Politics

Soft on Crimea

In a hearing on the Russia investigation, Democrats defend law enforcement, while Republicans see bias.

Christopher Wray and Rod Rosenstein at a House hearing.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee grilled FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about FBI bias in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Two hours into the hearing, Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat, changed the subject. She said that a recent FBI report, “Black Identity Extremists Likely Motivated to Target Law Enforcement Officers,” had been cited in the arrest of a young man with no record of violence. She worried that “law enforcement agencies” would use the report to target “African American activists who might protest police violence.”

Bass’s query was a tangent. But it was also the hearing’s sole moment of normality. For those five minutes, a black Democrat talked about police bias, and two white Republicans vouched for the integrity of prosecutors. Then the committee went back to the upside-down world of the Russia investigation, where Democrats are the party of law and order, and Republicans are the party of decrying prejudice in law enforcement.

Throughout the hearing, Democrats belittled the evidence of FBI bias cataloged by the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, in a June 11 report on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. They defended DOJ’s refusal to hand over some documents demanded by Congress. Releasing these documents might expose “sources and methods” or compromise ongoing investigations, the Democrats argued. They urged their Republican colleagues to “allow law enforcement to proceed on its own terms.”

Anyone who challenged DOJ or the FBI, the Democrats suggested, was soft on crime. They asked why Trump and congressional Republicans hadn’t done more to protect American elections from foreign intruders. “The purpose of this hearing is to undermine the FBI,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee went further. Wray and Rosenstein “should be revered,” Cohen opined. “People who tear them down tear down the flag and tear down the American government.”

It’s creepy to see Democrats launching such attacks on dissent. But it’s not half as creepy as watching Republicans throw the Johnnie Cochran playbook at the Russia investigation. Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida said the investigation should be aborted because Rosenstein had a conflict of interest. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas said former FBI official Peter Strzok, a principal target of the IG report, had fatally tainted the probe’s “foundational” evidence. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina agreed that the investigation was hopelessly biased. He instructed Wray and Rosenstein to “finish it the hell up, ’cause this country is being torn apart.”

The IG report says Horowitz “found no evidence” that FBI or DOJ decisions in the Clinton investigation were “based on improper considerations or influenced by bias.” But the committee Republicans refused to accept this finding. They insisted that bias must have skewed the investigation. Lacking proof, they simply edited out all the occasions on which the FBI or DOJ had acted against Democratic interests. They claimed that agents who worked on the Russia investigation didn’t care about investigating Russia. And they accused Wray and Rosenstein of conspiring to hide information from Congress.

Republicans pressed the witnesses for information about specific informants, intelligence, and inquiries involved in the Russia probe. When Rosenstein said he couldn’t legally answer these questions in public, Republicans portrayed his responses as evidence of corruption. Rosenstein invited them to produce damning evidence or testimony. No one obliged him.

If you suspect law enforcement officials of breaking rules to implicate people in crimes, it’s fine to say so. But no one should take you seriously if you break the same rules yourself. While lecturing Democrats to “go back to the presumption of innocence that we used to hold sacred,” Gowdy discarded that presumption as he smeared the FBI. Wray reminded the committee that the IG report had faulted FBI officials for talking publicly about the content of ongoing investigations. But Republicans ignored his warning and demanded that he do exactly that.

Rep. Doug Collins, a Georgia Republican, asked Wray why the FBI hadn’t purged Strzok based on a suspicious polygraph. Wray explained that Strzok was facing disciplinary proceedings and that Wray didn’t want to prejudice those proceedings by speaking publicly about the details. (Wray didn’t mention that polygraphs are also unreliable.) Collins pressed on, oblivious to the irony of his demand for premature judgment. Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, accused Rosenstein of threatening Republican congressional staffers who had sought DOJ documents. Rosenstein denied the charge under oath, named his eyewitnesses, and pointed out that the allegation came from anonymous sources in media reports. Jordan, who routinely decries anonymous leaks to the media, ignored Rosenstein’s rebuttal and went on citing the same anonymous reports.

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Andy Biggs, a Republican from Arizona, asked Rosenstein to release the names of anyone who had worked for special counsel Robert Mueller. Rosenstein demurred. “Our administration is very committed to ‘backing the blue’ and protecting law enforcement officers from any kind of abuse or retaliation,” said the deputy attorney general. Twenty minutes later, the last Democrat to speak, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, expressed dismay that Trump and his surrogates were attacking DOJ and the FBI—“the very institutions that Republicans used to defend all the time and Democrats actually used to criticize.”

So much for backing the blue. The only blue that congressional Republicans see in the Russia investigation is the threat of a blue wave. They’re backing the red. Or worse, they’re backing the white. They believe in law and order. Just not for folks like them.