This morning I watched the questioning of FBI Director Christopher A. Wray by the House Judiciary Committee. This FBI oversight hearing by the Judiciary Committee took on added significance with the recent blistering tweet attacks on the FBI by Donald Trump. In a December 3rd tweet Trump tweeted: “After years of Comey, with the phony and dishonest Clinton investigation (and more), runing (sic) the FBI, its reputation is in Tatters – worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness.”
I can recall no other time in history that the FBI, which has long considered one of the top law enforcement organizations in the world, has been publicly attacked in this manner by a sitting president. I knew that the subject of Trump’s tweet would be a prime topic of discussion at the hearing and I was very interested to see how FBI Director Wray would respond. After all, Wray might be considered Trump’s man at the FBI since Trump nominated him for the post back on June 7th after he fired James Comey. On the other hand, Wray has previously served in the Justice Department for eight years and as Director of the FBI he is currently responsible for the effectiveness of the agency and the moral of its employees.
Wray worked in the Department of Justice from 1997 to 2005 when he left the department to enter private law practice. In June of 2003 President George W. Bush nominated Wray to be the Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Criminal Division of the DoJ. Wray served in that position until he left the department in May of 2005. In that capacity he worked directly under Deputy Attorney General James Comey. During that time period Robert Muller was the FBI Director so it is reasonable to assume the duties of the two men brought them into close contact on several occasions. On the other hand, Wray was appointed by Trump. He also works directly for Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General who has remained loyal to Trump despite tension between the two men. And Wray totally understands that Trump previously had no qualms about firing James Comey, his predecessor at the FBI.
I was interested in how Wray would handle the conflict between his loyalty to the President and his loyalty to his agency, especially under the threat of Trump’s propensity to seek vengeance on anyone who dares to disagree with him. Would Wray honor the tradition of the independence of the FBI and its director or would he cave under the political pressure of the President and Republicans on the Committee?
Actually, I was surprised with how well Christopher Wray acquitted himself. In his opening remarks he said, “Let me start by saying that it is for me the honor of a lifetime to be here representing the men and women of the FBI. There is no finer institution than the FBI and no finer people than the men and women who work there and are its very beating heart.”
Asked by the senior Democrat on the panel, Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), if the Trump’s tweet was accurate, that the reputation of the FBI is in tatters, Wray challenged that statement at every level and delivered a lengthy defense of the FBI and its reputation with a statement that began: “Congressman, there is no shortage of opinions out there. What I can tell you is that the FBI I see is tens of thousands of agents, analysts and staff working their tails off keeping Americans safe. The FBI that I see is decent people committed to the highest principles of integrity and respect. He went point out that the standing of the FBI remained unblemished in the eyes of ever organization it works with, from local law enforcement to the intelligence operations of our allies.
Wray also skillfully deflected the Republicans’ pointed questions about the previous FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton pointing out that the matter is currently under investigation by the FBI’s Inspector General do he couldn’t comment. (And of course that investigation is likely to go nowhere.)
On the other hand, I was appalled by the lines of questioning of the Republican Representatives on the committee. The members of the House of Representatives are men and women who are elected to not only represent the people in their districts, but also in a larger sense to act in the best interests of the entire country. Their oath is to the US Constitution, not to their political party or the President, but you would not have known that today.
By their blatantly partisan manner, Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee gave lie to that concept. It was obvious that they were working towards two objectives – first to impugn and discredit Muller’s special counsel investigation and secondly to distract from its possible findings by disingenuously insisting “the other side needs to be investigated too”. It was apparent that they are far more concerned with protecting Trump and their party than they are in protecting our democratic institutions from the manipulations of unfriendly foreign governments. In my book their behavior today was a type of treason.
Led by their Chairman, Bob Goodlatte, the Republicans apparently were much more interested reopening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails then the very real possibility that the President’s closest associates including his family members, and maybe the President himself, may have been colluding with the Russians to subvert the very foundation of our democracy, our election process. They are apparently still very upset that the FBI investigation did not result in Hillary Clinton being accused of a crime and they want the investigation reopened. Never mind that Hillary isn’t President, never mind that the FBI did a thorough investigation and the that then head of the FBI, James Comey – another Republican – could find no reason to accuse her of a crime. Please recall that the email situation was about the alleged mishandling of emails which were classified retroactively. However, House Republicans are apparently unconcerned that the President shared top secret information with the Russian ambassador in the Oval Office or that his campaign team likely colluded with Russian intelligence services. No, they want to use the email issue as a shiny object to distract from the real investigation.
Remember when nearly everyone, including Congressional Republicans, were praising the appointment of Robert Muller, who is a lifelong Republican, as special counsel. Muller, the former head of the FBI was appointed to that position by George W. Bush and asked to continue past his 10-year term by Barack Obama. He has an unblemished reputation as a non-partisan investigator and excellent administrator and was considered by Republicans and Democrats alike as the best possible choice to lead the Russian investigation. Well, apparently Muller’s team is getting too close to the truth for comfort and Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee are dreading of the consequences. So now they want us to believe that Muller and his investigative team are partisan hacks who could never treat Trump and his team fairly. Their objective is to discredit the special counsel’s investigation so that if and when it proves that members of Trump’s campaign team, his family members, and even Trump himself are guilty of crimes, they can claim the investigation was biased.
During the hearings, Committee Republicans dwelled on the fact that an FBI agent named Peter Strzok was transferred off of Muller’s team after he sent texts to another FBI employee which indicated that he was pro Clinton and anti-Trump. Now it’s not against FBI rules for employees to hold political views, but Republicans on the committee were falling all over themselves trying to use that incident to insinuate that Muller’s entire team was stacked against Trump. No idiots, if Muller had not transferred Strzok, that might indicate a bias, but transferring him indicates the opposite, that Muller wanted to remove even the appearance of bias.
It should also be pointed out that the disdain of the Russian investigation extends to the House Select Committee on Intelligence, the House committee which should be most involved in investigating Russian interference in our election process. Republican committee chairman Devin Nunes was forced to recuse himself from the Russian investigation after he briefed Trump and the press on classified intelligence without telling his fellow committee members. However, he continued involve himself in committee business by subpoenaing individuals in a failed attempt to prove a bogus charge that Trump associates named in intelligence reports were illegally “unmasked” by the Obama administration, all in an effort to divert the committee’s investigation.
Nunes’ replacement as the senior Republican in charge of the of the committee’s Russian investigation, Mike Conaway, has also hampered the committee’s investigation. He has refused to reign in Trump minions who appeared before the committee who repeatedly and falsely claimed that they couldn’t recall information that might be damaging to themselves or others in the Trump camp. He also allowed witness to simply refuse to any answer questions about what they personally discussed with Trump. Only the President himself can exert executive privilege under such circumstance and he never did, the reason being that then Congress could challenge the propriety of that privilege in court and force people to testify By refusing to force witness to answer inconvenient questions, Conaway squandered the committee’s ability to charge uncooperative witness with perjury and/or contempt of Congress. He is obviously more concerned with offending Trump than he is with learning the truth.
All of this leads one to question whether House Republicans will abide with the results of Muller investigation even if when it proves that Trump himself was involved in collusion with the Russian in order to tip the scales of the election in his favor. If Republicans in the House are already trying discredit the investigation in anticipation of its final verdict, what faith should we have that if the investigation proves that Trump was personally involved that House Republicans will move to impeach him. This puts a premium on the need to drain the swamp which is the US House of Representatives in the 2018 elections.
Now some of this partisan behavior also been on display in the Senate, but to a lesser extent. It appears Republican Senators, especially those not representing deep red states, feel the need be less biased in their approach to the Russian investigations. Many Republicans in the House evidently feel that in their small districts back home their Republican constituents will be more understanding if they act in a strictly partisan manner rather than putting the interests of our country foremost. Those constituents may even be urging them to behave in the most partisan manner possible. However, House Republicans need to keep in mind that Trump is a very unpopular President who currently has only a 32% approval rating in the latest poll and that his approval ratings have continued to drop over time. Sticking with Trump may prove costly for Republicans, especially if the special counsel investigation goes against him. The big question is whether Trump’s unpopularity will translate into Republican loses in Congress in the 2018 mid-term elections.
Flipping the Senate remains a huge challenge for the Democrats because the numbers are against them in 2018. Democrats would have win 3 more seats to take control of the Senate. However, the Republicans have to defend only 9 Senate seats while the Democrats have to defend 23 seats and 2 held by independents who caucus with the Democrats. 10 of the Democrat held seats are in states that were carried by Trump. (By the way, that advantage will be reversed in 2020.)
Conversely, not long ago the possibility that the Democrats could flip the House of Representatives was considered remote. No more, even with the House districts highly gerrymandered in the Republicans favor. Democrats will need to win 24 more seats to seize the majority in the House when all seats will be up for grabs in 2018. Democrats believe that the “Trump factor” may instill enough enthusiasm in the Democratic base in the 2018 to overcome the usual tendency of fewer young people and minorities to vote in off year elections.
One trend that favors the Democrats is the tendency of the party which occupies the White House to lose House seats in off year elections. This has happened in 18 of the last 20 mid-term elections. The only two exceptions occurred when the sitting Presidents had very high approval ratings. With Trump’s approval ratings already in record low territory and with the Muller investigation tightening ever closer to Trump and his family, Democrats are looking to take advantage of this trend. The DNC is investing heavily in House races in districts where the most vulnerable Republican are up for reelection. However, they are going to need our enthusiasm, our volunteer time, and our contributions to drain the swamp that is the House of Representatives next year.