Poor secret society — we hardly knew you, and you’re already gone.
Or maybe that’s exactly what the secret society wants us to think!
This is what we’ve come to, as the world’s greatest democracy grapples with the nonsensical notion that a cabal, a conspiracy, a coup could be brewing within the FBI, bent on taking down our heroic president. Republicans have been suspicious for months, and earlier this week they thought they had found the key piece of evidence. In a text message between two FBI employees, members of Congress told the news media, there was a reference to a “secret society,” which must surely mean that the bureau was conspiring to destroy President Trump.
You might protest that the members of most secret societies do not actually go around talking about their “secret society.” But that’s just what someone blind to the truth would say. “We have an informant that’s talking about a group that were holding secret meetings off-site,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) breathlessly told Fox News. “There is so much smoke here, there’s so much suspicion.”
But then the entire text became public. “Are you even going to give out your calendars? Seems kind of depressing. Maybe it should just be the first meeting of the secret society,” lawyer Lisa Page wrote right after the 2016 election to agent Peter Strzok, in what was an apparent reference to Vladimir Putin-themed calendars that had been purchased as a gag gift for those working on the early stages of the investigation into Russian meddling into the election.
Which sure makes it seem like what anyone in possession of their faculties would have guessed from the beginning: There was no secret society, because it was the kind of thing someone would say in jest. As for Johnson’s “secret meetings off-site”? As former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa revealed on CNN, “There were groups of FBI agents who had meetings off-site all the time. It was called getting a beer after work.” (Johnson himself later conceded that the “secret society” text was probably a joke.)
Still, when Republicans found out that the FBI had lost texts between Strzok and Page covering a period of months in 2017, they hoped that maybe this was evidence of a conspiracy. It wasn’t. It turns out there was a technical glitch that deleted messages from many FBI employees who had the same bureau-issued phones, but their IT folks have recovered the messages. They weren’t being hidden by dark forces, and I’d be shocked if they contained anything truly incriminating.
While they may stop talking about the “secret society” text amidst all the well-deserved mockery, Republicans will still insist that there’s an anti-Trump conspiracy at the FBI. And while it’s silly, this story ought to remind us of something important: Our nation’s leaders are not particularly clever.
You can see it, too, in the other current fever swamp obsession, the secret memo prepared by Republican staffers that House Intelligence Committee chair Devin Nunes has been shopping around the House, which supposedly shows FBI misconduct in obtaining the FISA warrant that put sometime Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page under surveillance. Democrats have been skewering this memo as a collection of misleading talking points, and as Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the committee, revealed Wednesday evening, the Republicans on the committee not only haven’t seen the classified material it’s based on, they voted down a motion to examine that material to see what it contains. Instead, they chose to simply release the memo to the rest of their colleagues in the House, so it could then be touted as a smoking gun of some kind of corruption.
Part of the problem is that even members of Congress (especially Republicans) can fall into the trap of thinking that the real Washington works like it does in the movies, where there are malevolent machinations at work behind the mundane facade, and your opponents are evil geniuses whose schemes are more sinister than you could possibly imagine.
But one thing I’ve learned in my years in the nation’s capital is that people aren’t nearly as clever as you might imagine, and they aren’t setting in motion a series of intricate plans with multiple moving parts that all work flawlessly to produce their desired ends. Most of the time, most people have no idea what’s going on or how they should achieve their goals.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t smart; in this town you can find people with tremendous policy expertise and deep understanding of complex issues. But when it comes to crafting political schemes, you’d be surprised by how much everyone is casting about half-blind. No one is playing 12-dimensional chess, because it’s all they can manage to think a step or two ahead. To use what is already becoming a cliche but is worth repeating because it’s so true: Washington is much less House of Cards and much more Veep, a place brimming with people who aren’t quite as shrewd as they would like to be (or sometimes, as they think they are) stumbling over one another as they screw up over and over again.
That doesn’t mean there are no genuine conspiracies, because they do happen. Watergate was a conspiracy, as was Iran-Contra. And of course, if a conspiracy really does its job well, we never hear about it. But when a conspiracy does get revealed, more often than not the reaction one has is, “Sheesh, what a bunch of idiots. How did they think they could get away with that?”
Which, as you watch Republicans desperately try to defend President Trump against the damage the Russia scandal will do, may be what you’re already saying.