Conservatism's Not-So-'Secret' Society of Opportunistic Hacks
From Ron Johnson to Fox News and beyond, Team Red has replaced skeptical scrutiny of Obama-era executive branch activity with dimwitted counterpunching for Trump.
Before we say our final goodbyes to the "secret society" that for a few terrifying moments was puppeteering the deep-state opposition to President Donald Trump, a brief recap of one of conservatism's most embarrassing 41-hour stretches:
* On Tuesday evening, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, made a startling accusation on Fox News about both the FBI and Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation: "So what this is all about is further evidence of corruption—more than bias, but corruption—at the highest levels of the FBI. And that 'secret society'? We have an informant who's talking about a group that was holding secret meetings off-site. There's so much smoke here, there are so many suspicions." Cue endless "Worse than Watergate" headlines in the conservative media.
* Then on Wednesday night, ABC News obtained the "secret society" text-message in question, from FBI lawyer Lisa Page and to her agent-boyfriend Peter Strzok the day after Trump's victorious election: "Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society." In other words, it was probably a joke.
* And on Thursday morning, Johnson told CNN congressional correspondent Manu Raju that "It's a real possibility" the text was written in jest.
Oh, and the Justice Department's "conveniently" missing text messages between Strzok and Page from December 2016 and May 2017, that Johnson had been sounding the alarm about? This morning we learned they've been found.
Before we blithely move on as if nothing untoward happened here (sample Americans for Limited Government press release: "Big win for Attorney General Sessions on lost and found FBI text messages, now House must release the memo"), it's worth lingering on how brain-bendingly stupid this whole episode obviously was from the get-go, and what that says about the barely twitching husk of governing conservatism.
Start with Ron Johnson. A member of the original 2010 Tea Party wave in Congress, Johnson made a name for himself during his first term fighting Obama-administration executive overreach—suing the Office of Personnel and Management for writing broad interpretations of the Affordable Care Act, lambasting Obama's immigration executive orders, arguing that new Authorizations for the Use of Military Force should be passed for new conflicts, and otherwise leaning into his oversight job with vigor. Remember when an exasperated Hillary Clinton told a Senate committee "What difference, at this point, does it make?!" That was Ron Johnson she was talking to.
So what kind of executive-branch oversight is the senator conducting on Homeland Security in his position as chair? This kind: When, as part of its investigation into possible collusion and conspiracy between a nuclear-armed adversary and an incoming administration, Mueller's investigators acquired the Trump transition team's emails from the General Services Administration (GSA), Johnson fired off a sternly worded letter about activities that potentially "disregarded federal statutes." Not by any Trump associates, mind you, but by the GSA.
Johnson's letter, which came on the heels of a similar one from a Trump lawyer, contributed to another 48-hour storm on the right. "A coup in America?" ran the chyron over at Fox News. FrontPage Mag needed no such question mark. "Mueller's Sinister Coup Attempt," ran the headline in David Horowitz's journal. "The special counsel threatens the rule of law by stealing Trump transition documents." There was widespread speculation that Trump was preparing to fire Mueller.
It's that sense of undisguised opportunism, and facially ridiculous connect-the-dots hyperbole, that has come to mark conservative pushback against the Russia investigation. The initially context-less phrase "secret society" was contained in a single text message sent to a single, long-fired member of Mueller's team of three dozen. Yet that was evidence aplenty for hardened sleuths like the Boston Herald's Howie Carr: "The crooked cops even had a name for their Democrat cabal — the Secret Society. It's all laid out in black and white, in the post-election texts the FBI neglected to delete as part of their ongoing obstruction of justice."
There has been more "deep state" on the Fox networks this week than in an entire season of The X-Files. "The deep state strikes back," warned Laura Ingraham. "It may be time to declare war outright against the deep state and clean out the rot in the upper levels of the FBI and the Justice Department," Lou Dobbs thundered. "Talk about Watergate," Sean Hannity said last night, even after the "secret society" text was unearthed, "This is Watergate on steroids and human growth hormones. The constitutional violations are severe and historically unprecedented in this country. You have deep state actors using and abusing the powerful tools of intelligence that we give them to protect this country."
Much has been made, at Reason and elsewhere, and including under my byline, about the way that the media's anti-Trump obsession has led it down the path of hyperbole and comical error, serving to dull their overall critique of an eminently criticizable president. Well, the same and more can be said about the pro-Trump side of the aisle. When every subplot in the Russia investigation—Fusion GPS! Uranium One! Those temporarily missing text messages!—is literally "worse than Watergate," then the suspicion grows that maybe the next claim, no matter how steeped in real FBI misbehavior, will turn out to be vaporware, too.
Twenty years ago this Saturday, a prominent political personality was asked about allegations under investigation by a special counsel that the president had engaged in questionable conduct. "The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it," Hillary Clinton said then, "is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president."
Conservatives spent a generation mocking that bit of deflection. As happens all too predictably in American politics, they are now mimicking it.