It’s been a rough couple of news cycles for righteous conservative enemies of the deep state. A key witness promoted as a conscience-ridden whistleblower in the IRS’s handling of Hunter Biden’s delinquent tax payments was charged with serving as an illicit foreign agent spying for China, and trafficking in arms. And just as the legislative MAGA-verse’s Inspector Javert set was poised to depict the IRS as the scheming Beltway left’s blunt instrument of choice, former Trump chief of staff John Kelly reported in sworn testimony that the former president himself was keen to “weaponize” the IRS—the preferred term of art among the Trumpian faithful—in order to harass and punish FBI agents and others investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential campaign.
It’s become a cliché to note that the delirious accusations of the paranoia-prone right are often acts of pure psychological projection, underlining the ugly tactics and measures they deploy on their opponents, but even by the standards of cliché, this one was way too on the nose. So it’s fair to say that House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, arguably the most ardent of the House Javerts, was feeling some pressure to deliver fresh outrage fodder on Wednesday morning as he summoned FBI Director Christopher Wray to testify about the federal agency’s alleged war on right-wing America.
Predictably, Jordan’s opening statement was a litany of rudderless grievances—less an agenda for reasoned inquiry than a lengthy excerpt from Reddit’s r/the_donald discussion board. He began by citing the recent opinion by US District Judge Terence Doughty (a Trump appointee) barring government officials from contacting employees of social media platforms and alleging (in bald ideological caricature) rampant politicized coercion of online speech. He cited the FBI’s (successful) search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago compound for purloined classified documents and Attorney General Merrick Garland’s alleged designation of activist parents as prospective terrorists (something that never actually happened). For good measure, he threw in some references to the damning language of never-executed memos urging agents to be on the alert for “radical Catholic traditionalists.”
This was all nonsense—particularly since the agency now accused of raging anti-conservative persecution has never once in its 115-year history operated under a Democratic director. But it served its chief purpose of rousing the conservative movement faithful to vigilant anti-government alert. Jordan also seamlessly delivered a pet talking point among right-wing grievance merchants—that the FBI is undergoing an existential crisis in public confidence—as he blithely did all he could to hammer away at whatever may remain of such confidence from his chairman’s perch.
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Committee Democrats wearily noted the content-challenged nature of the proceedings; in his opening statement, ranking member Jerry Nadler derided the hearing as “little more than performance art” that chiefly sought “to protect Donald Trump from the consequences of his actions.” Nadler also said that Jordan had told an audience at the Conservative Political Action Committee Conference that this probe “was designed to influence the 2024 race, and that we need to make sure that [Trump] wins. In pursuit of this goal, Chairman Jordan and the Republicans have claimed the FBI is corrupt, rotten, and politicized. Most of these claims are based on absurd conspiracy theories, some so absurd that the chairman himself cannot believe they’re true.” A few other Democrats drily noted the irony of Jordan accusing Wray’s FBI of wanton disregard of the law when Jordan himself defied his own subpoena to testify before the January 6 committee.
But charges of hypocrisy and bad faith count for little in the inquisitorial world of Jim Jordan. The committee’s grilling of Wray wasn’t just inspired by Internet narratives of deep-state persecution of ardent patriots—it was, in essence, the Internet come to life as a legislative probe.
That’s why Jordan and the other MAGA committee members scarcely bothered to answer the heated objections of committee members on the far side of the aisle: They came bearing freshly weaponized data of their own. Kentucky GOP Representative Thomas Massie produced some CCTV footage of a person informing police of the discovery of a pipe bomb outside the Democratic National Committee on January 6—an incident that looked so streamlined and efficient that Massie insinuated federal agents may have planted the offending explosive device themselves. (What this grassy-knoll theorem might mean for the discovery of the other pipe bomb outside the Capitol that day is one of many recondite mysteries here left unplumbed.) Wray replied that the FBI had actually reviewed more than 40,000 videos related to January 6, including that one, and interviewed thousands of participants in the insurrection—at which point, a woman in the audience yelled out “Shame on you!” and stormed out of the room, muttering in exasperation, “He’s not going to jail!”
Again: Internet discourse as civic interrogation. Another prime example came, naturally, from Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, who exultantly quoted an alleged text from Hunter Biden that luridly detailed in the younger Biden’s expectation of a $10 million payoff from Chinese business associates while then–former vice president Joe Biden was sitting nearby as a de facto mob enforcer. Joe Biden has denied being on hand during the text’s composition, while Hunter Biden’s attorney has denounced it as a fake. No matter: “That sounds like a shakedown, doesn’t it, director?” Gaetz thundered, and then thundered further: “Are you protecting the Bidens?”
Nadler may have compared the hearing to performance art, but in truth that was an insult to performance artists: The general run of GOP questioning was much closer in spirit and tenor to a Punch and Judy show. Throughout the battery of heavy-breathing insinuations, Wray played the part of a stolid civil servant–the long-suffering puppet-show bobby—absorbing his pummelings from the designated players as part of the job.
The click-bait theater here was particularly regrettable since there is an important bit of actual legislative business before Congress when it comes to better oversight of federal law enforcement: the vote to reauthorize Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs data collection on US citizens as part of broad sweeps of information ostensibly tracking international terrorism. It’s a much-abused provision–particularly on the part of the FBI, as Wray conceded from the witness table—and attempts to curb FISA abuses are one of the only potential areas of bipartisan collaboration on Jordan’s committee. But the FISA questioning was again shoehorned clumsily into the MAGA-approved talking points about deep-state perfidy, rendering lucid policy discussion a dead letter here, on grounds of general red-meat deficiency. There was even less appetite, of course, for a line of inquiry that California Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren debuted, pointing out that the FBI and Justice Department had actually been quite dilatory in their belated probes of Trump’s conduct in the Mar-a-Lago documents case and the January 6 coup attempt.
Yet these are precisely the sort of questions that need to be widely aired and decisively answered if the debate over the all-too-copious abuses of power by federal law enforcement agencies is ever to be rescued from its present MAGA death spiral. A deep state that only possesses the motivations and ideological affinities of a designated opposition group is an obviously pasteboard creation, to be rolled out as a fresh dramaturgical backdrop on demand. A pair of vignettes from the Wednesday hearing made this all too clear. As Wray strode to the witness table for his swearing-in, a spectator bitterly called out, at Gaetzean volume, “Will you stop violating our First, Fourth, and Fifth amendments?” During a recess in the hearing, the same man walked up to a Capitol Police officer and asked him whether the force ever deputized civilians. One moment, in other words, you can be the confrontational scourge of deep-state autocrats; at the next, you can put yourself forward as a potential federal cop. It doesn’t really matter on the Internet—or in the Republican Party.
Chris LehmannTwitterChris Lehmann is the D.C. Bureau chief for The Nation and a contributing editor at The Baffler. He was formerly editor of The Baffler and The New Republic, and is the author, most recently, of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016).