With so many bewildering things happening in the news, it’s important not to lose the thread. The FBI’s counter-intelligence division was confronted with evidence that the Trump campaign was riddled with operatives colluding with a hostile foreign government to throw the 2016 election. Those fears have now all been amply confirmed. The agents assigned to the case used the least invasive, most conservative means to investigate the evidence they had.
What is most notable is that their highest priority seems to have been protecting Trump from being damaged by the investigation before the facts were known. The counter-intelligence professional were in many ways placed in an impossible position by the Trump operatives’ treachery.
This is an important point to consider for those who criticize the FBI for treating Clinton and Trump with disparate effect or Obama for moving too tardily to confront the threat. I am similarly critical. But this should give us some sense of the constraints both sides were operating under. The FBI investigating a major party presidential campaign in the midst election, especially a counter-intelligence investigation, is in fact a big, big deal. It is fraught with the potential for abuse. It is difficult to bring off without the investigation itself – which is no proof of wrongdoing – impacting the outcome of the election.
What is revealing is that at every turn the agents involved took the step that was most likely to protect now-President Trump. Like having a longtime informant informally ask questions as opposed to having agents request interviews or doing more aggressive electronic surveillance. Whenever the government’s intelligence and national security apparatus makes contact with the political process it is a matter of the greatest delicacy. But at every turn the people involved appear to have leaned in the direction of non-involvement, non-impact, even to a fault. At the end of the day, these people were faced with a genuinely unprecedented situation: a major party presidential campaign that had either been infiltrated by or was colluding with a hostile foreign power.