In the years following World War II, the Soviet Union systematically attempted to undermine democratically elected governments in countries from Poland to Yugoslavia. But to install communist regimes, it first needed to get rid of these countries’ most popular public servants—and it often resorted to murder to do so. This is why few people believed the official story when Jan Masaryk, the brave foreign minister of Czechoslovakia, was found dead below his bedroom window one fine spring morning in 1948. According to the official investigation, he had died by suicide by jumping out of his window. Though they had no way of proving it, most of his compatriots preferred to think that he had “been jumped.”
In the United States of 2018, we do things in a more civilized manner. On Monday, Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, announced that he is retiring. In light of the vicious partisan attacks he has had to endure over the past months, it would probably be more accurate to say that he “was retired”; but at least he will, much to the annoyance of Donald Trump Jr., be able to enjoy his retirement with a full state pension.
The exact circumstances surrounding McCabe’s retirement are nearly as murky as were the details of Masaryk’s death seven decades ago. According to news stories, the inspector general of the FBI is set to criticize McCabe’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton in a forthcoming report. These criticisms supposedly persuaded Christopher Wray—the FBI director whom Donald Trump appointed after firing his predecessor, James Comey—to demote McCabe. Unwilling to accept this humiliation, McCabe quit.
To get a full picture of the degree to which Donald Trump is or is not undermining the independence of key institutions like the FBI, we would need to know the answers to a whole slew of questions about this case: Has the White House put pressure on the inspector general? How serious is the criticism the forthcoming report levies against McCabe? And is Wray genuinely perturbed by these findings—or is he using them as an excuse to do Trump’s bidding?
It will take months, maybe years, until we get to the bottom of these questions. For political observers who want to avoid the mad rush to partisan judgment, it’s therefore tempting to insist that we cannot yet say whether something bad is going on. What we’re seeing at the FBI might be the most blatant political meddling with independent law enforcement agencies in living memory. Or it might simply be the usual accountability mechanisms playing themselves out as designed. It’s too early to tell.
But though the urge to withhold judgment is tempting, it is dead wrong. For while we, in any case, need to find answers to all of these questions, doing so is not a prerequisite for concluding that the White House is meddling with the FBI—and succeeding in corrupting the key institutions needed for the survival of liberal democracy.
To recap, McCabe is a highly distinguished career official. Even when senior officials make significant mistakes, it is highly unusual for them to be hounded out of their positions less than two months before they are set to retire. Trump has already fired a previous FBI director because he was unwilling to swear political loyalty to him. Over the past months, Trump has deployed the whole arsenal of his weapons—from early morning tweets to lackey congressmen to adulatory television hosts—to smear McCabe. And he so happens to have a lot to gain from McCabe’s departure.
None of this rules out the possibility that McCabe made a serious mistake for which he is now receiving his just punishment. But that would be a hell of a coincidence. So until McCabe’s guilt is proven, Occam’s razor demands that we assume his innocence. And to assume his innocence is, in this case, to conclude that the FBI’s director or its inspector general—or both—are willing pawns in the president’s ruthless game of self-preservation. And that is terrifying.
(Wray, of course, is also a distinguished career official. But there is a crucial difference between him and McCabe: After Trump fired Comey, Trump needed to find one person in the country who would both have reason to do his bidding and look like a plausible candidate for FBI director. As I wrote at the time, this should have made us skeptical of anybody whom Trump ultimately nominated. Even before Wray’s questionable actions over the past days, there were thus good reasons to trust McCabe’s credibility over Wray’s.)
But let’s assume, for a moment, that the mind-bogglingly unlikely somehow turns out to be true and it’s all a giant coincidence. Just as a broken clock is right twice a day, Trump’s eagerness—and his accomplices’ willingness—to smear an upstanding public servant for political gain so happened to home in on the right target in this case. Would that mean that we needn’t worry about the way in which McCabe has been hounded out of office?
Justice, as the famous proverb reminds us, doesn’t just need to be done; it also needs to be seen to be done. For citizens to have trust in their judicial system—and, more broadly, to believe that their country’s most important political decisions aren’t being determined in some sinister conspiracy—they need to be able to track and understand what is going on. This is why it is so important for presidents to stick to some long-established protocols, like refraining from attacking particular law enforcement agents; from contacting officials who could potentially bring charges against them; or from demanding political loyalty from public servants who are meant to be independent. Trump has brazenly broken all of these protocols. And so it is his fault that—like the subjects of authoritarian regimes from Czechoslovakia to Iran—we now know so little about what is really going on at the heart of power that it is perfectly rational for us to resort to conspiracy theory.
There’s an abstract way to express the harm this does: If democracy promises to let the people rule, this logically requires that the people should be able to tell what it is that is being done in their name. Even in the unlikely case in which Trump’s attacks on the FBI eventually turn out to have been all talk and no action, his willingness to create the impression that he is improperly swaying the actions of the bureau thus undermines the core promise of democracy.
Another way to express the harm is painfully concrete. For if you and I cannot tell the degree to which the leadership of the country’s most important law enforcement agency is now complicit with the president, nor can that agency’s rank-and-file agents. Would ambitious midlevel operatives who come into information that incriminates key members of the administration—or, for that matter, distant friends and relatives of the president—treat this information the same way they would have under more ordinary circumstances? Almost definitely not.
Some people have such an extreme image of what authoritarian power grabs look like that they are unable to recognize the concerted attack on the FBI for what it is: Though McCabe was not found dead in his pajamas below his office window, his ouster is a clear attempt to increase Trump’s power by exercising political control over America’s most important law enforcement agency. The immediate purpose, of course, is to shield Donald Trump from the ongoing investigation into his ties to Russia. This, in itself, is serious enough. But the true stakes are even bigger than that. For once the White House effectively controls the FBI, it might well decide that offense is the best defense and decide to try Hillary Clinton—or to investigate Trump’s adversary in the next presidential elections. The maintenance of free and fair elections can no longer be guaranteed.
And this is why McCabe’s ouster should be of pressing concern even to people who believe that Democrats would be well-advised to focus less on l’Affaire Russe: With every passing day, Trump’s desperate attempt to shield himself from investigation goes one step closer to turning into a straightforward—and increasingly powerful—attack on American democracy.
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