When Attorney General Bill Barr testified last week that, yes, “spying did occur” in the government’s Trump-Russia investigation and that spying on a political campaign is a “big deal,” the Democrats were apoplectic. How could he dare say such a thing? The saintly James Comey went even further. He told an audience that he didn’t even know what spying meant. No, siree, he had no idea.
Barr’s candor is what Michael Kinsley famously called a “Washington gaffe,” where the naked truth somehow slips out. Naturally, it set off a firestorm.
Democrats demanded an immediate retraction but got only an anodyne rewording. Use a synonym and call it “surveillance.” The real question, Barr explained, was not whether there was spying—there obviously was—but whether it was legally justified. That is precisely what he intends to find out, he told Congress. He will also find out if the spymasters lied to Congress, about which he has now received criminal referrals.
The Democrats’ ferocious pushback confirms the gravity of the issue. Their fears are well-founded. The Obama administration politicized the Department of Justice, FBI, and intelligence agencies, and a serious investigation is very likely to find criminal wrong-doing. The response of top Democrats is to smear Barr as a partisan hack.
The mainstream media, predictably, adopted the Democratic perspective, even in their “hard news” coverage. Take the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, which used a slick verb and quotation marks to signal its skepticism. Its headline: “Barr Aligns with Trump on ‘Spying.’” CNN went further: “Barr obliterates honest broker persona with ‘spying’ comment.” Those sentiments are similar to Nancy Pelosi’s: “I don’t trust Barr.” Later, she added, “How very, very dismaying and disappointing that the chief law enforcement officer of our country is going off the rails.”
Republicans, by contrast, were delighted by Barr’s comments. They were even more pleased that he intends to investigate what happened, who authorized it, and on what basis. He and Inspector General Michael Horowitz also want to know who leaked information about these on-going investigations, a felony in its own right.
For Republicans, the attorney general’s testimony merely confirmed the obvious, what Trump himself has said for two years and what subsequent testimony and leaks make clear. For them, it was beyond dispute that the FBI, DoJ, and intelligence agencies had conducted a multi-pronged effort to spy on the Trump campaign and the newly elected president. Their questions have always been:
When did the investigations start, and on what basis?
Did U.S. intelligence agencies use their resources to try and entrap people associated with the Trump campaign? Did they or the FBI try to plant “human sources” inside the campaign itself?
Were warrants to spy on an American citizen obtained honestly?
How, exactly, did a counter-intelligence operation morph into a criminal investigation?
If law enforcement and intelligence agencies believed the Russians were trying to infiltrate the Trump campaign, why did they choose not to brief Trump himself, so he could work with them to stop it?
How high up in Loretta Lynch’s DoJ and the Obama White House did knowledge of these surveillance operations go? Did the White House ultimately control these operations?
Republicans have related questions about the slapdash investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, which they see as a whitewash. In fact, they see the Clinton and Trump investigations as evil twins, one to clear the candidate they liked, the other to destroy the candidate they loathed. In short, they see Dirty Cops and Dirty Spymasters, who stepped across a bright line to interfere in our country’s domestic politics. That is a constitutional abomination.
What is so striking is not just the starkly different partisan views of Barr’s testimony and, worse, his integrity. After all, that chasm is now the defining characteristic of American political life. What is striking—and truly disturbing—is how each side thinks the other’s views are so obviously wrong that they must be corrupt and dishonest, explicable only by “bad faith” and malevolent intentions.
We saw just such a division during the O.J. Simpson trial, where the fault line was race. When O.J. was tried for double homicide in the mid-1990s, only 22 percent of African Americans thought he was guilty, according to Washington Post-ABC News surveys. The number for whites was three times higher. When the verdict was announced, there was open celebration in black communities, open disbelief in white ones. Far more blacks were convinced O.J. was the victim of dirty cops and a biased justice system, something they understood from personal experience.
Over time, though, views changed. Immediately after the trial, four out of five whites became convinced of Simpson’s guilt, less than one in five blacks. Since then, numbers among whites have remained roughly the same, but black opinions have changed dramatically. By 1997, 31 percent of blacks said he was guilty; by 2007, that number had risen to 45 percent. By 2015, 57 percent of black respondents said O.J. Simpson was guilty. That number is fairly close to white responses during the trial itself and vastly different from black responses at the time. Opinions can change when the heat is turned off.
In today’s Washington, however, the burners are turned on full blast. Republicans believe James Comey’s FBI and Loretta Lynch’s DoJ were led by dirty cops. The Democrats think the same thing about Donald Trump and his political appointees, including the attorney general. Several leading Democrats are going on TV and proclaiming Trump conspired with the Russians to win the White House.
Evidence? We don’t need no stinkin’ evidence. They must not, since Mueller’s intensive investigation did not indict a single American, much less a member of the Trump campaign, for colluding with the Russians. Mueller’s bottom line, as quoted by Barr, is that the Russians did meddle in the 2016 election but there was no collusion, cooperation, or coordination with the Trump campaign.
These partisan divisions will only harden as the presidential race heats up. They may fade in years to come, as they did after the O.J. trial, but they rend our democracy now.
These accusations of bad faith raise another troubling question: In this hyper-partisan environment, will both parties accept the evidence Barr and Horowitz find? If they do not, if Democrats continue to say everything is the malign work of partisan hacks, then, Lord help us, we’re in for another special counsel.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.