For Republicans, the Trump presidency has been one long test of faith. The truest believers in Trumpism are compelled to demonstrate their commitment to the cause by publicly defending obvious falsehoods with as much zeal as they can muster.
Thus, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer endorsed the claim that Trump drew “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” an assertion he now regrets defending. Thus Trump campaign officials contended that crime in America is trending up, not down, contrary to federal statistics, and then credited Trump for ending a crime wave that never existed. Thus, the administration wasted federal resources establishing a legally dubious commission designed to ferret out the millions of illegal voters who supposedly robbed the president of a popular vote victory, only to quietly dissolve under the weight of its own contradictions. Thus, Trump’s fans in conservative media latched onto the odious theory that a 27-year-old DNC staffer’s tragic murder was, in fact, a political assassination; payback over his alleged role in leaking files to WikiLeaks, which conveniently absolved Russia of culpability for the hacking of Democratic targets in 2016.
This was all so much bunk, but these claims were based on grains of truth. Of course, violent crime remains a problem, particularly in the nation’s gang-plagued urban centers, and violent crime has recently been on the rise. Voter fraud is not a myth, Democratic claims to the contrary notwithstanding. The WikiLeaks hacks and Russian active measures targeting U.S. institutions is not a partisan issue; Republicans, too, were reportedly victims of cyber espionage by Russian sources. These are real issues that desperately need sober and serious advocates who command enough authority to be heard over the partisan din. Sadly, the president seems to demand that his allies sacrifice their credibility amid conspicuous displays of loyalty. This administration would rather have unflinching soldiers on its side than accuracy and trustworthiness.
Of all the scandalous sacrifices of authority in the Trump era, “text-gate” might be the worst of the lot, if only because of the collateral damage it has wrought. In the frenetic effort to cast a preemptive veneer of doubt over whatever Robert Mueller’s probe may find, Trump’s advocates across the Republican political spectrum grasped onto the December revelation that a member of that probe—a ranking official formerly with the FBI’s counter-espionage unit—had shared anti-Trump text messages with his mistress. Upon that discovery, Agent Peter Strzok was reassigned from the Mueller probe and dumped into the FBI’s purgatorial human resources department to languish. Since he served on the probe for fewer than two full months, it is likely that Strzok’s influence was limited. Still, the discovery of an anti-Trump voice in the independent investigation provided the probe’s critics with a way to discredit the investigation, and many jumped at the chance.
The discovery that thousands of text messages between December 2016 and May 2017 had gone missing added a tantalizing element of mystery to the nefarious allegations of bias in the Mueller probe. Was the entire Bureau in on this operation? What could have been said? After all, the suspect text messages that hadn’t been deleted were seriously disquieting. In 2016, Strzok texted his mistress, FBI lawyer Lisa Page, about his intention to have an “insurance policy” in the event that Trump won the White House. Later, it was revealed that Page stated her intention to form a “secret society,” presumably, of like minds.
Senator Ron Johnson alleged that this society was “holding secret meetings off-site,” according to an informant. Rep. Bob Goodlatte insisted that the texts “illustrate a conspiracy on the part of some people” to undermine the president. “These are the elements of a palace coup that was underway to disrupt President Trump,” claimed Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz.
You didn’t have to be a professional cynic to think that it was unlikely for FBI counter-intelligence operatives to be plotting the sabotage of a presidency on their government-issued cell phones. A review of all the text messages Strzok sent, including the mitigating material, further undercut the idea that he was an anti-Trump saboteur wrecking the administration from within. But lawmakers threw caution to the breeze, and they surely regret it today. When ABC News discovered the infamous “secret society” text, it was exposed as entirely banal. Republicans like Johnson have since backed off the claim that Strzok and his mistress were engaging in anything other than playful bluster.
This was a credibility sapping debacle, and no one should be more livid at the Republicans who sacrificed their honor to it than those who believe in limited and good governance. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes allowed himself to be used last year by the White House to corroborate the president’s baseless claim that he was personally spied upon by Obama-era law enforcement officials. As a result, he sacrificed his credibility and was forced to recuse himself from Russia-related investigations. But there was a FISA warrant granted to investigate the Trump campaign, and no one knows the extent to which flimsy and political evidence was used to grant that warrant. Trump administration officials were swept up in that surveillance, and subsequently “unmasked” by unknown sources when the transcript of that reconnaissance was improperly related to journalists. That, too, is an abuse of power about which only Republicans seem to care. These are serious causes that require equally serious advocates. Unfortunately, those advocates are all busy throwing their integrity away so that Trump can win a news cycle or two.
Impugning law enforcement professionals in service to a political narrative is unconscionable. Republicans should be equally frustrated by the willingness with which their allies are so willingly discrediting themselves. If they don’t start vocally demanding better, Republicans will soon find themselves bereft of credible advocates. They’ll have no one to blame but themselves for that condition, of course, but that should prove no obstacle to finding a scapegoat somewhere.