Editorial: Both conclusions of Horowitz's FBI-Trump probe are troubling

  • Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington last week.

    Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington last week. Associated Press Photo

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 12/14/2019 5:28 PM

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz gave each side something to wave angrily at the other in his report and testimony this week on the 2016 FBI investigation into the Trump campaign. But above the all-too-demoralizing scrum for partisan political points, the critical response to the Horowitz conclusions is not to assess which is more serious -- that it is wrong to call the investigation unwarranted or that the FBI made mistakes in the conduct of it. The critical response is to recognize that both points raise the specter of serious threats to our democracy.

On the first, it's important to acknowledge that the reckless political claims from the president and many of his Republican supporters that the FBI investigation was another political "sham" led by people who don't like him are inherently dangerous. Every parent knows that the first reaction of an admonished child is to complain about the legitimacy of the rule being broken or the motives of the adults upholding it. Every cop, prosecutor, judge or court observer knows that a prime strategy for people accused of crimes is to condemn the process, the law or the motives of the people bringing forth evidence. When such complaints come from the highest branches of government, they lend political legitimacy to these juvenile reactions and seriously erode confidence in the institutions that underpin our democracy.


When one of those institutions is the FBI, this is particularly troubling, precisely because of Horowitz's second conclusion -- that mistakes were made. The late J. Edgar Hoover, who became the agency's first director in 1935 and served in the post until his death in 1972, set the tone for an organization that could be crassly used to monitor private citizens, harass political enemies and intimidate political leaders. Hoover's controversial tenure and facts uncovered since his death about his abuses have led to reforms and a rehabilitation of the FBI's reputation as an independent organization for investigating federal crimes. But the powerful agency's potential for abuses, intentional or otherwise, remains a cause for strict and constant oversight. It seems impossible that any investigation will proceed without flaw, but it naturally follows from Horowitz's report that if such mistakes can be made involving the investigation of a prominent political candidate, they certainly can be made in countless diverse investigations of other American citizens.

So, while it may be said that the inspector general gave each side political ammunition, it is more accurate to observe that he gave the country a picture of two separate but important threats demanding attention and concern. The issue isn't a question of which one we should most resist. The issue is a matter of dedicating ourselves to control them both.

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