The Feds Go Too Far

I am pretty sure that I have had occasion to quote Gertrude Stein’s wise advice for the aspiring avant-garde. It is important, she said, to know how far to go when going too far. 

This sage admonition applies just as much to practitioners in the realm of government and law enforcement as it does to those in the arts. An illustration of how pertinent Stein’s advice is to the former is the still-unfolding aftermath of the FBI’s raid on President Trump’s residence in Palm Beach on August 8. 

Everyone instantly knew that the swaggering agency had gone too far. But that had happened often in the past. Just ask Michael Flynn or Roger Stone or Peter Navarro. The FBI often goes too far. It’s what they do. But in raiding Mar-a-Lago, did they go too far when going too far? 

The FBI clearly underestimated the public’s reaction to their unprecedented violation of a former president’s privacy. According to a recent Rasmussen poll, more than 50 percent of likely voters agree with the statement “there is a group of politicized thugs at the top of the FBI that are using the FBI as Joe Biden’s personal Gestapo.” I agree with it myself. 

Question for Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray: Was it worth it? You carted off Donald Trump’s passports and other documents, and maybe, as you did with the journalist Sharyl Attkisson, you also bugged Trump’s computers or planted incriminating evidence in Melania’s underwear drawer. 

Garland and Wray don’t know the answer to that question yet. They are holding their breath. It’s been worth it in the past. The Russian collusion delusion? That was made up out of whole cloth to destroy Donald Trump. The utterly fictitious nature of the gambit was eventually revealed, but so slowly and in such piecemeal fashion that the damage to the agency, and to the regime generally, was minimal. Even the people guilty of crimes—Andrew McCabe, Kevin Clinesmith, Michael Sussmann, and others—all walked

Clinesmith actually altered an email in order to open a FISA investigation on Carter Page, thereby providing the Feds with a backdoor into the nerve center of the entire Trump campaign. The original email said that Page was a CIA asset. Clinesmith inserted the word “not,” thus providing the specious grounds for the whole Trump-is-a-Putin-Puppet meme. He got probation (!) and was last in the news, page B-78, when his license to practice law was quietly restored. 

My point is that despite loads of negative publicity, whenever they overstep the bounds of propriety (which is often: see “The FBI’s Bad Apples” for a summary) the noise quickly abates, and the fickle public moves on to something else. 

Will they this time? The jury is still out. I think that Wray, Garland, and their puppet masters should keep their getaway cars gassed up. The Washington Post, CNN, the New York Times, and other megaphones of the regime consensus have been excusing the raid, explaining, or at least appearing to explain, how it was all business as usual, just standard procedure, and besides we had “probable cause” or whatever that Trump was sheltering nuclear secrets in his sock drawer, blah, blah, blah.

But all that blustering circling of the wagons looks pretty clumsy and, when you come right down to it, pathetic next to the widespread headlines calling for an investigation, defunding, if not the complete disbanding of the FBI. Back in 2016, some clever, tech-savvy wag put together a video clip of disgraced former FBI chief James Comey outlining to music some of the many crimes Hillary Clinton had committed by storing hundreds of secret, top secret, and classified emails on her private home server interspersed with belligerent commentary by Hillary “What-Difference-At-This-Point-Does-It-Make” Clinton herself. No “reasonable prosecutor,” said Comey, would think of indicting Clinton, but what he meant by “reasonable” was “in-the-pocket-of-Democrats.” 

That clip has made a big-time comeback along with various and sundry demands from members of Congress that the FBI be investigated. Maybe that video artist will reprise his talents and make a clip about the FBI’s treatment of Hunter Biden’s laptop, cutting back and forth between the sordid clips contained therein and religious images with the legend “Noli me tangere” affixed. We’ll have to wait. 

But right now, everywhere one turns, the FBI is the news of the day. Frank Miele, writing for Real Clear Investigations, cut to the chase when he observed that nowadays “FBI” is understood to stand for “Federal Bureau of Intimidation.” And that, of course, is what the heavy-breathing raid on Mar-a-Lago was all about. The pretext was some documents wanted by the National Archives. But Trump’s people were already dealing with those requests. The raid was a show of force, directed as much toward you and me as to Trump. “Essentially,” as Miele put it, “what the FBI was saying is ‘We know where you live, and we aren’t afraid to come for you.’”

So we have seen. But here’s the thing. The FBI, like the rest of the hypertrophied, self-engorging government apparat, is a powerful and minatory thing. As such, it is Leviathan that would have been abominated by the founders of this country, who thought government ought to be vigorous but unobtrusive and as small as possible. 

Joe Biden memorably said that if you wanted to challenge the government, you would need “F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.” He was roundly and rightly mocked for that exercise in smug complacency. The mockery was right because it treated the threat implicit in his remark with some portion of the contempt it deserved. The mockery was widespread because the ultimate source of the government’s, and hence the FBI’s, power is its legitimacy, a quality calibrated not by the number of armed SWAT teams one has in one’s pocket but by the consent of the governed, a quaint idea of which wizened functionaries like Merrick Garland and Christopher Wray are doubtless innocent but which will show its force and fury come November. 

A friend of mine suggested that when the Republicans sweep into the House with a commanding majority in January, one of their first acts should be to cut the FBI’s budget by 10 percent. I approved the sentiment but replied that 10 percent was much too little. The agency should be cut by at least 25 percent, a first step toward the goal of abolishing that rotten institution, which long ago degenerated into the enforcement arm of the regime. I suspect that in raiding Trump’s private residence without compelling justification, the FBI violated Gertrude Stein’s golden rule about knowing how far to go when going too far. They will, I predict, pay the price, and the country will be a freer, safer, less intimidated place. 

About Roger Kimball

Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine's Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art's Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).

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