Washington is awash in so much muchness these days it’s hard to follow the story. And that may be the point.
Every new development or revelation is a “blockbuster” and smoking-gun proof that “this is bigger than Watergate.” Every new dot is connected seamlessly and instantaneously to fit a mosaic of outrage.
For those out to get the president at all costs, the scandal is a moving target — Russian collusion, obstruction of justice, the president’s mental competency, etc. For those out to protect the president at all costs, the scandal is more stable — a conspiracy to destroy the president orchestrated by the Deep State, abetted by the media and Democratic lawmakers.
The only way to sustain the hysteria is to denounce the un-hysterical as complicit bystanders to the alleged scandal. Lack of outrage is itself an outrage. It’s a Beltway version of the old Marxist crime of lacking revolutionary zeal.
The report last week that the president wanted to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III last June (something we already knew) was greeted by many “resistance” types as indistinguishable from actually firing him. Never mind that — as a matter of law and logic — being talked out of obstructing justice isn’t the same thing as obstructing justice.
But the resistance types aren’t wrong that there is a shameless and demagogic campaign to derail and discredit Mueller as well as the agency he once directed, the FBI.
There are four distinct story lines here. The FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified material; the use or abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in investigating some members of the Trump campaign; the recovered text messages between two FBI agents having an affair; and, finally, the Mueller probe into allegations of Russian collusion and the claim that the president obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James B. Comey.
One of these things is not like the others.
Now, I actually believe that Clinton’s handling of classified material was outrageous. I am largely persuaded by the case laid out by my National Review colleague Andrew McCarthy, a former prosecutor, that the fix was in at the Justice Department to protect her from a criminal investigation because any such investigation would also implicate President Obama.
I think the texts between FBI agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page are somewhat damning — of Strzok and Page. They clearly didn’t like Donald Trump and were clearly too interested in the political ramifications of their work (hardly unheard of at the FBI). But so far, the claim that these private texts between lovers prove profound FBI corruption and a vast conspiracy to destroy Trump strikes me as close to paranoid delusion. (Sometimes people say silly things to paramours.) Several GOP lawmakers instantly transformed a joke about a “secret society” into proof of a fifth column in our government — an embarrassing, gravity-defying leap to conclusions.
As for the surveillance court, I have no idea what the full story is. Some allege that the Obama administration used the so-called Steele dossier to get a warrant to monitor the machinations of Carter Page, an unpaid foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign. If the Steele dossier was indeed the only evidence used to authorize a warrant, I think that’s a problem. If it were merely part of the application, I fail to see the Watergate level scandal.
But here’s the thing, so far none of this has anything to do with whether Mueller can do his job properly. For all the phonus-bolonus about Strzok’s Deep State skulduggery, you’d think Strzok was secretly running the Mueller investigation. He was there for a little more than a month last summer. And Mueller dumped him once he heard about the texts and the affair.
Mueller, a man appointed to the FBI by a Republican, has a sterling reputation — even according to the president’s praetorian guard, before partisanship forced them to change their story. And he was in private practice during all of these other events.
But such facts don’t matter when fog and outrage are your most reliable weapons.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com.