It doesn’t matter what you think about Donald Trump — revelations that a major party’s administration was spying on another one deserve a seriousness that’s lacking in major media coverage. A recent piece by CNN’s Chris Cillizza encapsulates many of the absurd talking points adopted by an extraordinarily incurious media. And when I say incurious, I mean they’ve taken to actively dismissing evidence regarding a story that would be a huge deal in any other era.
Trump asked the Justice Department this week to expand an inspector general report into the conduct of the Obama administration’s actions during the 2016 election. Many supposed champions of transparency, process, and law enforcement were upset. “If Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch meeting on a tarmac in 2016 bothered you,” asks Cillizza, “then why doesn’t Donald Trump telling the Justice Department what to do in 2018 bother you?”
Well, for starters, Bill Clinton wasn’t the president of the United States. Trump happens to be president of the United States, a position that also happens to make him the superior of the intelligence officials he was meeting with openly at the White House. No matter how offended you are by the president’s hyperbole, meeting with these subordinates — asking them to share information with congressional committees and open an internal DOJ investigation — isn’t an abuse of power by any conception of the idea.
Secondly, when the nation’s top law enforcement official met with the former president and husband of the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, his wife, herself a former member of the Obama administration, was the focus of a federal criminal investigation. That investigation uncovered illegality that a candidate had been personally involved in. According to James Comey, Lynch, who, despite what you may have heard, never formally recused herself from the Hillary investigation, also never stopped trying to influence the Clinton investigation.
Moreover, Trump did not meet officials in secret or demand they shut down any investigation. Bill Clinton, a powerhouse fundraiser and major presence in the Democratic Party, sought out the attorney general of the United States and waited for her in a private jet on a tarmac. The meeting was only accidentally discovered by local media. Both Lynch and Clinton claimed afterwards they didn’t even mention — not once — the probe into Hillary. That’s quite astonishing considering it was only a day before Congress was set to release the Benghazi report.
It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was highly improper. And if you think these two events are similar, you’re not seeing things clearly.
Cillizza also claims that the president “is pressuring the nation’s law enforcement bodies to investigate a story with questionable roots and that does not appear to be born out by facts.” Here’s something he might not know: the president doesn’t have to pressure them, he can simply order them to investigate. They can quit, and should if Trump is leading them to some corrupt rabbit hole. Or they can open an inspector general investigation, and stop stonewalling congressional investigators and offer the American people some transparency about the 2016 election.
The persistent claim that Trump is abusing power for engaging in actions that are well within his purview is especially galling coming from people who would often characterize the previous administration’s numerous abuses as nothing. Even today we are relegated to a Clintonian parsing of words to describe events.
“The President of the United States is alleging, with zero evidence,” writes Cillizza, “that the FBI secretly planted an informant in his 2016 campaign for the express purpose of spying on him.” Cillizza highlights the president’s hyperbolic — and premature — assertions (“SPYGATE”) to dismiss the entire event. It’s true that we don’t know if an informant was “planted” or “embedded,” but we do know that flimsy partisan evidence was likely used to spark the investigation into “collusion” and that the Obama administration “spied” on the Trump campaign.
Many journalists take umbrage at the contention that there was spying going on, because “spying” sounds far too serious for their liking. But it’s the right word. A spy is a “person who secretly collects and reports information on the activities, movements, and plans of an enemy or competitor.”
Now, perhaps we’re going to find out that informants were warranted and that their presence did not predate the official launch of the investigation. We might learn that a number of Trump’s associates were part of some scheme to work with Russia’s Vladimir Putin during 2016. There is, to this point, “zero evidence” that is the case. It’s hardly a conspiracy theory, no matter how over-the-top or politically motivated the president’s comments might be, to investigate the Obama administration’s actions.
I agree with National Review’s David French that the “Mueller investigation should be allowed to reach its natural conclusion, as should the DOJ’s investigation of the FBI’s conduct.” But I also believe the impetus for the investigation matters — even if such an inquiry was allegedly inevitable once Trump surrounded himself with Putin fans.
Bad opinions aren’t illegal. Putin’s support for a particular campaign doesn’t immediately translate into criminality. What kind of precedent are we setting if there’s no investigation into the Obama administration’s actions?
There’s no doubt, for instance, that the Iranians were rooting for Hillary. If the next Democratic Party nominee employs a number of Iran-deal proponents (for a sanctioned terror state that’s as much the enemy of the United States as Russia is), would the Trump administration be justified in tasking intelligence agencies to look into their actions? Would the informants passing information to the administration be considered “spies” by political journalists? I imagine they would be. And I imagine we wouldn’t be talking about much else.