President Donald Trump, his top congressional allies, and his Fox News advisers have responded to the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election by immediately launching into calls for new and wide-ranging investigations of Hillary Clinton, the previous federal probe into her use of a private email server, and the Russia probe itself.
Since Mueller’s probe began, Fox host and sometime Trump adviser Sean Hannity has led a coterie of pro-Trump media figures in crafting a complex counternarrative for their right-wing audience. In their telling, the president was the victim of a “two-tiered justice system”: Top officials at the FBI and Justice Department supposedly spent the 2016 election letting Clinton get away with purported crimes related to her use of a private email server as secretary of state, while persecuting Trump and his associates because they wanted him to lose the election.
This theory makes no sense. Then-FBI Director James Comey’s decision to repeatedly call attention to the Clinton probe damaged her campaign, even as the investigation concluded with a recommendation of no charges against her or her aides. And when the Justice Department inspector general reviewed the FBI’s Clinton probe, he castigated Comey for those public discussions of the investigation while finding “no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations.” Meanwhile, the bureau kept its investigation into whether Trump associates collaborated with the Kremlin’s effort to support his candidacy a secret through the election.
But Republicans, particularly those who watch Fox, have nonetheless been convinced by Hannity’s line of analysis. And now that Mueller has wrapped up his investigation, pro-Trump conservatives are calling for a new set of criminal or congressional investigations based on that conspiracy theory. They appear intent on turning Clinton’s use of a private email server, the FBI’s investigation into her use of the server (which conservatives have maligned for recommending no charges against her or her aides), and the FBI Russia probe that evolved into the special counsel investigation into major campaign issues in the months leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
If they do so, journalists will be tested as to whether they learned anything from the 2016 election, when Republicans acted as if email security was the most pressing issue facing the public, and many in the media responded by turning Clinton’s emails into the central election issue. The FBI probe and the frenzied media attention it garnered likely cost Clinton the 2016 election, and the president and his allies seem to be interested in putting the issue back in play as 2020 approaches.
Trump used his Sunday comments on Attorney General William Barr’s letter conveying Mueller’s findings to pivot quickly from declaring victory to a call for retaliation, saying that “hopefully somebody's going to look at the other side” following the conclusion of what he deemed an “illegal takedown that failed.”
The president did not specify what he meant by the “other side,” but it’s reasonable to conclude that he was referring to Clinton, his 2016 opponent. That tracks with a Friday interview in which Trump suggested that because “they have treated me so viciously,” Barr should “do what’s fair” and criminally investigate Clinton for “the deletion of 33,000 emails,” as well as Comey and other Obama-era officials.
Trump isn’t alone in calling for a new Clinton-related investigation.
That night, at a party at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reportedly called for “an investigation into Hillary Clinton and the circumstances surrounding the creation of a largely unverified dossier about Trump’s alleged ties to Russia.” Graham returned to the subject during a Monday press conference.
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) called for Burr to conduct a criminal investigation into the early days of the probe, including Clinton and the dossier, during a Sunday morning interview on Fox & Friends. (Conservatives have falsely claimed that the dossier, whose creation was funded by the Clinton campaign, launched the Russia investigation, and thus that the probe was somehow illegal.)
And since the release of Barr's letter, demands for a new wave of investigations have been constant on the president’s personal propaganda network, Fox News, as well as from other Trump supporters in right-wing media.
The president’s allies have been quite clear that they are calling for these investigations in bad faith, as a way to retaliate against Democratic investigations into Trump.
After Democrats won back the House in the midterm elections and Graham was named as the incoming Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, he warned that if newly empowered Democratic investigators probed the Trump administration’s Russia ties, he would respond by opening investigations into “political bias” in the FBI’s investigations into Clinton’s email server and Russian interference in the election.
And Mike Huckabee, a Fox contributor whose daughter Sarah is the president’s press secretary, turned the subtext to text during a Monday Fox & Friends appearance. “What we need to do as Republicans is let them punch, and then counterpunch. And open the investigations,” he argued. “Remember, we have the executive branch and the Senate. All they've got is the House. Punch hard.”
Huckabee went on to describe two different ways this could play out. First, he suggested that Graham’s committee should target “the ones who, inside the Department of Justice and FBI, actually conspired to bring down this president” and “chase them to justice.” Second, he added that the president should “order the attorney general to do the same thing.”
The use of the congressional oversight apparatus for an explicitly political purpose would be consistent with how Republicans have conducted investigations in the recent past. It was the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a body formed as part of a GOP strategy to damage Clinton’s poll numbers, that first uncovered her use of a private server. More recently, Nunes used his chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee to target the federal law enforcement officials who investigated the Russia ties of Trump campaign associates.
But running this sort of effort out of Graham’s Judiciary Committee would take it to a new level. Any hearing Graham convenes on the subject of the Clinton email server, the FBI investigation thereinto, or the FBI’s Russia probe would feature the additional spectacle of three different Democratic presidential candidates -- Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Kamala Harris (D-CA) -- who serve on that committee and would be asking questions.
Republicans would much rather Democratic candidates spend time talking about Hillary Clinton than about their own policies and values. And having a set of hearings parallel to the House Democratic inquiries on the Trump administration could have value as a defensive maneuver to bolster the president, minimizing the impact the Democratic hearings might have by absorbing some press attention.
This raises significant questions for journalists, who would need to decide how to cover a congressional investigation opened in explicit bad faith that appears geared to upend the campaign cycle. Given past performance during the 2016 election, I don’t have high hopes that journalists have learned from their mistakes and would be able to keep the catnip of a Clinton story from dominating the debate.
But a Senate investigation would nonetheless pale in comparison to Huckabee’s other suggestion -- that the president order the attorney general to conduct criminal investigations into those who purportedly “conspired to bring down this president.”
Trump’s own comments suggesting that Barr should conduct such probes are themselves shockingly dangerous, calling any such future actions into question.
The move Huckabee is calling for would be even worse, something anathema to the rule of law in this country and a step down the road to authoritarianism.
And all in the service of the conspiracy theory Hannity dreamed up to protect the president from the Russia probe.