What’s going to turn out to be the ultimate story of the Trump presidency? The respective philosophic stances of the four most important English-language dailies could be glimpsed on March 24’s front pages:
· The New York Times: “Trump Seethes, But Signs Bipartisan Spending Pact”; “President Unbound, Aides Bewildered, Capital Reeling”; “A 1.3 Trillion Deal Flies in the Face of His Agenda”; “Icy Maneuvering by U.S. and China in Tech Cold War”
· The Wall Street Journal: “Trump Relishes Off-Script Approach”; “Stocks Sink to the Worst Week in Years”
· Financial Times: “Bolton’s rise signals eclipse of moderates under Trump”; “China ready to hit back with tariffs”
· The Washington Post: “Budget is signed, with a dose of drama”; “Trump aide [George Papadopoulos] got campaign guidance on foreign efforts”; “In Bolton, President gains an old hand at bureaucracy game”
There was nothing that day about the porn star or the Playboy model. But a couple of days earlier, The Post had tucked inside its front section a story about the FBI. “McCabe was asked about media contacts on the day [FBI Director James] Comey was fired” shone a narrow beam of bright light on a dark corner of what I believe will in the end become the dominating story of Trump’s time as president.
Deputy director Andrew McCabe was fired earlier this month by Atty. Gen. Jeff Session, on the advice of the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which relied on information developed by FBI Inspector General Michael Horowitz. Cited was a “lack of candor” in various interviews with FBI investigators working for Horowitz – a cardinal sin among FBI agents.
The Post article, written by Matt Zapatosky and Karoun Demirjian, presented several new facts. The IG’s team questioned McCabe that day President Trump fired Director Comey. They asked him about the role he played in sourcing of a story that appeared the autumn before in the WSJ, 10 days before the election. His alleged lack of candor that day, May 9, may have been the first of several examples ultimately cited in his firing, a day before he was slated to retire with fully vested pension benefits.
That WSJ article, “FBI in Internal Feud over Hillary Clinton Probe,” by Devlin Barrett, revealed a series of disputes, both between Justice Department prosecutors and the FBI, and among factions within the bureau itself, about whether and how to pursue investigations of the Clinton Foundation. Reporter Barrett disclosed that, according to “people familiar with the matter,... Early this year, four FBI field offices – New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Little Rock, Ark. – were collecting information about the Clinton Foundation “to see if there was evidence of financial crimes or influence peddling.”
The previously unreported investigation had been a matter of internal debate within both agencies throughout the campaign year, Barrett wrote, before describing the sequence of arguments in unusual detail. The Post hired Barrett away from the Journal in February last year.
Where did Barrett get his information? One vector became clear last week. Zapatosky and Demirjian, similarly citing “people familiar with the matter,” wrote that McCabe, acting in his capacity as deputy director, had
"authorized two FBI officials, the FBI’s top spokesman and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, to talk to a Wall Street Journal reporter [Barrett[ in October 2016, for a story the reporter was preparing on the Clinton email case and a separate investigation of the Clinton Foundation….. McCabe has said publicly that he felt he was “being accused of closing down investigations under political pressure,” and he wanted to push back."
Similar pressures may have led Director Comey to notify Congressional leaders on October 28 of the existence of a small trove of previously unexamined emails from Hillary Clinton’s private email server – a headline-provoking move that may have influenced the election results more powerfully than Russian interference.
The Inspector General’s report has not yet been released. Horowitz, a political appointee in the Bush and Obama administrations, has as good a reputation for integrity and independence as does Comey, but the concerns of the two men are not identical. (Trump and his supporters, and some others, routinely disparage Comey’s reputation.)
Conspicuous in the announcement of the scope of the IG’s review were “allegations that Department and FBI employees improperly disclosed non-public information.” How even-hand and thorough Horowitz’s investigation has been of leaks during the campaign year is, for now, anybody’s guess. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has promised hearings once the report becomes public.
The story of a presidency inevitably settles on a narrative. The Watergate inquiries that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency were furthered by a little-noticed battle over who would replace long-time director J. Edgar Hoover after is untimely death. The public understanding of what had happened was greatly shaped by the legend of “Deep Throat.” Internecine strife of a different sort seems likely to ultimately determine the way the Trump administration is remembered.
A daring mutiny by disgruntled FBI agents as the election neared? Political favoritism by those serving in the Obama administration? As with the Watergate proceedings, the questions go to the heart of what it means to serve with honor and to tell the truth. All they lack so far is a relatively dispassionate public forum in which to be examined. My guess is that they’ll find one next year. In that case, unless military conflagration supersedes it, Trump’s war on the FBI will gradually become the dominating story of his administration.
David Warsh, a veteran commentator on financial, political and media matters, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this column first ran.