An interesting experiment, conducted last week in Washington, may signal the end of one dispensation and the beginning of another. On Wednesday, reporter Dan Boylan wrote a brief item in The Washington Times under the headline, “Hacked computer server that handled DNC emails remains out of reach of Russia investigators.”
Two days later, President Trump tweeted from the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg that “Everyone here is talking about why John Podesta refused to give the DNC server to the FBI and CIA. Disgraceful!”
Never mind that Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, had no direct connection with the Democratic National Committee, and little or nothing to do with its decision. The DNC turned over its server instead to a trio of private security firms led by CrowdStrike, of Irvine, Calif., its consultant throughout the campaign. Shawn Henry, a former FBI executive who formerly led both the FBI’s criminal and cyber divisions, oversaw the investigation as head of CrowdStrike’s prevention and incident response services.
The one-two punch was a transparent attempt to reopen the antagonisms of the 2016 presidential campaign. Custody of the server hadn’t been a big item to this point, Boylan noted, “But behind the scenes, discussions are growing louder, Congressional sources say.” Lindsey Graham, (R-S.C.), who is heading the Senate Judiciary Committee’s investigation, said “I want to find out from the company [that] did the forensics what their full findings were.”
Why might the DNC be reluctant to turn over its server to the FBI? We’re back to the high degree of polarization that existed in the nation’s leading law enforcement agency in 2016. Economic Principals has written about this tension before, speculating that incipient mutiny within several FBI field offices may have led director James Comey to announce, shortly before the November election, that he was reopening the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Vetting the previously-unexamined exchanges found on former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer took only days and turned up nothing new. But the reminder of the long-running controversy was widely considered to have influenced the election – almost certainly more than any action ascribed to Russian hackers. The question of insubordination amid the internal feud, well-documented by The Wall Street Journal (subscription required), didn’t come up in Comey’s Senate testimony, and has received little attention from the mainstream press, and for good reason.
The FBI is proud of its tradition of independence and discipline. Not since the Watergate affair have differences of opinion within the Bureau spilled into the press in the form of leaks that turned out to have momentous consequences. In in 1972 and 1973, deputy director Mark Felt’s ambition to displace L. Patrick Gray played a major, if inadvertent role, in precipitating the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon.
In 2016, Comey headed off a threatened rebellion by agents pursuing a criminal investigation of the Clinton Foundation. No doubt he intended to deal afterwards with those who threatened to go to the press. Such internal matters are very difficult to uncover, at least in the absence of continuing turmoil. That “the vast majority of the FBI community had great trust in your leadership and, obviously, trust in your integrity” was confidently asserted in the Senate hearing, by Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and never mind the views of the dissenting minority.
Former Assistant Attorney General Christopher Wray, nominated by President Trump to succeed Comey as director, is widely expected to seek to maintain the Bureau’s fall-on-your-sword traditions. Hence the good leaving-alone the affair has received from the mainstream press – that, and a dominating preoccupation with those audacious Russians.
Now the point. The DNC’s reluctance to share its server probably stems from an awareness of lingering antagonisms within the FBI – the natural inference is that there’s presumably something on it that they don’t trust some FBI agents to keep to themselves once seen. Still, the failure to turn over the evidence is just the sort of lever on public opinion the Congressional Republicans have used before with great success, notably with respect to Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private email server while Secretary of State. I don’t expect Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to gain much purchase with this one, despite his ascension to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
What might have changed? The appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead a broad Russia probe, for one thing. The prospect of next year’s mid-term Congressional elections, for another.
Mueller’s has established a cone of waiting. His inquiry far outranks in probity whatever the hearing the Senate might conduct. If he subpoenas the hacked server, he’ll get it. As Politico’s Jack Shafer wrote last week,
With Mueller on the case, leaks to the press make less sense than scheduling an appointment with one of the special prosecutor’s tough guys. Mueller has placed a lockdown on his team, so don’t expect leaks from him. It’s gonna be a long, hot, dry summer unless the targets of the investigation start gushing to the press on the direction of their attorneys.
The midterm elections pose a significant threat to Republican Party ambitions. It’s too soon to assess the possibilities. But leaving aside grandiose hopes, such as reclaiming former Congressman Tom Price’s House seat in Georgia, the Democratic Party is in position to make substantial gains next year, if it can identify suitable candidates
It’s hard to judge these things from Boston (though it may be easier than in Washington). My hunch is that the valence on Capitol Hill has changed. The familiar kamikaze tactics of the last twenty-five years may be coming to an end. That is why the DNC server experiment bears watching.