Skip to content
Political Pressure Bursts Institutional Pipes
Go to my account

Political Pressure Bursts Institutional Pipes

Why we’re still fighting over the many misdeeds of 2016.

When I play basketball with my son and his friends, there’s a constant taunt they hurl my way. Am I shooting the free throw that can win a game of 21? “Pressure bursts pipes!” they yell. Am I launching a long three with a pickup game on the line? “Pressure bursts pipes!” They’ve said it so much, that the phrase has become the trash talk version of an earworm. It’s a great little saying, applicable in multiple settings, and it might be the best three words to describe the 2016 election, the Russia collusion investigation, and the resulting extraordinary lingering bitterness on all sides of the American divide. 

One of the problems with partisanship is that it seems to hardwire into the brain a good guy/bad guy narrative of contemporary politics. I don’t mean to say that anyone truly believes their side is perfect, just that their own team’s flaws are aberrational and often explainable by reference to the bad acts of their opponents. This is the origin of anti-anti-Trumpism, whataboutism, and the host of other petty forms of argument we see constantly on cable news, in social media, and in the opinion pages of even the most prestigious of magazines and newspapers. 

Thanks to the Department of Justice’s decision to drop its charges against Michael Flynn, the 2016 election and the Russia investigation are once again dominating public (and presidential) attention. Donald Trump has even begun accusing President Obama of unnamed crimes related to the Russia controversies. Let me suggest for a moment that we step back and take a more holistic look at what happened in 2016 and why we’re still torn apart by competing narratives. Let’s look at the pressure, and how it burst the pipes.

First, I cannot think of a single moment in my life when both major-party presidential candidates put such immense pressure on federal law enforcement in a time of extreme partisan polarization. Let’s start with Hillary Clinton. 

I know it’s fashionable for Clinton’s defenders to use the phrase “but her emails!” to minimize the full extent of her wrongdoing. But had her email scandal been limited to a ham-handed effort to enhance her personal convenience at the expense of strict compliance with government policy, she’d be president today. Instead, the true scandal involved the mishandling of some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets. Her unsecure civilian server contained information classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level (and an immense amount of additional information classified at lower levels).

As I explained in great detail at the time, this was a grievous breach of her legal responsibilities. If an Army officer engaged in the same kind of misconduct, at best he’d suffer the permanent loss of his security clearance, and his career would be over. Barring some deft plea bargaining, he’d likely spend some time in confinement. 

But that’s not all, of course. Her campaign subcontracted with Fusion GPS to conduct an investigation of Trump’s contacts with Russia that resulted in the creation of the Steele dossier, one of the most malignant documents in modern political history

The document was full of faulty intelligence (at best) and active disinformation (at worst) and was not only used to secure defective FISA warrants against a former Trump administration official, it was used to brief both President Obama and President Trump, and it irrevocably warped the public narrative from the moment it burst into public view. I described its effects last year in National Review:

An odd sort of consensus developed on the left and the right. In essence, it was this: The dossier is the scandal. On the left, a kind of blind faith emerged that the purpose and ultimate inevitable outcome of the Mueller investigation were to prove the core claims (if not all the specifics) of the dossier. People weren’t singing songs to Mueller with the expectation and hope that he’d simply lay out the facts. They believed that they already knew the facts, it was up to Mueller to come through with the proof.

On the right, when the dossier became the scandal, that meant that misconduct — even lies about contacts with Russians or Russian assets — that fell far short of the dossier’s grandiose claims was treated simply as no big deal. If a meeting with a Russian lawyer with the intention of getting damaging information about Hillary Clinton or alleged efforts to establish back-channel communications with WikiLeaks through Roger Stone fell far short of the dossier’s claims, then they were nothing to worry about — a distraction from the “real” scandal of the “Russia hoax.”

So that’s Clinton. Let’s talk Trump. On the MAGA right, the term “Russia hoax” has become the all-purpose way to dismiss any expression of concern over the cast of criminal characters and the extraordinary actions of the Trump campaign. While I nod at some of those characters and actions in the paragraph above, consider this deeply problematic conduct:

  • The president’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, lied to Congress to conceal the extent of his efforts (and the efforts of the Trump Organization) to enter into a lucrative business deal in Moscow.

  • The president’s friend and informal adviser, Roger Stone, lied to Congress about his efforts to open a line of communications with WikiLeaks, a known Russian intelligence asset, to secure information of interest to the Trump campaign.

  • The Trump campaign’s leading foreign policy adviser (and the president’s future national security adviser) had received tens of thousands of dollars from Kremlin-affiliated entities and was operating as an undisclosed foreign agent of Turkey throughout the presidential campaign.

  • The campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, had served as an undisclosed foreign agent of a Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian regime, and he shared internal campaign polling data with his foreign contacts, including a suspected Russian intelligence asset. 

  • The president’s son, campaign chairman, and son-in-law met in Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer as part of an effort to obtain “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” Moreover, those documents were allegedly part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Nothing came of the meeting, but the meeting itself shows a clear attempt to collude with a foreign power to influence the American presidential election.

The Trump team’s misconduct was covered up by an avalanche of lies to the media and to the public. It’s stunning in retrospect to read statements like Hope Hicks’s declaration that “It never happened. There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign.” Or Reince Priebus’s assertion—when asked about any “contact or coordination” between the campaign and Russia—that “[e]ven this question is insane. Of course we didn’t interface with the Russians.”

And to think, people still wonder why I believed both candidates were corrupt and unfit to be president. 

The actions of the Trump and Clinton camps put immense pressure on a government and a media that, frankly, were simply inadequate for the task. The strains started to show immediately. 

The FBI both saved and destroyed Clinton’s presidential campaign. For a time it saved her by refusing to recommend her indictment for mishandling classified information. Ultimately, however, it holed her campaign below the waterline on two occasions—first when James Comey departed from FBI procedure to comprehensively detail Clinton’s wrongdoing in a press conference that ostensibly “cleared” her of criminal behavior, and second when the FBI announced the reopening of the email investigation in the closing days of the campaign.

Without those actions, Clinton is almost certainly president today. Democrats are to be forgiven if they’re unconvinced by claims that the FBI was clearly “out to get” Trump. If it was so opposed to Trump that it was willing to mount some sort of “soft coup,” why did it help make Trump president?

At the same time, the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation of the Trump campaign suffered from numerous flaws. Its conduct in securing and renewing the Carter Page FISA warrants was deeply scandalous. It laid a perjury trap for incoming national security adviser Flynn, empowered in part by constitutionally suspect Logan Act concerns. 

And at every turn, defenders can rise up and rationalize each problematic decision. 

“The public wouldn’t have tolerated clearing Hillary without some explanation.”

“What if Hillary had won, and we found out after the election that the FBI had reopened its email investigation?”

“Sure the FBI made mistakes in the FISA process, but there’s no evidence of political bias, and Carter Page was a bit player anyway.”

“It’s just wrong to say that the Flynn investigation was about the Logan Act alone. Besides, even Flynn’s defenders can’t point to a violation of statutory or constitutional rights.” 

We haven’t even addressed the media yet. Make no mistake, there were reporters who did remarkable work fighting through falsehoods and almost impossibly-complex fact patterns to discern the truth. In fact, based on much of their work, the broad outlines of the factual claims in the Mueller report (including the fact that there was no active collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign) had already emerged. I wrote this in May 2018:

To the extent that I have a view on the ultimate outcome of his investigation, I’m skeptical that it will find that Trump or campaign officials actively conspired with Russians. The best investigative journalists in the world have been attacking this story for more than a year, with the help of a White House that leaks like a sieve. Yet no substantial evidence of campaign collusion — legal or otherwise — has emerged.

That’s the praise. Now, let’s get to the critique. The truly partisan parts of the media (including, sadly, some partisan “hard-news” reporters) have proved to be utterly unprepared for a scandal that—in its fullness—so thoroughly indicts both sides of the political divide. 

In essence, large numbers of commentators (left and right) behaved like lawyers for their partisan clients. Each negative development for their opponents was hyped, amplified, and dissected. Each negative development for their own team was minimized, rationalized, and even ignored. 

How many Fox-viewing critics of the mainstream media have fully grappled with their favorite network’s role in spreading the vile Seth Rich conspiracy theory?

How many fans of MSNBC have fully reckoned with the outsized role the Steele dossier played in coverage of the Mueller investigation? The Washington Post’s Erick Wemple did an entire invaluable series holding specific individuals and outlets accountable for their credulous response to even the dossier’s most explosive claims.

Sigh. We haven’t even gotten to Congress yet. And this newsletter is already starting to run long (while barely scratching the surface of the troubling facts). But the core point is already abundantly clear—the corruption and misconduct of the two major-party nominees (and elements of their campaign) put an immense strain on our nation’s law enforcement bureaucracy, its media, and its legislative branch. Each of those institutions cracked in important ways under that strain, leaving partisans with ample examples of opposition misconduct that to this day provide them with all the excuse they need to immediately respond to virtually any critique with those three tempting words: “But what about …”

And to think, even as the nation marinates in the toxic world created by this avalanche of lies, this series of crimes, and this willful blindness, there are still those who dispute the critical importance of character in public affairs. As the pressure of scandal and misconduct mounted, the institutional pipes started to burst. They are bursting still today. 

One last thing … 

Regular readers know that I like to go down YouTube rabbit holes. For weeks, I’ve gotten my sports fix by reliving great moments from seasons past. But I’m down a new hole now—short military history documentaries. I’m enjoying the American Battlefield Trust’s Civil War series. This one, about one of the least well-known significant battles of the war, is especially good:

Photographs by Mandel Ngan, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.