Just how is it that some media have gotten away with calling “Spygate” a conspiracy theory?
With the DOJ IG Report footnotes, new revelations about FISA abuse, and disappearing Steele dossier records, what do we now know about the potential weaponization of the US Intelligence community against the Trump campaign?
And, what’s Kimberley Strassel’s prescription for dealing with the “mess” she argues has been created by the unprecedented COVID 19 spending bills?
In this episode, we sit down with Kimberley Strassel, a columnist and member of the Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board. She writes a weekly Potomac Watch column, and she is also the author of “Resistance (At All Costs): How Trump Haters Are Breaking America.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Kim Strassel, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Kimberley Strassel: It is so great to be here, Jan. Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: There are so many things I really want to talk to you about. You’ve got this amazing Potomac column in the Wall Street Journal today that I want to talk about. There’s all sorts of really interesting media adventures that I think we need to talk about relevant to your book “Resistance (At All Costs).” But I think the thing I most want to talk to you about and what we’re going to start with is to figure out where we’re at with respect to US Attorney John Durham’s inquiry into the Crossfire Hurricane investigation and everything related to that. There’s been this steady flow of information over the past months basically telling us, this really wasn’t started in a reasonable way. There really isn’t a lot of support for the investigation in the first place. I’m not seeing any headlines about it. Then suddenly, part four of this highly, highly redacted Senate Intelligence Committee report comes out, and headlines everywhere. And that’s recent. So why don’t we start at that point? What are you seeing here?
Ms. Strassel: Well, it’s an amazing thing to me, what you just described, in that we have, over the past four or five months, received plenty of information, whether from the inspector general’s report in December, or some of his follow-up information that has come out, whether what we’re hearing from the AG about the Durham report that have just been devastating to the Russia collusion narrative, right, it’s blown it out of the water. And that was in case there was anyone out there who still had any shred of confidence in it after even the Mueller Report found that there was no “there” there.
And yet, the media has just ignored almost all of this. So instead, yes, the only real headline we get happens to be the one that comes out from part four of this Senate Intelligence Committee work that says, yes, indeed, we have determined that the intelligence community was correct in saying that the Russians were only doing this to help Donald Trump get elected. And because that’s the one small piece that they can still cling to: “See, we were right, this was all about helping Trump get elected.” And then you can leave hanging out there this little idea that potentially also means that he was inappropriately elected, because he had help. Those are the only headlines we hear about.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s really remarkable, because when I saw these headlines, I was thinking to myself, I think we all agree that the Russians interfered. I didn’t realize this was a matter of contention. And this is essentially what this report says, so this is not new information. But on the other hand, it doesn’t talk about this whole issue of whether there was this weaponization of agencies, which is the big question, against the campaign at this time.
Ms. Strassel: Here’s the reality about the Senate Intelligence Committee report. The media loves to talk about its body of work, because they like to put a big premium on the fact that it’s the only bipartisan report that has come out. The way I would like to describe it is it’s also been the least essential and least informative committee to put out anything, potentially because of the bipartisan aspect of it. When you have to get agreement from every single person, it usually means you’re not saying anything particularly striking or startling. And, indeed, that the main takeaway from everything that’s come out of the Senate Intelligence Committee has just been that it’s been two years behind everybody else, three years behind, and saying what we already knew. And it’s also avoided, as you said, really important topics, for instance, the behavior of the FBI. So in that regard, I put it very much in the same category of the Mueller Report, which is it’s largely closed its eyes to the broader story, and it mostly just repeats popular talking points.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, let’s go into this story. You described this four- or five-month period that we’ve been getting new information. I think my last 15 interviews or more have been about coronavirus-related things. This is actually a really important issue. Some people argue it’s the biggest potential scandal in American history beyond Watergate. I think some folks might be forgetting what’s been going on. I’m wondering if you could rekindle that understanding of where we’re at, maybe starting with the IG (Inspector General) report, and then sort of working into these more recent footnotes, which is much more recent information.
Ms. Strassel: I mentioned the Mueller Report. That was probably a key thing just for kicking off only in that that was our definitive proof from the people who said that it was supposed to be definitive, that there was no Russian collusion. He couldn’t find that. The Trump campaign did not collude with Russia to win the election, okay? Then you fast forward and you find out that from the IG report in December, that the FBI stands accused of duping a secret Surveillance Court, known as the FISA court. It provided it with [an] endless list of incorrect information. It ignored exculpatory information about its targets, in particular Carter Page, who it surveilled in the end, and in essence wasn’t honest with the court. We got some additional details out of that report too, just about some really concerning FBI behavior…
One way of looking at this is that they got their teeth into a story that was fed to them by the opposition campaign to Donald Trump, and they were not willing to let it go, no matter what kind of story came, what information came in that undercut it. They had plenty of evidence early in this investigation that there were problems with bias on behalf of Christopher Steele who wrote the dossier: problems with his sources, problems with the fact that he was related to the other campaign. They dragged their feet. It took a long time for them to go talk to his sources, even when his sources told them that their sources believe that he had misrepresented what they had said, that a lot of it was gossip and hearsay. They ignored that, continued going, and continued to get surveillance warrants on Carter Page for six months after that point. So the IG was incredibly tough on them and called out this horrible behavior and then since then, we’ve found out even more astonishing stuff, as you mentioned, for instance, with footnotes that have just recently been disclosed.
Mr. Jekielek: So, okay, tell me about the footnotes. There’s some really fascinating things in there.
Ms. Strassel: One of the themes that I think wasn’t explicitly stated in the IG report, but is an obvious takeaway is…the degree to which the FBI closed its eyes to anything that might undercut its narrative. And what the footnotes now revealed—and these are footnotes that were in the IG report, and because of pressure from certain senators, they were recently declassified because they had been blocked out in the original report—what they show is that the FBI was alerted early on by other sources of it, that there was good reason to believe that Christopher Steele had been deliberately targeted by Russian intelligence to be the subject of a disinformation campaign. So what does that mean? It doesn’t just mean that the information that he fed to the FBI was incorrect. It meant that the Russians may well have been using the FBI to interfere with our election, that they somehow had a sense that Christopher Steele was reporting these things back to authorities of some level and they were feeding him incorrect information. So in other words, yes, the Russians interfered in our election, potentially with an enormous assist from no other than the FBI.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s really fascinating that the FBI actually had considerable reason to believe, based on these footnotes, that there was Russian disinformation, but as far as we can tell, made no inquiry into this question. You would think it would be the first thing that they would be looking at.
Ms. Strassel: This is one of the great mysteries of the IG report. But the one thing that I found very unsatisfying about the IG report—and I think Michael Horowitz did a very good job and produced for us a lot of really important information—but the IG attitude about some questions was, they asked the question, and then they reported the answer, but it doesn’t really make a judgement on whether or not that answer was legitimate or not. And so, for instance, some very senior people in the FBI were specifically asked by the IG: “Did you not stop to consider that this might have been Russian disinformation?” And I was struck by the answer Bill Priestap, who was one of the assistant directors there and in charge of this investigation to a certain extent. He goes: “Oh, we looked into that, but we decided that it just wasn’t valid.” Well, how did you look into it? And how do you hold up that line in light of these footnotes saying that you were specifically warned by other sources?
And a lot of people are assuming, we don’t know for sure, that some of these warnings were coming from fellow intelligence services, maybe overseas intelligence services saying: look, hey, step back. You might have a problem with this Christopher Steele guy. So how do you say that you evaluated the Russian disinformation claim and came to the judgment that it wasn’t valid when you have specific warnings? What exactly did you do? There’s no information suggesting that they really took it seriously at all.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the theories that’s been floated is that they knew that it was actually not Russian disinformation but opposition research.
Ms. Strassel: Oh, they did know. The question is still very murky, and to me that’s telling. Everyone’s very quiet and cagey about when exactly the FBI was alerted to the fact that Christopher Steele was in the employment of the Hillary Clinton campaign. And now people are parsing the dates in to say, “Well, that information came to the agency, but it didn’t make its way to the core people until this time.” But look, we know for a fact that Bruce Ohr, the Justice Department official whose wife worked for Fusion GPS, which hired Christopher Steele, we know that he, under sworn testimony to the House of Representatives, said that in August, he went to FBI and DOJ officials and informed them that Christopher Steele worked [for] and was connected with the Clinton campaign, had a bias and had an axe to grind against Donald Trump, so they knew that well before they had even filed those first applications for surveillance against Carter Page.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of the Steele dossier here, we just have this recent report by [journalist] Chuck Ross looking at a defamation suit being run against Christopher Steele, where he says, incredibly, that all the notes from his conversations with his only source for this Steele dossier don’t exist anymore. At least that’s what I’m reading. Wow.
Ms. Strassel: Yeah. Wow. Especially because that’s not what he was saying even a few months ago. So remember, the IG report came out. It was scathing about Christopher Steele, his reporting, his qualifications to have done this and the report itself, obviously. And in the aftermath of that, his lawyers came out and said, “In particular on the issue about whether or not Mr. Steele embellished or didn’t report accurately what his sub-sources had told him, well, he took meticulous notes.” And they left it out there to suggest that all he would have to do is release these documents and it would make clear that he totally provided the exact verbatim words from his sources and he didn’t engage in exaggeration, etc. … All the way back in late 2016, early 2017, even before the dossier had been publicly published, somehow his emails were all wiped, and we’re not sure if he wiped them, or if somebody else wiped them, but he says he doesn’t have any of that. It’s not clear he has any notes or correspondence with anything. So it’s a little convenient now because there’s no way to check on the quality of his reporting, or the nature of his interaction with Fusion and the campaign, or anyone, for that matter.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, or the source that would have been in the notes saying, “I’ve been misrepresented here in the dossier.”
Ms. Strassel: Exactly. And that gets to the nub of it. The real criticism of Steele was supposedly he reported a bunch of stuff back in that dossier as fact and as having come from senior officials, when in fact, his own source told the FBI, most of it was stuff I heard in a bar. It was never meant to go into a report, and it’s gossip.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Kim, there’s also this issue that political commentator John Solomon has been reporting on, which is the chair of the House Intel Committee Adam Schiff withholding these transcripts that the House voted on to have released.
Ms. Strassel: Yeah, this is the latest outrage in my mind from House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, and you have to go back several years, right, to when Devin Nunes, the Republican was running the committee. They conducted a very thorough investigation and they were one of the first out of the box to write a report and to tell us what now has been confirmed over and over again, and I think that’s worthwhile pointing out. The Nunes committee report was right, okay, and it was right a year or 18 months before Mueller ever managed to get around to coming out with his own conclusions. But in the aftermath of that report, the Committee voted to release the transcripts of the interviews that they had done with more than 50 people. And those interviews have been going through a declassification process, which is normal and routine, but apparently he has close to 40 of them back with him and he’s refusing to release them, refusing to make them public. And then there are another 10, I’m told, that he’s also blocking the declassification process altogether. So we don’t know when we’ll get those and if they would be included in the tranche that should at some point be released.
There’s a clear reason why he would be doing this. The only reason he’d be doing this is because these transcripts are going to, probably not look very good for some of those Obama holdovers: the Comeys and the McCabes of the world who came in to testify, and whose testimony will be proven wrong or certainly squirrelly in light of the IG report and what we now know. But also, I think those transcripts will prove that Democrats understood all along as these interviews were taking place, that there was no “there” there, and they continued to escalate the story anyway.
Mr. Jekielek: Attorney Durham has been running all this time very quietly. We almost hear nothing about the investigation except when the Attorney General comes out and talks about it. And I find that really interesting. I can’t imagine it’s ever by accident. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this?
Ms. Strassel: The first thing I would say is that I’m happy that we’re not getting any leaks other than that coming from the AG because it means that Durham is doing his job in a professional way. And I would just contrast that to the flood of nonstop leaks that came out of the FBI and the intelligence communities all throughout the Russia investigation. You couldn’t go a day without a leak, sometimes of classified information, all designed to keep up that false narrative. So, Durham’s a top-notch investigator. He’s got a team around him. They’re conducting this the way prosecutors are supposed to do it, which means you don’t hang out your dirty laundry in the public. …I think William Barr to the extent that he’s talking about it is doing so mostly to give people some updates on the progress of what’s happening.
And so we do know a few things. We know that his probe has now been elevated to that of a criminal probe, which suggests that there’s been grand juries and panels, which suggests that he does believe there was some serious potential, serious wrongdoing, in the course of this. We know from the Attorney General that he’s looking at the start of this timeframe, right? Not the start point that the FBI likes to use, which is July 31, the day it officially opened its counterintelligence investigation. But what was happening in the months leading up to that? What was Fusion GPS doing? What was Christopher Steele doing? Who else potentially within the former administration was in the know about this operation? Was there any influence exerted on the FBI to take this up from a political perspective? Were there outside operators in foreign countries that were engaged in something? That’s the time period he’s looking at. And then, finally we know he doesn’t necessarily agree with the Inspector General, that that time period and the official opening of the FBI investigation was in any way adequately predicated, meaning: Was there a good basis to do this? It sounds as though he disagrees with that, based on the one public statement he has made so far.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. I remember from the IG’s statements, I think, in testimony, he said, there’s this kind of potential range that explains what happened, like gross negligence to intentionality, or something like this. And I think, from what I heard from the Attorney General, he’s leaning towards intentionality.
Ms. Strassel: Right, and that’s a very good distinction to make. I was shocked and really discouraged. We’ve mentioned the media a couple of times when the IG report came out and their headlines [said] “IG found: No bias or political interference.” What he actually said was, first of all, he states right off in the beginning of the report that he wasn’t going to make a judgement about the judgments FBI officials did. If they fell within the boundaries of FBI policy, he wasn’t going to second-guess someone’s decision, and he said, look, the rules within the FBI for starting a counterintelligence investigation are very, very wide. They can start an investigation into just about anything, so …I’m not going to second-guess whether they did that.
But then you get to the question of no political bias. What he actually said is, he didn’t find any written smoking gun anywhere, like an email from Jim Comey saying, “Let’s start a counterintelligence investigation to take out candidate Trump.” No one found an email like that. But he also said he never did get an adequate answer for why the mistakes they made happened and why all of this got carried so far. And he said, so in the end, there are only two answers that you can come to yourself. Either gross incompetence—you’re just so bad at your job that you couldn’t even get a fair application into the FISA court—or intentionality, meaning yes, there was a political motive behind doing this, and I think that is where Durham is going to go.
Mr. Jekielek: So I want to talk a bit more about the media. But before we go there there’s also these recent revelations about the realities of the FISA applications. I’m wondering if you could give us an overview of that. That, to me, is some of the most stunning stuff.
Ms. Strassel: Oh, it’s remarkable. And again, the media completely ignored this story, but to me, it’s one of the more important stories we’ve had come out. Because what it does is it suggests that we have an FBI that feels so above the law, so able to do anything at once that it can’t even follow its own procedures. And that, to me is a telling potential mindset that helps explain how you get to a counterintelligence investigation into an active presidential campaign. But the story here is that in the aftermath of the IG report, the IG was so concerned by how many mistakes have been present in those applications as part of that counterintelligence investigation, they conducted an audit, and they decided to just randomly look at another 29 FISA applications and examine what are known as Woods Files.
So, since 2001, the FBI has been under obligation to follow what are known as Woods Procedures, and it means that they have to keep a file in which they keep documentary evidence that backs up any allegation they’re making in a FISA warrant application. And the reason we do this is because the courts rely on the FBI to be scrupulously accurate because there’s no one defending the target in that courtroom, right? It’s just the court depending on the honesty of the FBI. Well, they looked at these 29 applications. They couldn’t even find Woods Files for four of them. And of the other 25 applications, they found errors in every single one, which means 100% fail rate.
But the other thing I think is noticeable is that that report also found that while the FBI is supposed to have an oversight mechanism and check these files once in a while to make sure that the Woods Procedures are being followed, they were doing that and finding errors themselves all along and never doing anything about it. Not going back to any of the agents who’ve made the mistakes and said, “Hey, what’s up here?” They were putting them into reports, saying, “Oh, look, our error rate for FISA applications is here now,” but not taking any steps to fix it. So again, to my point, when you have an FBI that knows that it can pretty much be as sloppy as it wants, do anything it wants, that the court’s not going to call it out, that its superiors aren’t going to call them out, and that no one’s ever going to know because this is classified information, that’s how you get to an FBI that has the belief that it is powerful enough that it should be able to even investigate a presidential campaign.
Mr. Jekielek: So are these IG revelations feeding into Durham’s investigation? How is this working?
Ms. Strassel: I think the Attorney General has said that the IG, while they’re not working together hand in hand, that the IG report is certainly informing Durham’s investigation, in that he’s taking what the IG found. But remember too, and I think this is very important, the IG faced severe limitations in his own ability to do this investigation. He doesn’t have subpoena power. …He cannot force anyone to come and speak to him and who is not currently a member of the Department of Justice or one of its agencies. You had a number of people that we know refused to come and speak with him. …
He actually made a point of noting in his report that he asked Jim Comey to renew his classified status, so that he could be refreshed of certain details and provide better answers and Jim Comey refused to do that, which was noticeable because apparently he didn’t really want to be reminded of certain things and have to answer certain questions. This is a guy who wrote a book about a higher loyalty.
Mr. Jekielek: Kim, the Attorney General has said that now that the election isn’t going to affect the process of this criminal investigation that Durham’s running. How do you think things are gonna evolve now?
Ms. Strassel: That was really interesting to me that the AG said that. I think there’s been a lot of us, including myself, who had felt as though the timeframe for a Durham investigation to finish or begin bringing prosecutions, if there are going to be any, would be in the spring or early summer because of these DOJ prohibitions on conducting investigations that involve politics near an election. What Durham seems to be saying is that actually that prohibition doesn’t really apply here because none of the characters that Durham is going after are running for election, which is noticeable. That tells us who Durham’s not looking at, which means anyone in the Trump team, and obviously, Biden’s not part of this story in any way, and he’s now the nominee. So it sounds as though they’re not going to necessarily wrap this up sooner rather than later.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump back to the media question. I need to draw your attention to this poll that I came across recently. Apparently 53% on a pretty wide berth poll of Americans believe that the Steele dossier has validity to it.
Ms. Strassel: You mentioned that to me right before we went on air and my eyes just about popped out of my head. I had not heard that and it’s stunning to me. But it’s also not surprising, because of that word you just mentioned: the media.
And I think one of the great tragedies of this entire story is that the media became an active player in it, and as a result, it had a stake in the outcome of this. It laid so much of its credibility out on the line. It hated Donald Trump so much that it was willing to run with this unproven, almost fantastical claim for two and a half years. It failed to do any real reporting. But as a result, it really brainwashed a lot of people. And then, when the aftermath came, and it was entirely proven to be wrong, rather than engage in a mea culpa, apologize, re-examine its failings, it has ignored anything that it doesn’t like, and then on the sides, continue to suggest, “Well, we could still be right. Just because Bob Mueller didn’t find evidence of collusion doesn’t mean that it didn’t really happen.” And that kind of a ‘how do you prove a negative’ standard is ridiculous for the press corps and they know better. But it’s why, I presume, you see a poll like that where half of America has just been deliberately misled as to facts and the truth.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s really kind of painful for me to see. We’re accused sometimes of peddling in conspiracy theory, Spygate being the prime one, and I was like, nothing we’ve reported is conspiracy. All of it is highly factual. In fact, it’s, I would say, the most factual of most of what’s out there. I looked into Wikipedia, and here’s how Wikipedia now defines Spygate: “Spygate is a conspiracy theory initiated by President Donald Trump in May 2018 that the Obama administration had placed a spy in his 2016 presidential campaign for political purposes.” Now, we’ve never reported on any such thing. This is fascinating.
Ms. Strassel: Yeah, convenient, too, isn’t it? You just change the definition of a word that you didn’t even coin so that you can call it a conspiracy theory. Look, Donald Trump has had lots of questions about what happened to his campaign, and that was one thing he once said, like “Was there a spy on my campaign?” He’s asked a lot of questions about what happened to his campaign. That was never the definition of Spygate, okay? The question of Spygate broadly was, were our agencies of government monitoring a presidential campaign and members of a presidential campaign during the campaign and then after a president was actually seated? And the answer to that is: yes. Okay? It’s not a conspiracy theory. Everyone has seen the facts, all right? One thing that I also like to point out that a lot of people don’t understand is they try to, again, parse these definitions. They go, “Oh, well, Carter Page, by the time they were actively monitoring him he wasn’t part of the campaign.”
I think something that a lot of people don’t understand is that when you get a surveillance warrant from a FISA court, it not only allows you to monitor somebody’s communications going forward, it allows you to go back through all of their past communications. And so yes, every single interaction Carter Page ever had with any member of the Trump campaign was in the hands of the FBI. And obviously, that means they were monitoring a campaign. How else do you go about looking into your suspicions that a campaign is engaged in collusion unless you’re monitoring that campaign? So yeah, there was spying that went on. Absolutely. And they know it and it’s not a conspiracy theory and that’s outrageous. It’s just outrageous.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to dive into kind of the second topic. I’ve been thinking about how this is playing out at the time of coronavirus. I’m talking about the “mainstream media.” I naively thought that the reporting would change because of coronavirus, because people’s lives are on the line. This isn’t politics anymore. This is the country, the economy, and we’ll talk about that too shortly, what this has all wrought, but that hasn’t happened. I’d love it if you could kind of tell me more about what you’re seeing here.
Ms. Strassel: It’s the same media failing, although, as you just rightly pointed out, with potentially far more severe consequences in terms of everyday people’s lives. What we’re seeing with these daily press briefings at the moment, these task force briefings the press attends, is that the same dynamic continues to apply in coronavirus as it did during the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. And that’s that the press corps so violently hates Donald Trump, is so committed to seeing him fail, that they’re not really willing to follow the story where it leads, to bring us information as is required.
Right now, it’s somewhat stomach-churning to watch. The media is rooting for there to be another surge in cases, for people to have to be locked down again, because that would be opposite of what Trump is saying would be a good thing for the country. And to be driven by that, to also fail to ask some really tough questions about the healthcare experts, [for example], did we do this the right way in term[s] of locking down as hard as we did? What are the consequences for the economy? We just have a bunch of reporters that seem to think that as long as it helped their political goals, it would be great to just have the nation locked down for months, people lose their house, be thrown out of their jobs, and none of this is about, again, following the facts. It’s about a political agenda.
Mr. Jekielek: There was an incredible pivot from one day to the other in the headlines. One day, the media at large was saying, it’s completely outrageous even that Trump would tell anyone to reopen the economy. And then the next day, it turns into, it’s outrageous that Donald Trump wants to avoid the responsibility of that.
Ms. Strassel: …They love these fights with the President. And that first set of headlines you’re talking about, it went on for days, remember, because there was this discussion, and Trump said, “you know what, I could force people to turn on the economy if I really wanted to, I don’t think that’s gonna have to happen.” But he was making a point, probably about the Defense Production Act, meaning if he really needed to, and there was a factory that really needed to be opened in New York or Pennsylvania, he would have the ability to say, “hey, you guys have got to get on it and get me personal protection equipment or something.”
But this goes back and forth for days, and we get these long treatises in the press about federalism, and how important it is that we have a federalist country, and which by the way, is the first time I’ve ever heard the press embrace federalism, and long [pieces] about how Donald Trump is authoritarian and he’s a dictator, and who does he think he is telling Andrew Cuomo when to open. Yet a couple days later, they put out these guidelines, leaving everything entirely to the states. And suddenly in the press, all of the headlines are: Donald Trump avoiding responsibility by leaving it to the governors to decide when to open. They can’t decide from one day to the next what their line is, and it just seems to be on a day-to-day basis what line they think would be most damaging to the President.
Mr. Jekielek: Kim, you talk a lot about this phenomenon in [your book] “Resistance At All Costs.” I’m going to do a little plug for you because I think it’s a really important book. And I think it’s written quite dispassionately, not from a biased perspective, which is what, of course, it’ll be accused of, right?
Ms. Strassel: I appreciate that. I think anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal editorial page, reads my column, or knows that I have concerns with this president on policy issues, sometimes on his management style, but this should not be a question about whether or not you like or don’t like a president in charge. This needs to be a question, if you’re in the media, of facts. We have long depended on the media to be the Fourth Estate, the check on government. And the most disturbing aspect of the Russia collusion story is that it decided instead that it was going to climb in bed with current and former FBI officials, law enforcement, and defend them at all costs and their actions. And that’s not what we have a press for. Could you imagine if that’s what Woodward and Bernstein had done during Watergate? “Well, you know, they told us, the police said it was all good but, or they told us that that break-in was really necessary. Here, let’s justify it for you.” That would be the equivalent. So we can’t have a press corps that behaves this way. We don’t want a Donald Trump to be the subject of an illegitimate counterintelligence investigation by the FBI any more than we want a Barack Obama to be the subject of an illegitimate counterintelligence investigation by the FBI.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump into some of these policy questions you have or criticisms because you have a new column out today, “Congress Creates a Coronavirus Mess: A pandemic doesn’t excuse lawmakers from performing their most basic duties.” What are you seeing here, Kim?
Ms. Strassel: There’s a good example. I think I was equally mean to Republicans, Democrats, and the White House. I call them just on the grounds of basic principle. Look, I understand in a crisis that people sometimes have to move quickly. And I don’t think that there’s any question that some of the money that Congress has washed out the door over the past six weeks was necessary and important, especially because it was the government, let’s not forget, government who caused this shutdown, okay? You can argue whether it was necessary or not, or to the degree it happened or not, but this is government-imposed, so government had an obligation to do something for those that suddenly are out of work.
But at the same time, we have just shoveled cash out of the Beltway with no quality control of any of these programs, with no thought for how they’re actually working. By some estimates, our deficit this year is going to be $4 trillion, which by the way is quadruple the pre-virus estimate of what we were going to have. You have stories coming back in now of the Paycheck Protection Program not really working in a way that’s getting money to true small businesses. We have stories of people who have gone on these turbocharged unemployment benefits, who now, as they’re being offered to go back to work are saying, no no no, I’m not going to go back to work because I’ll have to take a pay cut to go back to work. I’m getting paid more to sit at home and get my unemployment benefits than I am on the job.
These are failings and problems, and before Congress goes and spends another $2 trillion on something that it’s not sure is really going to help or work, it has an obligation to sit down, evaluate what it has done already, fix those things that need fixing, and do an analysis of what is actually providing real benefit versus what is just government expanding for the sake of government expanding.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re hearing all the time that funds are running out quicker than expected. We’re hearing that small businesses are struggling. Of course, there was this new, big bill that was passed, which is another set for small business. Government is not known to be very quick. So how can this actually be done in this reality where people are hurting right now in huge numbers?
Ms. Strassel: I think we do need to take a little bit of a pause, okay? We already had Chuck Schumer this week, on the backup passing another $500 billion bill, say, this is just an interim and we need to pass another bill in the coming weeks that is of the size and ambition of the CARES Act, which was $2.2 trillion. I think one of the problems is that they’re now looking at yet new areas they want to spend money on. Look, it’s one thing to set up the Paycheck Protection Program, to know that it’s extremely popular, to hear back from small businesses that it’s providing a lifeline, and if that runs out of money, yeah, put more money into it. And that was the original intent of this week’s bill, which was simply to shore up that fund.
Democrats instead demanded that another $75 billion go to hospitals, even though we just gave them more than $100 billion a few weeks ago. We don’t necessarily know if they need that money because again, there’s been no assessment. When they talk about this next act, they want a gigantic $500 billion bailout for states. But one of the problems there is that some of the states that are having problems right now with their pension plans, etc., they’ve been badly mismanaged for decades. And I think we need to be very careful about rewarding that behavior, very careful about giving governors a further excuse to not reopen their economies because they can say, “well, the federal government will just backstop us into oblivion forever if we keep shut down.” And so these are things I agree with you, that there is some urgency for some programs, but what we’re generally seeing in Washington is this urgency being used as an excuse to fund priorities that well pre-existed before this virus.
Mr. Jekielek: There was another piece that you shared recently, which was talking about how in the restaurant industry, the money that people are getting was more than their normal paycheck. Hence, it would actually prevent people from coming back to work. I don’t know if this is a localized situation or a broader situation, but that definitely speaks to policy questions here.
Ms. Strassel: When you go back to the CARES Act, which we passed at the end of March, that was at 2.2 trillion. You had a quartet of senators, including Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, Ben Sasse from Nebraska, who before that was even signed into law, before it was passed in the Senate, said, look, we can’t sign this bill. This is a problem because we have acceded to Democratic demands to put, on top of regular unemployment benefits, an additional $600 a week. That’s an interesting number by the way, because if you take $600, and you divide out 40 hours, that’s $15 an hour, which just happens to be Democrats’ demand for a minimum wage. So that number was chosen with purpose. Republicans gave into it. They put it in there. But what it means now is that anybody, when you put that on top of regular unemployment benefits, you are raising the hourly rate that people are getting to stay at home and receive unemployment benefits potentially above $20 an hour. Now, anyone who works in any industry that earns less than that has no financial incentive whatsoever to go back to work.
And this was pointed out at the time it was being done, but the Republicans gave in on it. Democrats demanded it. The White House signed it, and it is already starting to become a huge problem. We have business owners reporting that they are calling up their furloughed workers saying, hey, we’re getting ready to restart. And their furloughed workers are saying, “hey, maybe we’ll see you in August, that’s when my unemployment benefits run out.”
Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting. So is your contention here that this was kind of designed to extend the time period, or is it just by accident?
Ms. Strassel: I think that the $600, the $15 an hour minimum wage thing, was more political messaging than anything else. It was a statement, right? It was a political statement. We Democrats believe that everybody deserves $15 minimum wage. But it has had, whatever the reasons for it, it has had the perverse effect of now potentially putting us in a position where we’re going to find it much, much harder to get all of those millions of people back on the job.
Mr. Jekielek: So what is your prescription given the mess as you describe it, and the fact that there’s going to be calls for urgent further legislation?
Ms. Strassel: First prescription, let’s not pass any more major pieces of legislation by unanimous consent. That’s been one of the problems is we’re not getting any debate on any of these subjects, any discussion. And I recognize that there are some virus dynamics that make it harder for large gatherings. Congress is fundamentally a place where we gather in large numbers.
But at the same time, there is a sort of duty and care owed to the American people, that lawmakers do their duty and actually debate these things and have a conversation before spending another $2 trillion or making the deficit $6 trillion this year. So I think that’s the first prescription. But the next one is, if there’s a program like PPP that we know is working, helping, and it runs out of funds, sure, put some more money in it, but nothing else until there can be some demonstrable need shown and proven. And proven in a way that we can verify that the hardship is coming because of the coronavirus, not because Illinois mismanaged its pension system badly for the last 20 years.
Mr. Jekielek: In terms of this type of legislation that incentivizes people to not work, it appealed to their patriotism? What are you thinking here?
Ms. Strassel: Let’s say the PPP runs out of money again, and we need to refill it. I think Republicans have an obligation to include in that legislation some fixes to the things that they have done already. Now they’re going to get a lot of kickback from Democrats if they try to do that, but it was really remarkable to me that they kind of caved this week on the hospital money, only because they were occupying the political high ground. The Treasury Secretary more than a week earlier had said this fund is about to run out of money. It’s very important for small businesses. And Nancy Pelosi said, “Well, too bad. I’m not moving until you give me what I want.” And they were beginning to get a lot of pushback from their own constituents. You already had several Democratic senators who broke with their leadership and said, “no, no, we need to pass this right now without anything extra.” But in the end, it was the White House, Steve Mnuchin, who wanted to make a deal and and they kind of rolled over on it, and so we’re setting a slow and worrisome precedent here where every time we have an urgent need, we’re tacking a lot of additional stuff onto it.
Mr. Jekielek: So, Kim, you mentioned earlier how the media are promoting the federalist model, which was somewhat uncharacteristic over decades. Well, when we talked offline, you did mention that you actually have been looking at what certain governors are doing in terms of facilitating recoveries, opening up. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on in the states?
Ms. Strassel: Yeah, so I think we’re at a really big moment here. It’s almost kind of a gut check moment because the guidelines came out from the federal government. And if you look at those guidelines, in the phase one portion where you need to see a certain number of declining metrics to then begin to reopen things, there’s actually quite a few states out there, more than half, that fall in some way, shape, or form into meeting or succeeding or moving toward those metrics.
So we’re obviously seeing Georgia opening back up, some other southern states. And it’s led to this fascinating moment where you have the media actively running headlines every day saying the experts say this is too soon. These Republican governors are making a terrible mistake. Well, we’ll see, right? One of the beauties of our federalist system is that you do have an opportunity; States are laboratories of innovation. And we’re going to have some people go out. Now, one thing that I am hopeful that we do get right is an honest assessment of how those reopenings go, right? Because what you’re seeing is the media and many on the left, moving the goalposts about what counts as a successful reopening. And to listen to these people, you would think that the only thing that counts as successful reopening is not a single more case of coronavirus, not a single other death of coronavirus.
That was never the goal of lockdowns and shutdowns. The whole purpose of this was to flatten the curve, to make sure that our healthcare system wasn’t overwhelmed the way Italy’s was overwhelmed, so that we didn’t have to engage in triage, so that we had enough hospital beds. By all accounts, we have successfully managed to do that, even in some of our hotspots. Are there going to be continued cases? You bet. It’s a global pandemic. And are we even going to have some areas where there are spikes? And where we might have to shut things back off in this town or that town in order to kind of even things out again? That probably will be too, but the measure of success is not eradicating the virus, right? I think the real measure of success is do we successfully ward off another peak infection rate, one that could potentially overwhelm our health system. And look, people are going to have to continue getting this. We don’t have a vaccine. And we can’t stay locked down forever, as some officials have been pointing out, even if everybody stayed in their houses for the next six months, this thing would still remain in circulation out there. So we’re gonna have to open up at some point, and now comes the test of how well we manage that.
Mr. Jekielek: When you talk about this, I just keep thinking how incredibly politicized the climate is… How could you possibly, as a governor, try to get real data and do real assessments and be transparent when you know what you do is just going to be attacked, or used. It’s a very interesting thought experiment and it actually reminds me of this other column that you did I think a week ago, which was talking about moving the shutdown goalposts—that whatever it is that you do, you’re kind of wrong, and it’ll be used against you politically.
Ms. Strassel: When we go back and we have a post-mortem of what we did in this pandemic, we’re going to find out that we did lots and lots of things wrong. That’s the nature of government, right? Government doesn’t usually get things right on the first go. And also, this is unprecedented. No one’s ever dealt with anything like this before. So has Donald Trump made some mistakes? Probably. Have governors made mistakes? You bet. Have some of our public health agencies made mistakes as they were looking at the science and doing things? Absolutely. But I think the measure has to be, did people perform competently at the tasks as they were dealing with them day by day? Like, did we get the ventilators moved to where we needed them? Did we get the tents set up if we needed overflow hospital space? Did we figure out a way to get personal protective equipment back up and running and out there? Yeah, we did.
But the press is just remarkable. An example of this, I saw a Washington Post story just this week, and it was talking about the Georgia reopening and it was saying, this is going to be a deadly move, you can’t do this. But the lead of the story was so loaded. It said something like, starting on this week, “Georgians are going to be able to go take in their latest action flick and eat at their greasy spoon,” making it sound as if that’s really what’s on the line here, and that these things can’t count as essential and that if you’re going to reopen the economy, it should only be for essential things. Well who’s the Washington Post to judge what businesses are essential or not essential, right? We should be doing this not based on the essentiality of businesses, but of the risk of any particular reopening of a business, right?
There are states that are moving toward reopening restaurants, but most of them are only going to allow people to do things at 25% capacity. So social distancing at your tables, you have to have reservations. A lot of the people that are reopening nail salons or tattoo parlors or hair salons are saying one customer at a time, right? You don’t want 15 people sitting around in your waiting room. So this is going to be slow and gradual. But I think again, the media rooting for there to be failure in our reopening is really a pity, because it seems as though they have not necessarily acquainted themselves with just how much hardship is going on out there, across every sector and in every household.
Mr. Jekielek: In terms of this guilt or having done things wrong, that’s even outside of looking at the international perspective where we know information was withheld by the Chinese Communist Party. We know the WHO gave erroneous information. We don’t know if they did it knowingly or not. But all of this of course played into this whole response, both federally and at the state level. So it’s just this morass of information and misinformation and really tough decisions in a situation that no one knows how to deal with.
Ms. Strassel: One thing that we do know for a fact already, if we were beginning to do a post-mortem, is that China misled the world on this and that they got a valuable assist, unfortunately, from the World Health Organization. We’re now finding out just this week, some autopsies have been done showing this virus was in the country well before any of our first quotes, “documented cases.” And that’s because China knew it had a problem, so much so that it locked down Wuhan, and yet didn’t lock down anyone leaving to go to the rest of the world. What does that say about the behavior of China? There’s going to have to be some sort of global reckoning with China and its behavior at the end of this and the rest of the world governments are doing their best to cope. And again, will we find they have made mistakes? Yes, but we also have to remember that this was foisted on them by a bad actor.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you for mentioning that. We’ve been covering this extensively. I’m not going to go dwell on this particular side. I think we want another episode where we can just look at the US primarily. Anything you want to finish up with before we close?
Ms. Strassel: No, just that you guys do great work. It’s always an honor to get to sit and talk with you. And I really enjoy watching the others [interviews] you do.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, thank you very much, Kim. It’s such a pleasure to have you on again and I look forward to next time.
Ms. Strassel: Thanks. Me, too.