Politics

In Congress and at the Justice Department, a Bad Day for Fact, Fairness, and the Future

The second day of impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee began, on Monday, with the chair, Jerrold Nadler, of New York, declaring that “President Trump put himself before country” and deserves impeachment. The ranking Republican on the committee, Doug Collins, of Georgia, responded by saying “we don’t have a crime” and accusing Democrats of carrying out a conspiracy to force Donald Trump out of office. Over the next nine hours, the partisan brawl that had been expected unfolded, ending in shouts and denunciations.

The proceedings, which took place a few blocks away, after lunch, were more decorous but more alarming. The nonpartisan Justice Department Inspector General, Michael Horowitz, released a long-awaited report on whether the F.B.I. properly conducted its Trump-Russia investigation in 2016. The four-hundred-and-thirty-four-page document posits that major mistakes were made. F.B.I. officials repeatedly omitted facts that would have undermined their applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a wiretap of the former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But Horowitz concluded that the over-all investigation was legally justified and not politically biased. That conclusion refutes years of President Trump’s claims that he and his campaign were the victims of a conspiracy.

Minutes later, Attorney General William Barr, the country’s top law-enforcement official, took a highly unusual and likely unprecedented step. Without presenting any evidence, Barr flatly dismissed Horowitz’s core findings. “The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the F.B.I. launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said in a statement.

In an even more unorthodox step, John Durham, a federal prosecutor whom Barr had appointed to carry out a separate investigation of the F.B.I.’s work, chimed in with his own public statement. Durham, who has not yet concluded his probe but had seen a draft of the Inspector General’s report, also criticized Horowitz. “Last month, we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the F.B.I. case was opened,” Durham said.

Throughout the day, the procedures, norms, and practices that govern two of the most serious processes carried out by government—impeaching a President and reviewing a federal investigation—were shredded. Members of Congress talked past one another. So did the country’s top law-enforcement officials. The public was not well served.

One thing that was clear, though, was that the practice of American politics and criminal justice is changing. Trump, through his facts-be-damned statements and take-no-prisoners tweets, has led the way. And his approach to politics is catching—rapidly and rampantly among Republicans and even, more gradually, among Democrats. Democrats, arguably, are cutting corners as they push ahead with their plans for a House impeachment vote by the end of next week. Republicans are demonstrating that they will dismiss any finding, evidence, or fact that does not fit the President’s political narrative.

Last week, Jonathan Turley, a constitutional-law expert whom the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee called as a witness, testified that Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine’s President into launching a criminal investigation of the Biden family was improper. But Turley also argued that it was not an impeachable offense. Will Hurd, a moderate Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, adopted that stance as well. On Monday, Republican after Republican on the committee said that the President had done nothing wrong. He had not committed a single questionable act. Stephen Castor, a Republican lawyer for the committee, dismissed the impeachment proceedings as “baloney” and “a lot of hyperbole and hysteria.”

A similar dynamic defined the response to the Inspector General’s report. The product of two years of investigation and hundreds of interviews, Horowitz’s conclusions were not merely questioned by Republicans, they were derided. Senator Lindsey Graham said the F.B.I.’s Trump-Russia investigation had become a “criminal enterprise.”

James Baker, who served as the F.B.I.’s general counsel when the Bureau conducted the investigation, welcomed Horowitz’s refutation of Trump’s long-running intimations of an F.B.I. coup. “On the major question that has been vexing the country and been the subject of many of the President’s pronouncements, yes, I feel vindicated,” Baker told me. “There was no hoax, there was no plot, there was no coup.”

Baker said that the mistakes and omissions committed by agents were “completely unacceptable” and that the Bureau officials who were involved should be held accountable. He feared that the announcements from Barr and Durham “could easily sow confusion in the public’s mind.” Baker added, “It doesn’t help the public understand the I.G. report, because their statements are conclusory and not supported by meaningful facts. They just come forward with innuendo and generalizations.”

James Clapper, whose work as the Director of National Intelligence in 2016 is being investigated by Durham, predicted that Durham’s investigation would drag on through the 2020 election because of its political value to the President. “This investigation will go on in some form for as long as the Trump Administration is in office,” he told me. As for Horowitz’s report, “There’s something in it for everyone. It won’t resolve anything.”

The distance between the parties is growing. The anger is real—and palpable. The danger in the short term is that the public throws up its hands and tunes out the process. The danger in the long term is that a President gets away with subverting the system.


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