Prosecutors’ charges against 13 Russian individuals and organizations for interfering with the 2016 presidential election are the latest step in a lengthy and painful process in which serious people of both political parties are working to straighten the U.S. political narrative out of a very difficult twist of the plot.
Remember its central feature; it now seems a long time ago. The 2016 campaign was widely expected, at least for a time, to become a Hillary Clinton-Jeb Bush rematch -– a continuation of a 25-year antagonism in which both candidates had been damaged. That prospect was so unattractive that challengers arose in both parties – 16 of them in the Republican case. Bernie Sanders failed to win his party’s nomination, but Donald Trump improbably gained his. The election campaign began. As Michael Wolf’s Fire and Fury: Inside Trump’s White House (Henry Holt, 2018) makes clear, Donald Trump never expected to win.
Two disruptive forces of particular interest intervened in the election itself. One was the Russian interference. The other was an incipient FBI mutiny, involving agents in at least four field offices, eager to indict Clinton for matters related to the Clinton Foundation, and threatening to go to the press or to Congress. Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett surfaced as much in "FBI in Internal Feud Over Hillary Clinton Probe'' (subscription required) on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016, a few weeks before he left the WSJ for The Washington Post. Those angry agents had a point, of course: there was something suspect about the Clinton Foundation from the very beginning. But the late stages of a presidential campaign is no time to begin an investigation.
The Russian campaign has received a great deal of attention, the FBI mutiny hardly any at all, but it was the threat of disclosure of previously unexamined Clinton e-mails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that forced then FBI Director James Comey to reopen the investigation of Clinton’s private server. As former WSJ columnist Bret Stephens wrote last month in The New York Times (he moved to The Times a few months after the election), the FBI “probably did more than any other agency of government to create the Trump presidency in the first place, in part because disgruntled FBI field agents were intent on forcing James Comey to reopen the Clinton e-mail investigation 11 days before the election.”
It is impossible to say with any real authority that either intervention tipped the election. Clinton contends that Comey cost her the White House. Trump pretends that he received no such help. This much is clear: Had Clinton won, she would by now be up to her ears in investigations of the Clinton Foundation, from Congress at least. Talk about the winner’s curse!
The new indictments mean that the Russian meddling that Trump has repeatedly denounced as a “hoax” turns out to have been quite real. The charges make it much more difficult to fire Mueller. The president was quick to pronounce himself off the hook. Soon after the Justice Department delivered the news, he tweeted, “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong. No collusion!”
Yet there are many more steps to go. It is still very much an open question whether Trump will serve out his term; it is highly unlikely that he could be re-elected. Congressional Republicans remain in Trump’s corner, it is true. Some development may yet turn them against him. Maybe. Maybe not.
Meanwhile, dealing with FBI mutineers remains part of the problem, moving them onto side tracks, or out of the bureau altogether, proceedings the still-divided agency understandably hopes to keep within the family. They may not be able to. Part of Trump’s aim in firing Comey presumably had to do with hopes of advancing the careers of agents who helped him during the campaign, including the mutineers. The rogues continue to stick up for themselves, in leaks to two WSJ columnists, William McGurn and Holman Jenkins Jr. (subscription required). Former federal prosecutor Rudy Giuliani has all but disappeared from the news, after serving as one end of a conduit for “outraged FBI agents” during the campaign.
This is how plot lines adjust. Elections take time. It doesn’t help for the enraged Left to say that the Republican Party “basically lies about everything.” Everything? Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein announced Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments last week – both men are long-time Republicans. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a James Baker III proxy, is still on the job. So are White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and the other two calming generals: Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
Meanwhile, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney announced his candidacy last week for the Senate in Utah. If elected, he will take on the role performed to this point by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) – a conscience of sorts for a political party that has otherwise lost its head.
The sooner the current Republican majority in Congress loses power to the Democrats, the sooner that sensible women and men can begin rebuilding the party. The Democrats’ own major rebuilding is well underway.
David Warsh, an economic historian and long-time business and political columnist, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this first ran.