Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 6/15/18: Spin Wars (Continued)

Hello again…

3. Spin of the Year: James Comey’s op ed in the New York Times.


  • Comey writes,

“First, the inspector general’s team went through the F.B.I.’s work with a microscope and found no evidence that bias or improper motivation affected the investigation, which I know was done competently, honestly and independently.”

How lawyerly. This is deceit: a factual statement devised to deceive. Most will read this to mean that the investigation found no evidence of bias or improper motivation..\  That is untrue. In fact, as I have already pointed out in earlier posts, there is a great deal of evidence of bias. There is no  evidence that the bias affected the investigation, except the circumstantial evidence that the results of the investigation were consistent with the bias.

  • He writes of the IG department’s report,

“Its detailed report should serve to both protect and build the reservoir of trust and credibility necessary for the Department of Justice and the F.B.I. to remain strong and independent and to continue their good work for our country.”

What is this, confirmation bias run amuck? Rose-colored glasses? In one of its most consequential and high-profile cases, the report shows that the FBI was mismanaged, leaked to the news media, had unprofessional agents deeply involved with the matter, and did not follow its own procedures. This report will undermine trust in the agency, and should,

4. This is, broadly speaking, a pack of rationalizations…Lawfare, a Brookings ally, published an analysis called Nine Takeaways From the Inspector General’s Report on the Clinton Email Investigation.

I could use it in a seminar on rationalizations and equivocation. Behold the Nine:


First, the report validates the essential integrity of the investigation. It offers no reason to believe that, in the main, the Clinton email investigation was not a genuine effort by the FBI to learn the facts and apply the law to them in a fashion consistent with Justice Department policy and practice….

“In the main”… “broadly”…the “essential” integrity. The whole set of “nine takeaways” are riddled with these equivocations. These are shocking in a legal context. What happens if a conviction is “in the main” based on a fair trial? It gets reversed. What if a prosecution is “broadly” free of constitutional abuse? It is unconstitutional. What if the state makes “genuine effort” to provide due process to an accused, but fails to actually provide it?


Second, and relatedly, the IG broadly concludes that the investigation’s judgments were not influenced by politics.

There’s broadly again. The report states that Comey made his October announcement about Anthony Weiner’s laptop because he assumed Clinton would win, and didn’t want to undermine the appearance of her election’s integrity by being open to accusations that he withheld the information to help her. This means that political considerations certainly governed that judgment, and if politics governed that one, it might have affected others.


Third, the IG broadly validates the investigation’s conclusion: to decline to seek charges against Clinton or anyone else.

Broadly! See any trend here? Lawfare notes many troubling details that indicate breaches of policy and indications of misconduct, but keeps saying “No harm, no foul.” That’s Rationalization #8. The Trivial Trap , or “No harm no foul!” That is just an appeal to moral luck. The FBI was lucky that its various unethical impulses didn’t result in serious harm, but that doesn’t change or validate its conduct.


Fourth, while the investigation was broadly conducted with integrity and reached the right answer, there were significant errors in the conduct of the probe.

Is this funny yet? “Broadly conducted with integrity”  means “it wasn’t always conducted with integrity.”


Fifth, the report portrays Comey’s conduct at key junctures in an exceedingly negative light, but it slams him in a fashion that doesn’t break new ground either factually or analytically.

Eureka! Another missing rationalization: The Boredom Justification, or “This is nothing new”/ “It’s no surprise.”  I’ll add that to the list. (Thanks, LawFare!) The fact that Comey’s misconduct has been noted before doesn’t mitigate it. This is the first time the authority of the Inspector General’s office confirmed what critics have been saying.

Other rationalizations at play here: #22, The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things”, and#41, The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is.”

(This was the point at which I realized that LawFare and its writers, Autumn Brewington, Victoria Clark, Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic, Matthew Kahn, Benjamin Wittes, were spinning, not analyzing.)


Sixth, the inspector general’s portrait of Lynch and Yates is gentler than his treatment of Comey, but the portrait is unflattering in a mirror-image sort of way…

Here the article describes what I would call the report’s conclusion that the Justice Department management and oversight was negligent and incompetent. It concludes,

“On multiple occasions, Lynch and Yates chose not to engage with Comey directly. At key moments, the problem was not that Comey chose to disobey direct orders but, rather, that he did not have any direct orders to obey. “We found it extraordinary,” the report says, that “the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General conclud[ed] that it would be counterproductive to speak directly with the FBI Director.”

But broadly, it was no big deal, I guess.


Seventh, the report documents significant instances of bad behavior by particular individuals, which are sure to feed distrust of federal law enforcement at precisely the time when Trump and his allies are seeking to stoke it.

Here is a smoking gun example of partisan and biased rhetoric. The report is bad because it will help the disinformation being spread by those mean, corrupt Trump supporters and Trump himself. No, the report will feed distrust of federal law enforcement because it is a damning report.


Eighth, interestingly, the report’s conclusions are so far being widely accepted by those it concerns.

(Widely, this time, instead of broadly.)

What’s so interesting about it? The report is well-documented, and the FBI befouled itself in this matter, as did the Justice Department. What choice was there but to accept it, especially when the mainstream media, pundits and LawFare are spinning as hard as they can to distort the report and confuse the public. LawFare quotes Comey from the piece I linked to above:

“I do not agree with all of the inspector general’s conclusions, but I respect the work of his office and salute its professionalism.”

How is that “acceptance?” “This IG may be full of crap, but I respect others who work with him.”

I guess it’s broadly acceptance.


Finally, the narrative Trump will use this report to advance has no actual merit—but enough incidents within the IG’s narrative will seem to give credence to it so as to give it continued political effect.

So the mask comes off completely. The “narrative” is that the Justice Department and the FBI are not the impeccable, trustworthy, apolitical bodies they claim to be and are supposed to be. The reasons the “incidents” in the report “give credence to it so as to give it continued political effect” is because the report demonstrates enough improper conduct, bias and poor oversight at the FBI to broadly  support the President’s attacks, and to justify public doubts in the fairness of the Mueller investigation.


16 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 6/15/18: Spin Wars (Continued)

  1. Isn’t today the 15th?

    Here’s how I view the 2016 election:
    I think Russia did interfere in the election, but I no longer trust that the Mueller probe is going to get to the facts.

    • We’ve had the evidence of interference since early 2017. This is without a doubt.

      The things is, the level of interference turned out to be a handful of Facebook ad campaigns amounting to something like 1% of 1% of the amount of ads sold by either Trump or Clinton. In other words, immaterial to the outcome of the election.

      Additionally, it turns out, several of the Russian sponsored campaigns were designed to stoke the fires of racial divisiveness with an eye to bolstering turn out by minorities for Clinton.

      So, completely irrelevant meddling by Russia, split in that irrelevance between pieces that could benefit or frustrate *either* candidate.

      The real danger to our Republic is that we have covert government agencies actively seeking to undermine opposition campaigns and frustrate elections, we have had open government agencies harassing opposition political organizations, we have a mainstream media apparatus actively sowing discontent and spreading propaganda in support of a single political party, we have an educational apparatus firmly under the control of that same political party.

      No, a pittance of Russian spending on a wasted facebook ad campaign is not the danger to the American Republic.

      • Agreed.

        Did Russia interfere or do some meddling in the election. Sure, of course they did. I’m sure this happens to some degree in most elections (and not just Russia with the US), now and through history.

        Did this make a difference in the eventual results. I highly doubt it. Even in an extreme that it flipped a state, that wasn’t enough to change it.

        • We have matter of factly ‘interfered’ with elections in any number of countries you care to name.

          The Democrat faux anger about it (Obama and the Israeli election, anyone?) is pure political theater.

  2. When I was a very junior lawyer, I worked for a guy who would edit out every adverb in a brief. His view was if the sentence was accurate without the adverb, than the adverb was unnecessary. And if the sentence was not accurate, than the sentence should be re-written, not sanitized with a misleading adverb.

    I always thought he was wrong, in that adverbs in moderation can be useful to clear and accurate writing. But Lawfare’s “takeaways” show how adverbs can be a dishonest writer’s best friend.

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