You didn’t have to be a news junkie to recognize that the FBI was deeply involved in determining the outcome of the 2016 election, or a statistical whiz to believe the law enforcement agency’s influence was greater than the Russian cyber-mischief that undoubtedly occurred.
Only yesterday, though, when a 35-page report by FBI Inspector General Michael Horowitz revealed that former Director James Comey and his former deputy, Andrew McCabe, contradicted each other about a critical Wall Street Journal background interview in October 2016 that McCabe had authorized, did the dimensions of the problem come clear.
McCabe was fired last month, a day before his planned retirement, for having confirmed the existence of an FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation, and for having lied to investigators about his role in the affair. For all the detail it included, Horowitz’s report was completely unpersuasive – for all the background it left out. It seems clear that McCabe misled investigators. But then, the formal investigation of his role began the day President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, when incentives within the FBI began to shift.
In the closing days of the presidential campaign, FBI leadership was caught between opposing factions: the Obama administration’s Department of Justice, on the one hand, to whose senior officials and prosecutors it reported; and an unknown number of its own rebellious agents on the other, eager to pursue an investigation of the Clinton Foundation, and who were abetted by retired agents, Congressional Republicans and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal.
WSJ reporter Devlin Barrett, citing campaign-finance records, reported (subscription required) on Sept. 23, 2016 that Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a strong Clinton ally, had donated nearly as much as $675,000, through the political organization he controlled, to the 2015 Virginia state Senate campaign of pediatrician Jill McCabe. As associate deputy director, her husband was uninvolved in Clinton investigations at the time, but months after his wife’s defeat was promoted to deputy director.
The same day the story appeared, Barrett wrote an FBI spokesman to ask whether, in August 2016 McCabe had ordered agents investigating the Clinton Foundation to avoid drawing attention to the probe, or even to “stand down.” Barrett wrote, “[H]ow accurate are these descriptions? Anything else I should know?”
By the end of the week, McCabe authorized two aides to undertake a background interview in which they disclosed a testy confrontation with an unnamed senior Justice Department official in which McCabe had refused to halt the investigation, and thereby confirmed the existence of the investigation. Citing “people familiar with the matter,” Barrett wrote, in “FBI in Internal Feud over Hillary Clinton Probe” (subscription required), that no fewer than four field offices – New York, Washington D.C., Little Rock, and Los Angeles, were investigating foundation practices.
Two days later, Barrett disclosed further details (subscription required). But by then a furor had developed over Director Comey’s disclosure, three days before, that some new Hillary Clinton emails had been discovered which could be relevant to a previously closed investigation. (They turned out not to be.)
There is abundant evidence in news accounts that a low-key but aggressive mutiny was underway in the summer and autumn of 2016 among FBI field agents. It aimed at damaging Clinton’s candidacy and furthering that of Donald Trump. Comey and McCabe sought to control it, together and in separate ways. Implicit threats of further leaks probably played a role in forcing Comey to reveal the existence of the trove of recently discovered Clinton emails.
McCabe told the Inspector General that he had disclosed to his boss his decision to authorize the background session. Comey denied that he had. Inspector General Horowitz sided with Comey. His report took a narrow view of McCabe’s motivation, ascribing it to self- interest. The decision to respond to the leakers’ charges “served only to advance McCabe’s personal interest, and not the public interest, as required by FBI policy.”
I haven’t read the Comey book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, but, from the early accounts, it seems clear that he chose not to surface the incipient mutiny that forced his deputy’s hand and, perhaps, his own. That’s understandable enough: Comey continues to seek to maintain discipline and preserve the apolitical reputation of the nation’s chief law-enforcement agency. Keep in mind the mutineers were a relative handful of highly-placed executives. They may have enjoyed a certain amount of tacit support, but the vast majority of the FBI’s 13,400 agents and 20,000 supporting staff went about their jobs with professional disinterest.
That means that the outsider who knows most about what happened inside the FBI in those few months before the election is reporter Barrett. In February last year, he left the WSJ for The Washington Post. There he has kept up a steady stream of scoops, most recently last weekend, a joint byline with Philip Bump,“Criminal investigation into Trump lawyer’s business dealings began months ago.”
The Post has many other reporters working on the story; so do The New York Times and the WSJ: Barrett is no one-man reincarnation of star reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who took charge of the Watergate scandal nearly 50 years ago.
He is, however the author of the Rosetta Stone-like story through which the outcome of the 2016 election eventually will be deciphered. Like many others in the news trade, I was dumbfounded by the election of Donald Trump. Until this week I thought of it as essentially accidental – two bad candidates decided by the hangover from globalizationNow I am more interested than before in the thumbs upon the scale. Never mind however much is left of the Trump administration. Not until Barrett finally publishes his account will we be able to form a clear idea of how Trump’s victory came to be.
David Warsh is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this column first ran.