Peter Strzok’s story will hurt public trust in the federal government at the worst possible time.
If the story hadn’t been verified by virtually every mainstream-media outlet in the country, you’d think it came straight from conspiratorial fever dreams of the alt-right. Yesterday, news broke that Robert Mueller had months ago asked a senior FBI agent to step down from his role investigating the Trump administration. This prince of a man was caught in an extramarital affair with an FBI lawyer. The affair itself was problematic, but so was the fact that the two were found to have exchanged anti-Trump, pro-Hillary Clinton text messages.
Here’s where the story gets downright bizarre. This agent, Peter Strzok, also worked with FBI director James Comey on the Clinton email investigation. In fact, he was so deeply involved in the Clinton investigation that he is said to have interviewed Cheryl Mills and Huma Abedin, and to have been present when the FBI interviewed Clinton. According to CNN, he was part of the team responsible for altering the FBI’s conclusion that Clinton was “grossly negligent” in handling classified emails (a finding that could have triggered criminal liability) to “extremely careless” — a determination that allowed her to escape prosecution entirely.
After the Clinton investigation concluded, Strzok signed the documents opening the investigation into Russian election interference and actually helped interview former national-security adviser Michael Flynn.
In other words, it looks like a low-integrity, reckless, biased bureaucrat has played an important role in two of the most important and politically charged criminal investigations of the new century. Yes, it’s good that Mueller removed Strzok when he discovered the text messages. No, Strzok is not solely responsible for the conclusions reached in either investigation. But his mere presence hurts public confidence in the FBI, and it does so in a way that further illustrates a persistent and enduring national problem: America’s permanent bureaucracy is unacceptably partisan.
Remember President Obama’s second term, when the IRS Tea Party–targeting scandal erupted? The bureaucrat at the fulcrum of the scandal, Lois Lerner, was unabashedly partisan, launching a comprehensive and unconstitutional inquiry into conservative groups even as she was “joking” that “she wanted to work for the pro-Obama group Organizing for America.”
It’s hard to overstate the effect of the IRS scandal on conservative confidence in the federal government. Yes, there were some progressive groups that faced scrutiny, but the sheer scale of the attack on conservative groups was unprecedented. The IRS sought confidential donor information, passwords, and information about the political activities even of family members of those involved with some scrutinized groups. I remember. I represented dozens of these organizations.
When it came time to launch a criminal investigation of the IRS, the Obama Department of Justice put an Obama donor in charge of the probe. The decision to offer her the job was inexcusable, as was her decision to accept. At a time when half the country was losing confidence in the integrity of its public servants, the Obama administration raised its hand and extended a big middle finger.
While there are certainly some biased, partisan conservatives in the federal bureaucracy, the ideological imbalance in the civil service is striking. It’s not quite at university-faculty levels, but it’s getting close.
For example, in the 2016 election cycle, Hillary Clinton received an astounding 95 percent of all federal-employee donations. The Hill created two charts that show the staggering disparity, in total and by department:
The danger here isn’t just the kind of naked display of partisan bias that we saw in the Obama IRS. It’s also the emergence of groupthink. As we know from other liberal-dominated enclaves, such as academia and the mainstream media, ideological uniformity can lead to a startling degree of ignorance and incompetence. It’s hard to govern (or educate, or report on) an entire country when you aren’t sufficiently exposed to contrary perspectives and experiences.
For more than a year, I’ve been challenging conservative readers to look at Trump’s actions and imagine how they’d react if Democrats were behaving the same way — to apply the same standards to their team that they’d apply to their opponents. Now, I want to challenge my progressive readers: Consider how you would respond to the federal bureaucracy with the opposite ideological imbalance. Would you have confidence that it would apply the law and Constitution fairly? Would you be alarmed if you found that a senior FBI agent so biased and reckless was playing a key role in the investigation of a Democratic president?
I’m no “deep state” or “soft coup” conspiracy theorist. I know there are progressives who do excellent work in the bureaucracy, and I know there are also incompetent conservatives. As we’ve learned, incompetence, bias, and sleaziness know no ideological bounds. But unless our nation can diversify its civil service (and unless civil servants themselves stop acting recklessly and foolishly) public trust will continue to erode, and everything will be viewed through a partisan lens, all the time.
It is to Robert Mueller’s credit that he took swift action against Strzok. It’s a problem that, as the Wall Street Journal observes, he “kept this information from House investigators.” For a critical mass of the public to have confidence in Mueller’s investigation, it must be as transparent and accountable as humanly possible. A proper investigation into Russian interference in our election is vital to the health of our democracy. A biased and opaque probe, however, will do far more harm than good.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.