Q&A: Dirty pool

American Experiment’s John Hinderaker interviews Wall Street Journal columnist Kim Strassel about how America’s Left—not Donald Trump— is undermining America’s standards, norms and values. (Plus, she explains her stint as a demolition derby driver.)

John Hinderaker: You started on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board at a young age.

Kim Strassel: Working for The Wall Street Journal has been my first and only job. Some young people might find that terrifying and horrible, but it’s been great for me. I started out on the news side of the newspaper and was overseas to boot. I was in Brussels first and then I was in London for about five years or so. When I moved back to New York, I ended up joining the editorial page, which had always been my long-time dream. I have been fortunate to see the world on The Wall Street Journal’s dime, work with some of the best reporters and obviously the best editorial writers in the business, and work for a publication that backs up its people because it trusts them. Sometimes we do edgier stories and push the envelope a little bit; it’s just a great place to work.

You’ve closely followed how the FBI and others meddled in the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath— what some of us have called the biggest political scandal in American history. You have a new book coming out in October, Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters are Breaking America. Tell us about the book.

The book was inspired by all this reporting on the Trump-Russia collusion hoax. I have followed that closely now for more than two years. It was pretty obvious to many of us, even at the start, that there was something terribly wrong with this narrative. And as we’ve gone along, we have found out that the entire thing was not just a hoax, but one of the biggest political, dirty pool stories that we’ve ever seen in the country. It got me thinking: We hear constantly that this president is an institutional wrecking ball, that he undermines our standards and our norms and our values. Yet, if you step back and look at his administration—the departments and agencies and the people whom he has put in place—it’s actually been one of the more constitutionally conservative administrations in a long time. Especially in contrast to the prior president, who ruled by executive order and by regulation.

It’s the left and the Trump resisters who are doing the most damage. You’ve seen what this Trump-Russia collusion hoax has done to the reputation of and the public’s belief in the FBI and the Department of Justice. You’ve seen it in the character assassination of Brett Kavanaugh. You’ve seen it in the judicial resistance. So many judges have thrown over traditional norms and issued nationwide injunctions against anything they don’t agree with. You’ve seen it in a bureaucratic resistance. And you’ve seen it in the complete loss of standards among the media in terms of what they report and how they report it, which in turn has led to the public’s distrust in the media. So, there’s been a lot of damage done out there, but it’s all coming from the side that is doing the most finger-pointing.

That is so true, and so ironic. The left wants to talk about how President Trump violates our civic norms. But they’re the ones who make it impossible for administration officials to eat dinner at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. They’re the ones who are lining up on people’s lawns to carry out threatening demonstrations. We’re seeing from them what I would call the violation of civil norms on a daily basis.

You bring up a great point. I didn’t even have time in the book to get into the violations of those cultural norms, such as the fact that somehow none of us are supposed to be allowed to voice or talk about any subject without being deemed a racist or some other pejorative term. The institutional norms being broken that I discuss in the book are scary enough. We’re seeing it right now with the impeachment drive in the House, and the book gets into this too.

I saw a press release from (Congressman) Jerry Nadler who runs the House Judiciary Committee, suggesting that they were going to investigate whether or not impeachment was warranted over some antitrust work that the administration had done. They have taken normal political actions and suggested that they are impeachable offenses. That moves us into incredibly dangerous territory for the future. Which is why I wrote this book. I don’t think they fully appreciate the precedent that they are setting.

The Inspector General of the Department of Justice has come out with his first report on James Comey’s handling of his memos on conversations with the President. When that report came out, Comey hailed it as vindication and tried to take a victory lap on Twitter.

Totally insane. This was no victory. It’s hard to look at Comey fairly because the press constantly glorifies him. But look, this guy is the only director to have been fired in the history of the FBI— and fired with good cause, given what has come out so far in the Inspector General’s report. Comey abused his position. He leaked these memos to the press after the fact. He’s very fortunate that he is not getting prosecuted. Step back even further and look what we have. It is still jaw-dropping to me that we had an FBI that opened a counter-intelligence investigation into a political campaign during a presidential election. But as we’ve gone along, we’ve found out that they did it partly on the basis of information provided to them from the rival presidential campaign, which is just appalling.

We now have Andrew McCabe, who was fired. He was not truthful about what he leaked and how he dealt with the media. We have the former FBI Director James Comey who was excoriated in the Inspector General’s report for his behavior. And Comey had been excoriated a year earlier by the same Inspector General for his handling of the Hillary Clinton probe, who said that he had been insubordinate and acted outside the scope of his authority. So, this is a bad actor. We have a number of bad actors, and soon we’re going to get the next chapter in this with an Inspector General report that will go through the entirety of the FISA surveillance applications that were so problematic.

Let’s talk about that. As we speak, Inspector General Michael Horowitz has presented a draft to Attorney General William Barr, I believe.

I have been very much inspired by the Inspector General’s recent Comey report because it suggests that he’s not frightened to go after people in positions of authority and power. This guy is a straight arrow and he seems to be on to Jim Comey as well. Jim Comey, despite his reputation of being a boy scout, is a very slick individual. You don’t get to be the head of the FBI without having those skills. And he has played the media and the public. But this Inspector General has made it pretty clear that rules are rules. They apply to everyone. No amount of clever speaking can hide things you’ve done that violate those rules.

It also seems to me that whoever signed off on these applications to spy on Carter Page, apparently the most innocent man in America, has never been charged with anything. But at a minimum, the people who signed off on the applications misrepresented the basis for them. These are supposedly verified applications. And yet, we know now that there was nothing in that dossier that Hillary Clinton paid for. Isn’t that kind of a starting point?

You’ve just put your finger on what I think may be a central part of the report. There are rules meant to cover everything that the FBI does, and they’re supposed to be treated seriously. Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes has pointed out numerous times that one of those rules is you are not supposed to present speculative material to the court. You’re supposed to verify accusations. And yet, we have former FBI agents who testified that at the time that they put that counter-intelligence application in the first time, that they were still in their infancy in verifying or looking into some of these dossier allegations. None of which were ever verified. They were completely wrong. We also know that they were well aware that Steele had political motives. They went ahead with that application anyway. They knew a couple of weeks afterwards that he was speaking to the press, if not before. And you know, they continued to use his information nonetheless in subsequent applications. The FBI should be asked a lot of really hard questions about what it knew, when it knew it, and how it could possibly justify using it in an official court setting.

And I can’t get past that they also knew the whole thing was paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

And this is one of the biggest fictions. Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official, testified in front of Congress that at the beginning of August he alerted everyone in the Department of Justice and the FBI that this information came from the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and that Steele had partisan leanings. And they proceeded regardless.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the FBI, and others within the DOJ and also the CIA under John Brennan, were acting from political motives.

And that’s going to be the other really interesting part. I think it’s really important that everyone manage their expectations. The brief of the Department of Justice Inspector General is to deal with misconduct or allegations of misconduct for people who work within the Department of Justice or its agencies like the FBI. This is obviously a story that goes beyond that. There are clearly other questions. You just mentioned the role of then CIA Director John Brennan. And there was the role of the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

And Horowitz’s report isn’t necessarily going to easily render judgment on that. His other problem is that he cannot subpoena former or outside people to come in and speak to him, which is going to put some limits on what he could find. That’s why it’s so important that Attorney General William Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney. Durham has the power to demand people attend and speak to him. He has the power to convene a grand jury if he needs to. So, the rest of this story is going to have to come via his hands.

What do you hear about the John Durham investigation in terms of timing? What kind of progress is he making?

I’ve heard really good things, including he’s already staffed up. He was not going to sit back and wait until the Inspector General had finished his report. Combine that with the fact that Durham is a guy who has spent an enormous amount of his career investigating the government itself. He’s kind of famous for looking at former government employee misconduct. That takes a rare kind of prosecutor. It all becomes about protecting the institution, protecting each other, but this is a guy who seems to have a real reputation for saying the law is the law, and precisely because we do work for the government, we have an even greater obligation to follow the law and call it out when it doesn’t work the right way.

I’m assuming it’s going to take quite some time for John Durham to wrap up what is, as you point out, a really wide-ranging investigation. Is it likely that his report might drop during the presidential campaign season?

I am really hopeful that he does it sooner than that. And look, we do know a great deal of what went on there. We’ve had an Inspector General working on this for a year. Undoubtedly, a lot of the leg work has been done, and with any luck Durham gets his report out in the next few months. Maybe that’s optimistic. But here’s my fear: I think that the closer you inch toward the election, the harder it becomes to throw it out and not face accusations that the timing or the release of it was for political purposes or political reasons. There’s also a possibility that he wouldn’t issue anything at all because of soft Department of Justice guidelines that say you can’t do anything that would influence an election. So, for the sake of actual disclosure and letting the country know what happened, I hope the report is dropped soon.

A lot of people are asking whether there will ever be any accountability here. As you said, the Inspector General referred James Comey for possible prosecution, which is appropriate. And I think the Attorney General also appropriately exercised his discretion in favor of not prosecuting Comey. I think that was a good call. But what do you think? Will anybody face criminal prosecution?

Your last words are the most important ones, criminal prosecution. I’ve been highly and increasingly critical of what I see as thuggish Department of Justice prosecutors who go after people on technicalities. And you know who was really good at that? Jim Comey. Whenever he couldn’t get his target on the ground, he got them on some side thing. Look at Martha Stewart, for instance. He wanted her on insider trading. Instead, he threw her in jail for supposedly lying. I don’t like when prosecutors behave that way. I think they need to exercise more humility. I hope that if people really did break a law, charges are brought against them to hold them to the same standards as any other American found to have broken a law. They shouldn’t get off because of their names, their histories, their power, or their influence.

I also hope that we remember there is accountability simply in disgrace. And this is in fact how we deal with people who break rules and regulations. They get fired, and they don’t get their jobs back, and they don’t get to work in government anymore. Jim Comey left his office in disgrace, and he is a disgraced former FBI director. The media doesn’t present him that way, but that is indeed what he is.

You mentioned process crimes, that if you can’t get somebody for a substantive crime, you go after him for allegedly lying to the investigators. That’s exactly the situation we have with General Michael Flynn, correct?

I think Flynn’s ordeal was a travesty. If you closely read the documents and listen to things that Comey has said afterwards, it’s pretty clear that somebody was trying to entrap Flynn. There was absolutely zero reason for the FBI to interview him about the transcripts of his conversations with the Russian ambassador that they’d already collected. They knew exactly what he had said. They were hoping he would say something they could get him on. Since he got rid of his initial defense team and brought a new team on this past summer, there seems to be more awareness of his treatment and a fight back against it.

Kimberley Strassel has written the influential Potomac Watch column in The Wall Street Journal since 2007. She joined the Journal immediately after graduating from Princeton in 1994. After spending five years stationed in Brussels and London, she returned to the Journal’s New York City headquarters. She was named a senior editorial writer and member of the Journal’s editorial board in 2005.