Republicans' transparently preposterous new pretext to fire Mueller
One of the more alarming outbursts of authoritarianism from American conservatives has boiled up over Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into connections between President Trump and Russia. It came out that FBI lawyer Lisa Page and agent Peter Strozk (who were having an affair) had exchanged anti-Trump texts, leading to an extremely predictable frenzy of denunciation and calls for a partisan purge of the FBI. The supposed justification is that the FBI is full of Trump-hating liberals, who aren't giving the president a fair shake.
Over the weekend, lawyers for Trump criticized Mueller's team for the way it obtained emails that were sent between Trump transition officials. Despite Trump's claim that he is not planning to fire Mueller, the outrage on behalf of Trump allies is, very obviously, a pretext to shut down the investigation. But it's worth digging into the bankrupt norm of objectivity that Republicans are attempting to leverage to shut down an investigation into Trump's possible collaboration with a hostile foreign power to win the election.
This desire for objectivity — to avoid the appearance of bias in certain contexts — is very common among professional institutions. For example, The New York Times has been attacked by conservatives (and especially Trump), because of the pretty obvious fact that, at a rough guess, 97 percent of their reporters and editors are upper-middle-class liberals who don't particularly like the president.
But instead of being honest about their employees and where they are coming from, the Times opted to keep its readers in the dark with new rules mandating writers suppress their political opinions on social media. The rules state that reporters "must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments, or do anything else that undercuts the Times’ journalistic reputation." It's ethically bankrupt and illogical — and as journalism professor Jay Rosen argues, likely driven in reality by a need to preserve access to Trump, not any ethical standard. But the major practical effect was to paint a big "Kick Me, Mike Cernovich" sign on the backs of every one of their reporters, which was promptly exploited.
Journalism is different from law enforcement, of course. One does not need to disclose the political affiliations of people who aren't publishing for the public. But like most Americans and all journalists, the average FBI agent certainly has strong political beliefs.
Indeed, one thing that makes this fake controversy so preposterous is that FBI agents are notoriously right-wing. (This is true of most law enforcement; just look at a police union.) Before the election, it was widely discussed that the FBI was stuffed with Trump sympathizers and Clinton haters. The latter especially were reportedly part of why then-FBI Director James Comey released his letter announcing the re-opening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton in late October 2016 — thus helping to throw the election to Trump. Rudy Giuliani even bragged on Fox News that he was getting inside scoops about how angry FBI agents were at the Democratic candidate.
Even the content of the texts did not so much as hint at any actual impropriety (like suggesting the investigation was a good way to get Trump). It was pure political opinion: that Trump is a "loathsome human," that Clinton should win, that Bernie Sanders is an "idiot like Trump," and so forth.
Of course, it was pretty unwise for Strozk and Page to exchange those texts, especially on government phones. But as Josh Marshall points out, federal law protects government employees' right to political opinions. And given that the Department of Justice issued a statement saying that the release of the texts to media outlets was not authorized, the leaks could have quite obviously come from right-wingers in the agency trying to discredit the investigation or appease Trump.
Now, there's nothing wrong with maintaining a professional, buttoned-down norm on investigations. It's reasonable to move people off the investigation if they goof and stir up some controversy. But it's critical for everyone involved to realize that catering to this nonsense idea of objectivity is only going to enable Republican abuse and authoritarianism. When Republican hacks like Fox News' Sean Hannity accuse Mueller — who was appointed to run the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 — and his investigation of being "corrupt, abusively biased, and political," what he's actually saying is "any effort that might uncover crimes committed by President Trump should be stopped immediately." No amount of self-discipline or self-policing is going to stop him attacking Trump's enemies. If no pretexts can be found, he'll make some up.
Instead, remember that investigations proceed by evidence, argument, and sworn testimony. Mueller's effort will produce results (that is, in addition to guilty pleas from George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn, and the indictment of Paul Manafort he has already gotten) insofar as he can produce a solid case for them. Worrying that non-reactionary political opinions among Mueller's team will discredit the investigation — as Times-reading liberals are often tempted to do — is to fall for a Republican con.