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Why Every New Trump Crime Just Makes Republicans Angrier at the FBI

Intelligencer logo Intelligencer 8/16/2022 Jonathan Chait
Intelligencer; Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images © Intelligencer; Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images Intelligencer; Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

This weekend, Florida governor Ron DeSantis delighted the crowd at a conference for the far-right group Turning Point Action by proclaiming that the FBI’s warrant to seize national-security documents stolen by Donald Trump was yet another double standard against law-abiding conservatives. “You look at the raid at Mar-a-Lago, and I’m just trying to remember — maybe somebody here can remind me — about when they did a search warrant at Hillary’s house when she had a rogue server at Chappaqua and she was laundering classified information,” he announced. “I don’t remember them doing that.”

The Republican rationale for defending Trump despite clear-cut violations of the law is that the FBI has supposedly forfeited all credibility. Trump supporters “are mad because the Mar-a-Lago raid fits into a pattern of behavior targeting Trump and his associates by the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence community,” argues Byron York. “When it comes to the FBI’s latest move, he garners near-universal assent — and for good reason,” writes National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry of Trump. “It is impossible to over-estimate the effect of the Russia investigation on the Republican psyche.” Margot Cleveland argues that it’s because of the bureau’s “widespread misconduct that Americans doubt the legitimacy of the FBI’s decision to search the former president’s home.”

Obviously, the weirdest thing about this trust heuristic is that it assumes the more credible party to this dispute is serial lawbreaker and pathological liar Donald Trump rather than the lifelong Republican he appointed to lead the agency. But the deeper and more twisted belief system being expressed by Trump’s allies is the premise that the FBI has engaged in a pattern of political bias against their party since the Clinton saga.

The truth is just the opposite: The FBI has often bent over backward to placate Republicans only to be met with distrust when its results fail to conform to their most paranoid fantasies.

Begin with DeSantis’s claim that the FBI never seized Hillary Clinton’s server: In fact, the FBI took it in August 2015. “The seizure of the server, along with electronic copies of its contents maintained by her private lawyer, is in connection with a criminal investigation into the mishandling of classified information,” gloated a National Review editorial at the time. “It is being dressed up by a reeling Clinton campaign as Hillary’s ‘voluntary’​ surrender of the server in connection with a ‘security inquiry.’”

The fact that DeSantis has a false memory that the FBI somehow never bothered to take her server is itself revealing. Republicans spent a year baying at the FBI and demanding prosecution while agents on the inside of the organization leaked continuously to conservative media sources. “Deep antipathy to Hillary Clinton exists within the FBI,” reported The Guardian in 2016. “It’s clear to me that there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton,” said then–FBI Director James Comey privately. The New York Times’ James Stewart reported that the pressure and threats of additional leaks from right-wing bureau staff drove Comey to violate DOJ protocol by publicizing the Clinton investigation.

In 2016, the FBI made its investigation into Clinton public while keeping its investigation of Trump secret, a choice that very likely swung the razor-tight outcome. The mistreatment of Clinton was so blatant that Trump even used it as a pretext to fire Comey the next year. Yet Republicans have created an upside-down history in which Clinton was coddled and Trump smeared.

The Russia investigation, of course, has loomed large among Republican grievances. Trump claimed, and Republicans came to believe, that the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia was directed by Democrats to harm Trump’s campaign. Of course, such a scheme could work only if the FBI had leaked the investigation — instead, it leaked to the New York Times that Trump had “no clear ties to Russia.”

The Justice Department’s inspector general found the Russia investigation was properly predicated. Rejecting this finding, then–Attorney General William Barr appointed his own ally to produce evidence supporting Trump’s suspicion that a Democratic cabal originated the Russia probe, but that effort failed miserably.

Indeed, the Russia investigation itself was hamstrung by its conservative decisions. Robert Mueller confined the investigation to direct criminal charges rather than making it a broader investigation of the counterintelligence threat posed by Trump’s connections with Russia. He allowed Trump to submit evasive answers to questions in writing rather than testify and decided it would be unfair to Trump to state clearly that he had engaged in obstruction.

One lesson here is that Mueller’s understandable belief that he needed to maintain legitimacy with Republicans by bending over backward to demonstrate his fairness ultimately backfired. It allowed Trump and his allies to frame Mueller’s findings as proving “no collusion” — which Mueller did not say — and from there to paint the entire probe as a “witch hunt.”

You can see the same dynamic at work in the current investigation into Trump’s refusal to give back documents he illegally took. Trump’s supporters have held up the bureau’s patient accommodation in the face of Trump’s defiance as evidence it can’t be trusted. “Just to get this straight, we’re now supposed to believe that the material Trump had stored in his house was nuclear content so sensitive the FBI waited a year and a half to go get it and used the National Archives as a prop to do so?” sneers Ben Shapiro.

Should the Justice Department ultimately decline to charge Trump — which, barring anything deeply sensitive or incriminating in the documents, would seem to be the most likely outcome — conservatives will almost certainly register the FBI’s intervention as yet another case of persecution. The reality of the situation will be just the opposite: Trump openly flouting the law and getting away with it. But the alchemy of conservative paranoia will transmute it into more evidence of his innocence and yet another reason for them to rally to his side when he inevitably proceeds to his next crime.

The underlying cause of this pathological dynamic is a right-wing propaganda bubble that pumps conservatives full of rage, cordens them off from any information that would mitigate their sense of persecution, and primes them to be led by demagogues who feel free to act with impunity, knowing their base will stay loyal regardless. This dysfunction produced Trump’s rise in the first place. And now every new instance of Trump’s misconduct simply confirms to the Republican Party that he was right all along.

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