altogether – and yet the Journal’s editors’ and reporters’ interpretation of the report was almost exactly the same as that of the Times and the Post teams, and nearly as complete.

Two things seemed clear from the coverage:

1. Consideration of impeachment proceedings may be about to turn serious, not those yeasty first-term House Democrats, but among the Democratic Party leadership – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler and their lieutenants. The standard wisdom has been that a bill of impeachment with no conviction from the Senate would be a distraction.

But as WSJ reporters Siobhan Hughes and Rebecca Ballhaus noted, some Democrats considered that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had delivered a broad account of misconduct that resembled the formerly secret “Road Map” that Special Counsel Leon Jaworski provided to Congress on March 1, 1974. Jaworski’s filing provided a series of guideposts for lawmakers contemplating the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. It may not eventuate, but as the breadth of Mueller’s indictment of the President’s conduct sinks in,  Speaker Pelosi’s earlier judgment that impeachment is “just not worth it” will get a second going-over and a fuller discussion over the next several months. See this  paper-leading story in today’s Post, by Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky, to understand what Mueller was thinking.

2. Donald Trump’s re-election committee emailed supporters last Thursday that it is “time to turn the tables… [to] investigate the liars who instigated this sham investigation.” Would-be table-turners have three investigations underway or almost ready to go. Two of them have to do with the Steele dossier, a 35-page compendium of allegations prepared by a former British intelligence expert on Russia, which had been partly financed by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The provenance and reliability of the document has been a matter of contention ever since.

The first such probe is that of Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.  He announced a year ago that, at the request of then Attorney General Jeff Session, he would investigate whether the FBI’s application for court-authorized counterintelligence surveillance of “a certain person” had been adequately predicated. It has become clear since that the person was former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page, for whom a surveillance warrant was obtained shortly after he left the campaign on the basis of information contained in the Steele dossier.

The second is the Justice Department task force that Attorney General Barr promised to form to investigate whether what he termed FBI “spying” on Trump campaign associates was undertaken for good reason. “I think spying on a political campaign is a big deal,” Barr told a Senate subcommittee earlier this month, explaining that he wanted to look into both “the genesis and the conduct” of the F.B.I. inquiry. “I think spying did occur,” he said. “The question is whether it was adequately predicated. And I’m not suggesting that it wasn’t adequately predicated. But I need to explore that.”

Meanwhile, ticking away somewhere in FBI headquarters is a third probe, a fully-predicated investigation by several FBI field offices of the Clinton Foundation, the existence of which, in effect, started it all. Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was fired for revealing the existence of the probe to a WSJ reporter on the eve of the 2016 election.  Inspector General Horowitz subsequently excoriated McCabe and recommended a criminal investigation.  McCabe has insisted he was authorized to leak the news to protect the FBI’s reputation for disinterestedness; Horowitz concluded that he broke the rules to protect himself and then lied about it to fellow agents. Few details of the Clinton Foundation investigation have leaked out.

In February, in “Making Music Together,” I suggested that the four English- language newspaper I read were doing a good job of keeping track of the news, fashioning a narrative of US politics in particular.  I compared entering the worlds of their news pages to listening to a daily quartet: “the Times is a daily violin, exciting and emotional; the WPost resembles a viola, warmly supportive of the Times’ themes, but less jittery; the WSJ is something of a cello, understated and lower-pitched; and the FT, a different voice altogether, is more like a piano.”  Sometimes the composition they produce is not harmonious.  Some days they don’t seem to be performing on the same page.  But they are playing by the same rules of human curiosity.  Each paper has contributed its share of major scoops.

The exception to this four-part narrative I find every evening inIS? the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. (While I read their columnists, I don’t pay much attention to the editorials of the Times or the Post.) For two years, the WSJ editorialists have been at war with the leadership of the FBI. They are furious at former FBI Director James Comey for having let Hillary Clinton off the hook for her email transgressions.  They consider the interest FBI and other US intelligence agencies took in the Russian dealings of Donald Trump, before and after the election, to have been unwarranted. I learn from them.  I try hard to understand their point of view. But often they seem as scornful of the fair-play ideals of their own news pages as… well, Donald Trump.  “Obstruction of Nothing” was their collective appraisal of the Mueller report.

WSJ columnist Holman Jenkins Jr., a fervent table-turner, confided to readers earlier this month, “I suspect at least one major news organization in this country will soon decide it can no longer afford to be dragged against its will to acknowledge the doings of US intelligence agencies in the 2016 election. It will want to get on top of the story.”  Apparently he was right.  Yesterday’s off-lead story in The New York Times was headlined “Renewed Scrutiny for a Disputed Dossier on the President” — three bylines, 1,750 words, a well-balanced assessment.

Meanwhile, the Times editorial page returned to a favorite hobby horse, intimating in the headline of “The Great Russian Heist of 2016” that Russian interference had somehow stolen the election.  In “Targeting Bill Barr,” the WSJ rejoiced that “the country finally appears to have an attorney general who can take the heat.”  The good news is that the story of the war against (and within) the FBI is headed for the cooler, more rational confines of the news pages of four great newspapers.

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Andrew W. Marshall died last month, at 97. The Times, the WSJ, the Post, the FT, The Economist, and National Review published memorials. As the founding director of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, his job for 42 years was seeing things through the eyes of others – not just those of America’s opponents, but those of American leaders as well.

Raised in Detroit, Marshall made hi way to the University of Chicago in the years after World War II – to the economics department and the Cowles Commission.  He found himself listening to music with Tjalling Koopmans  and playing bridge with Kenneth Arrow, but it was Frank Knight, the author of Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, who made the most durable impression on him.

By then Knight was on his way out of what would become the “second” Chicago school, but Marshall acquired from him a life-long taste for the jiu-jitsu possibilities of dissenting views expressed in the presence of powerful orthodoxies.  In 1949, W. Allen Wallis sent him to the Washington office of RAND Corp., where he remained until he joined the Pentagon under Defense Secretary James Schlesinger in 1973.

Marshall’s appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China enhanced America’s strategic position for forty years.  A celebration of his life is scheduled for Wednesday in Washington.