As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) was given the opportunity to pose questions to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray during a hearing Thursday. Picking up on a line of argument that has pervaded conservative media over the past week, Gohmert centered his attention on the political leanings of members of the bureau.
“Are you aware,” he asked Wray, that Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe “was involved in highly charged political cases that have been controversial due to his political leanings? So I want to ask you if you are aware of any other senior FBI executives that are aligned with McCabe’s political views? Yes or no?”
This, in itself, is a misleading statement. McCabe became a favorite punching bag of Donald Trump on the 2016 campaign trail because his wife, Jill, ran as a Democrat for the Virginia Senate. She received campaign contributions from a political action committee linked to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). Trump claimed that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had directed the funding by her ally McAuliffe, implying that she was hoping to indirectly influence Andrew McCabe’s work, which included evaluating Clinton’s use of a private email server.
In reality, the funding that Jill McCabe received was one of a number of contributions — several of which were larger — made in support of Democratic candidates. What’s more, she lost the state Senate race in November 2015, months before her husband assumed responsibility for the Clinton email investigation.
Gohmert’s question, in other words, is predicated on incorrect information. But he’s not asking explicitly about the 2015 campaign of McCabe’s wife: Instead he’s asking about FBI staff members who are “aligned with McCabe’s political views” — that is, being a Democrat (which Gohmert apparently believes McCabe to be, since his wife is).
“I’m not aware of any senior FBI executives who are allowing improper political considerations to affect their work with me right now,” Wray replied.
Gohmert wasn’t done. He began listing various FBI employees, asking Wray if he was aware of their “openly aligning themselves with the political bias expressed by McCabe or openly speaking against this administration.” Wray uniformly defended the people mentioned and, at one point, disputed the premise of Gohmert’s question about McCabe’s “political bias.”
The overall effect of Gohmert’s questioning was reminiscent of efforts in the 1950s to root out Communist infiltrators in U.S. institutions. One might have expected ranking Democratic member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to interject with a rousing “Have you no sense of decency?”
We should not let the unusual nature of the interaction distract from the fundamental issue, though. Gohmert was suggesting that members of the FBI who might have acknowledged holding a position sympathetic to the Democrats would be unable to investigate a Republican president fairly. It’s a natural endpoint for the political conversation over the past several years, but that should not detract from how shocking and unfounded that assumption is.
Trump himself has disparaged the team assembled by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election by citing some members’ loose ties to Democratic politicians. At its core, that team has well over a century of experience at the Justice Department serving under presidents of both parties. That some of them made contributions to Democratic candidates was presented by Trump as evidence of hopeless corruption of their ability to evaluate him and his presidential campaign fairly. News that an FBI agent was removed from Mueller’s team after the discovery of text messages apparently criticizing then-candidate Trump drew more agita from the president and his defenders.
This is part of a long-standing strategy of Trump. He frames his critics as being hopelessly partisan and then seizes on anecdotal examples as proof that he’s right. The media was in the tank for Clinton during the campaign, he would claim, using that assertion to brush off reporting about his own misstatements and flip-flops. During the transition, he railed against the intelligence agencies he would soon manage as being riddled with Barack Obama loyalists, as largely evidenced by their having been staffed by people who were then working for Obama. Even his own former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was described as having worked in the Obama White House by Trump’s lawyers after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
As Mueller’s team has begun rolling out charges like those against Flynn, Trump’s defenders are pushed into a weird space, simultaneously dismissing those charges as minor or removed from Trump and disparaging Mueller as deeply nefarious in his intentions.
If you’re looking to rally your political base against an opponent, there are few more powerful charges than partisan bias. Partisanship runs deep, with members of one party generally viewing the policies of the other — or the party itself — as a threat to the country. Casting an opponent as a Democrat, in other words, may be nearly as potent to Republicans today as portraying someone as a Communist might have been in 1955.
This extends beyond a defense of Trump. In Alabama, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore has framed allegations against him about sexual misconduct with minors as a partisan attack, suggesting that this newspaper and members of the opposing party may have conspired to take him down. (This did not happen.) On Thursday, he sat down for an interview on local radio with a state politician who had endorsed him, reinforcing the idea that anyone who doesn’t explicitly stand with him might be presumed to be necessarily standing against him.
That this sense of suspicion extends to the FBI is particularly worrisome. Americans have long assumed, generally tacitly, that career bureaucrats maintain impartiality in how they conduct their business. Most members of the FBI and the Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration who are working under Trump used to work under Obama, and many worked under George W. Bush before that. In part because Trump himself has been detached from government service for his entire adult life, he eyes many of those holdovers with largely undue skepticism. There are certainly people who work in government who hold a dim view of the president and some, it seems, who have leaked embarrassing information to the press in response. Trump’s distrust extends well beyond those people.
The broader issue is that this era of partisanship and partisan skepticism empowers the sort of rationalization that Gohmert displayed on Thursday. Simply being associated with a Democrat is seen by some as disqualifying (in a moment when many partisans have few friends from across the aisle). We can safely assume Gohmert and his allies do not hold the other side to this same standard, mind you; a person with ties to Republicans likely wouldn’t be painted as untrustworthy or biased out of hand in considering assessments of, say, Obama.
It also bears repeating that Gohmert’s questions were predicated on a flawed premise: that there was demonstrated bias within the FBI that affected its decision-making. Should evidence of this emerge, it’s certainly worth outcry. But that outcry should be the same if the bias was from a Republican as if it were from a Democrat.