As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) Had the opportunity to ask questions of FBI Director Christopher A. Wray during a hearing on Thursday. Returning to a line of argument that has invaded the conservative media last week, Gohmert focused his attention on the political inclinations of the members of the office.
"Are you aware?" He asked Wray, that FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe "was involved in highly charged political cases that have been controversial because of his political inclinations?" So I want to ask him if he knows other seniors FBI executives who are aligned with McCabe's political views – yes or no? "
This, in itself, is a misleading statement. McCabe became Donald Trump's favorite sandbag in the 2016 campaign because his wife, Jill, ran as a Democrat for the Virginia Senate. He received campaign contributions from a political action committee linked to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe (D). Trump claimed that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, had directed funds from his ally McAuliffe, implying that he hoped to indirectly influence Andrew McCabe's work, which included evaluating Clinton's use of a private email server.
In fact, the funding that Jill McCabe received was one of several contributions, several of which were major, made in support of the Democratic candidates. In addition, she lost the state Senate race in November 2015, months before her husband assumed responsibility for Clinton's email inquiry.
Gohmert's question, in other words, is based on incorrect information. But he's not explicitly asking about McCabe's wife's 2015 campaign: instead, he asks about members of the FBI who are "aligned with McCabe's political views," that is, Democrats (which Gohmert apparently believes McCabe is, since his wife).
"I am not aware of any senior FBI executive who allows inappropriate political considerations to affect his work with me right now," Wray replied.
Gohmert was not finished. He began to list several FBI employees, asking Wray if he was aware that "they were openly aligned with the political prejudice expressed by McCabe or openly against this administration." Wray uniformly defended the aforementioned people and, in a moment, disputed the premise of Gohmert's question about McCabe's "political bias".
The general effect of Gohmert's questioning recalls the efforts made in the 1950s to eradicate communist infiltrators in American institutions. One might have expected the Democratic member Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) To intervene with an enthusiastic "Do not you have sense of decency?"
However, we must not allow the unusual nature of the interaction to distract the fundamental issue. Gohmert suggested that FBI members who might have recognized his favorable position to the Democrats could not investigate a Republican president fairly. It is a natural end point for political conversation in recent years, but that should not subtract how shocking and unfounded that assumption is.
Trump himself has disparaged the team assembled by Special Advisor Robert S. Mueller III to investigate Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election by citing weak ties of some members with Democratic politicians. In essence, that team has more than a century of experience in the Department of Justice serving under presidents of both parties. Some of them made contributions to the Democratic candidates and Trump presented them as evidence of irremediable corruption of his ability to evaluate him and his presidential campaign fairly. The news that an FBI agent was removed from Mueller's team after the discovery of text messages that apparently criticized then-candidate Trump drew more agitation from the president and his supporters.
This is part of Trump's long-standing strategy. He frames his critics as irremediably partisan and then takes advantage of anecdotal examples as proof that he is right. The media were in Clinton's tank during the campaign, he claimed, using that claim to ignore information about his own mistakes and flip flops. During the transition, he harshly criticized the intelligence agencies he would soon handle because he was plagued by supporters of Barack Obama, as evidenced to a large extent by his staff by people who were working for Obama at the time. Even his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was described by Trump's lawyers in Obama's White House after Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
When Mueller's team began filing charges against Flynn, Trump's defenders are pushed into a strange space, simultaneously dismissing those charges as minors or removed from Trump and disparaging Mueller as deeply damaging in his intentions.
If you're looking to rally your political base against an opponent, there are some more powerful charges than partisan bias. Partisanship is profound and members of one party generally see the other party's policies, or the party itself, as a threat to the country. In other words, castrating an opponent as a democrat can be almost as powerful for Republicans today as portraying someone as a Communist could have been in 1955.
This extends beyond Trump's defense. In Alabama, Senate Republican candidate Roy Moore has made accusations against him for sexual misconduct with minors as a partisan attack, suggesting that this newspaper and members of the opposing party may have conspired to overthrow him. (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 is not explicitly on his side could be presumed to be necessarily 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 the way they conduct their business. Most members of the FBI and the Department of Energy and the Food and Drug Administration who work under Trump used to work under Obama, and many worked for George W. Bush before that. Partly because Trump himself has been separated from government service throughout his adult life, he observes many of those remnants with unduly skeptical. Certainly, there are people who work in the government who have a weak vision of the president and some, apparently, who have leaked embarrassing information to the press in response. Trump's distrust extends far beyond those people.
The broader problem is that this era of partisanship and partisan skepticism potentiates the kind of rationalization that Gohmert showed on Thursday. Simply being associated with a Democrat is seen by some as disqualifying (at a time when many supporters have few friends across the aisle). We can safely assume that Gohmert and his allies do not have the other side with this same standard, look; a person with ties to Republicans would probably not be painted as unreliable or biased when considering evaluations of, say, Obama.
It is also worth repeating that Gohmert's questions were based on a flawed premise: that there was a demonstrated bias within the FBI that affected his decision-making. If evidence of this arises, it is certainly worth protesting. But that protest should be the same if the prejudice were of a republican as if it were a democrat.