Former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on November 15, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump announced that he was seeking another term in office and officially launched his 2024 presidential campaign. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
I hope we all agree that we don’t want the FBI involved in politics.
All too often, the FBI has been involved.
In a recent court filing, the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court listed instances in regard to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol in which the FBI had not followed proper procedures in investigations.
The FBI should always be regarded as a threat to civil liberties.
That is why the findings of the report by Special Counsel John Durham, released on May 15, about the origins of the Donald Trump-Russia investigation by the FBI are important.
The Durham investigation into the actions of the FBI was set into motion by then-Attorney General William Barr for what most Democrats feel were purely partisan reasons. That may be true. But overreach by the government should not be ignored, even if the victim is Trump.
What were the report’s conclusions?
The good news is that, beyond the three criminal cases already brought, Durham’s probe did not find that crimes were committed by the FBI, by Trump and his campaign, or by the presidential campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton.
So much for the former Republican president’s claim that the investigation of his ties to Russia amounted to the “crime of the century.”
On the other hand, we can be confident that Trump was never a foreign asset and that his campaign did not conspire in criminal activity.
We have known since the 2019 Special Counsel Report by Robert Mueller that Russians, presumably at the direction of the Russian government, hacked into Hillary Clinton’s email account and released damaging information.
The Mueller Report also found that “the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency, and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
But Mueller did not establish that anyone in the Trump campaign conspired with this Russian effort or coordinated with it.
Actually, we knew that this was happening in 2016, because none of this happened in secret. Candidate Trump said out loud and for all to hear that he hoped Russia would find Clinton’s missing emails and share them with the FBI. Thus, Trump actively encouraged foreign criminals to continue their activities.
Trump’s conduct was obviously improper. Nevertheless, what Trump did was not a crime and whether it amounted to collusion with the Russians depends on how you define collusion, which is not a legal term.
That is all there was. There was no secret Trump activity. As George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley wrote, all those Democrats who suggested otherwise, for quite a long time, owe Trump an apology.
This throws into serious question the decision of the FBI to launch a full-scale investigation into Trump-Russia ties. The Durham Report acknowledged that the FBI had to investigate the possibility of foreign involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign, even if that meant taking a look at the Trump campaign.
But the Report criticized the decision to begin a full-scale investigation because at the time that decision was made, there was no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.
In retrospect, the report’s conclusion seems obviously correct.
The FBI response to the report concedes as much. The FBI insists that reforms already instituted would prevent making such a mistake in the future.
Rather than accept the FBI’s word on this, it would be better to adopt a suggestion in the Report of a non-partisan internal check on politically sensitive criminal investigations.
For my part, I would like to see such a check applied to any investigation with even remote connections to politics, such as FBI infiltration of political groups on both the Right and the Left and religious groups, including churches and mosques.
In light of the dearth of any real evidence, why was the FBI so eager to investigate the Trump campaign in the first place?
The report pointed to an aspect of the investigation that was already known: anti-Trump texts shared by Peter Strzok, the ex-deputy director of the counter-intelligence division and Lisa Page, then an FBI attorney, both of whom were subsequently fired by the FBI.
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded in his 2019 report that the FBI investigation was not pursued out of any political bias against Trump.
But we should be skeptical of any such claim given the different treatment accorded the Clinton campaign when the FBI learned of possible targeting by foreign operatives. In that instance, the Report found, the FBI informed the campaign and provided defensive briefings.
The FBI attitude toward Trump was simply not as friendly.
Another aspect of the FBI acting without actual evidence reported by Durham was the FBI reliance on the unverified Steele dossier, a document that later turned out to be bogus, which contained damaging, indeed outlandish, allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia.
The report found that the FBI relied in part on these unverified allegations in obtaining a FISA warrant targeting Carter Page, an American citizen who had been an advisor to Trump.
Nothing that is in the report is really new, which, in addition to the partisan setting, is why media coverage of the Report was not widespread or lasting.
But Durham’s findings should be concerning.
Democrats, for political reasons, do not appear to want to talk about the report or about ways of ensuring that these mistakes are never repeated. They are afraid any discussion will aid Donald Trump.
That is exactly the wrong way to think about government abuse. Instead, we have to imagine ourselves as potential victims of government wrongdoing.
That should not be difficult. Just ask yourself what reforms to keep the FBI out of politics you would insist on if the director of the FBI had been appointed by Ron DeSantis.
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