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In polarized times, even an evenhanded IG report becomes partisan fodder

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: James Comey publishes book 'A Higher Loyalty'
Former FBI Director James Comey testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the FBI's investigation into the Trump administration on June 8, 2017.Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA file

WASHINGTON — You have to give the Justice Department’s inspector general credit: His 568-page report into the FBI’s handling of the 2016 Clinton email investigation was exhaustive, evenhanded and pulled no punches. It criticized FBI Director James Comey’s July 5, 2016, statement and his Oct. 28 letter to Congress — both of which hurt Clinton’s campaign and helped Trump’s — and it knocked FBI agents Strzok and Page for their anti-Trump texts, saying they “cast a cloud” over the investigation.

But the problem about an exhaustive, evenhanded report in our polarized times is that it allows partisans — especially ones operating in bad faith — to cherry-pick the narrative that best serves their political interests.

Case in point: “FBI Agent Peter Strzok, who headed the Clinton & Russia investigations, texted to his lover Lisa Page, in the IG Report, that ‘we’ll stop’ candidate Trump from becoming President. Doesn’t get any lower than that!” President Trump tweeted this morning. “The IG Report is a total disaster for Comey, his minions and sadly, the FBI. Comey will now officially go down as the worst leader, by far, in the history of the FBI. I did a great service to the people in firing him. Good Instincts. Christopher Wray will bring it proudly back!”

Never mind that Comey’s actions HELPED Trump during the 2016 campaign. (“They are reopening the case into her criminal and illegal conduct that threatens the security of the United States of America,” Trump said on Oct. 28, 2016. “Hillary Clinton's corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the oval office. I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made.”) Also never mind that Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey over Russia, not the former FBI director’s handling of the Clinton email investigation. ("When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.”)

In our highly polarized times — for political actors and the media — this kind of report that’s supposed to restore credibility ends up having the opposite effect, because partisans focus on the morsels that help their side instead of the LARGER story: that the FBI (besieged by leaks, political bias in both directions, and a director who believed his motives were purer than everyone else’s) failed during the 2016 election.

As conservative writer John Podhoretz puts it, “The key to understanding the IG report is this: If everyone had followed established policy and practice, none of this — from Comey's disgraceful behavior to the appearance of anti-Trump bias — would have happened.” Exactly.

How the IG report could impact the Russia investigation

And because the IG report is full of examples of bad behavior, poor judgment and carelessness, it allows Trump to muddy the Russia investigation. See, the FBI was out to get me. Or: The folks like Strzok working on the Russia investigation were biased against me.

As a result, the report raises the bar for Mueller. If he’s got the goods against the president and/or his associates, he’s got to have an airtight case. Guess who’s now telling Mueller to wrap up his investigation? “What I think about the Mueller investigation is, they ought to wrap it up. It’s gone on seemingly forever and I don’t know how much more they think they can find out,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Washington Examiner.

And as the president is feeling his oats — see the summit with North Korea — is he now emboldened to do something risky as it relates to the Russia probe? Make a move on Rod Rosenstein? Here was Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani last night: "Tomorrow, Mueller should be suspended and honest people should be brought in, impartial people to investigate these people like Strzok," he said on Fox News. "Strzok should be in jail by the end of next week."

But there is one IMPORTANT difference between the allegations of the 2016 Clinton email probe and the current Russia investigation: One centered on the allegation of carelessness that could have risked national security (setting up a private email/server); the other centers on the allegation that a presidential campaign, wittingly or unwittingly, actively received help from an adversarial foreign government.

New York attorney general sues Trump, alleges he used his charitable foundation for personal, business and political expenses

NBC’s Jane Timm: “New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood sued President Donald Trump and his charitable foundation on Thursday, alleging that the president and his adult children illegally used it for personal, business, and political expenses. The lawsuit alleges illegal activity that took place over more than a decade, including ‘extensive unlawful political coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing transactions to benefit Mr. Trump's personal and business interests, and violations of basic legal obligations for nonprofit foundations,’ according to a statement from the attorney general's office.”

For example, “Foundation funds were used to pay off Trump-owned companies' legal obligations, including a $100,000 payment to a charity that was mandated in the settlement of a lawsuit between his private Mar-a-Lago club and the city of Palm Beach. Charity funds were also used to purchase personal items (including a $10,000 painting of Trump that was displayed in a Trump building, another incident of self-dealing, according to the petition), and influence the president's 2016 campaign, the suit said.”

And: “In one instance, the suit cites an email sent by Trump's then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, telling the foundation to cut a $100,000 check to the Marine Corps Law Enforcement Foundation after a media inquiry about Trump's charitable donations. A check was sent to the group the same day.”

The Trump Foundation issued this response: “This is politics at its very worst. The Foundation has donated over $19 million to worthy charitable causes – more than it even received. The President himself – or through his companies - has contributed more than $8 million. The reason the Foundation was able to donate more than it took in is because it had little to no expenses. This is unheard of for a charitable foundation. The Foundation currently has $1.7 million remaining which the NYAG has been holding hostage for political gain.”

Sessions invokes the Bible to justify policy separating migrant families

“Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday offered a full-throated defense of the Trump administration's policy of separating children from their parents at the border, saying that having kids does not give migrants immunity from prosecution — and found justification for his policies in the Bible,” per NBC News.

“‘Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,’ Sessions said. ‘Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.’”

“Later Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders doubled down on Sessions' comments, saying it is ‘very biblical to enforce the law.’ ‘That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible,’ she said, responding to a question about Sessions' comments about Scripture's supporting the administration's policies.”

You have to wonder: For a political party that already has problems with suburban women, is the GOP/Trump vulnerable here to being accused of lacking compassion? And how might that end up impacting the immigration debate?

Trump administration moves ahead with tariffs on China

“The Trump administration said on Friday that it would move ahead with imposing a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion of Chinese products that are imported into the United States, threatening to escalate what had primarily been a war of words between the world’s two largest economies into a full-blown trade war,” The New York Times says. "In a statement Friday morning, President Trump said the United States would levy the tariffs on goods that contain 'industrially significant technologies,' including those that relate to the country’s Made in China 2025 plan for dominating high-tech industries, and that the United States would pursue additional tariffs if China retaliates.”