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How ‘Deep State’ book disputes accusations of Trump bias at FBI, DOJ

In a new book, Pulitzer winner James B. Stewart explores two controversial recent investigations by the FBI and the Justice Department: Probes into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Stewart talks to William Brangham about how his research contradicts President Trump's "deep state" narrative.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Even as impeachment consumes much of Washington's attention, the president, as well as his critics and supporters, still focus on Robert Mueller's investigation and its continued fallout.

    William Brangham is back now to dive into a new book that reexamines the story with a tough take of some of the central characters in that drama.

    It's part of our "NewsHour" Bookshelf.

  • William Brangham:

    In his new book, Pulitzer Prize winner James B. Stewart gives an in-depth look at the two of the most controversial recent investigations by the FBI and the Justice Department, first, the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server when she was secretary of state, and then the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, and whether anyone in the Trump campaign participated in that effort or tried to block the subsequent inquiry.

    The book is called "Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law."

    And James Stewart joins me now.

    Welcome.

  • James B. Stewart:

    Thank you. Good to be here.

  • William Brangham:

    So, deep state, as we know it, is a pejorative term about shadowy, unseen forces conspiring and pulling the levers of power.

    And the president has repeatedly stated that, certainly within the FBI, that there is a deep state of Trump-hating agents and officers and officials.

    You have spent two years digging into this agency. Is that true?

  • James B. Stewart:

    It's utterly false.

    President Trump has weaponized this notion of a deep state, turned it into this pejorative term.

    There is a career bureaucracy. There are independent agencies in this country, and there are checks and balances, and in this case, there are checks on the power of the presidency. They're constitutionally designed to do that.

    He accuses anyone who unearths facts that he doesn't like or criticizes him as being part of this sinister deep state. In fact, to the extent they are independent, they are doing their constitutional duty, they are doing their patriotic duty to honor their pledge to both support the Constitution and recognize the fact they work for the people of the United States, not the president.

  • William Brangham:

    As you repeatedly point out in the book, if the names that the president likes to cite as evidence of the deep state, Strzok, Page, Comey, McCabe, if they had wanted to do him in or to derail his presidency or candidacy, they could have.

  • James B. Stewart:

    Absolutely.

    I think many people do not realize, because we didn't know it at the time, that both the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation were going on at the same time, before the election.

    We had this extraordinary situation where the FBI is investigating both major candidates. One of the questions I wanted to answer in the book was, why was the Clinton one public, but we never heard about Russia?

    But if they had wanted to derail Trump, one leak would have crushed that campaign — not only a leak that it was going on, but a leak of some of the salacious details, which we now know were being investigated.

  • William Brangham:

    Two of the most notorious people on the president's Twitter speed feed Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.

    Peter Strzok, for those who remember him, was the man who helmed the Hillary Clinton investigation and then took over the beginnings of the Russia investigation and his colleague, Lisa Page.

  • James B. Stewart:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Even though you report that they denied and lied about the fact that they were having an affair, and that they exchanged many of these very hostile texts expressing antipathy to the president, your book also goes to great lengths in some ways to show that they really were not the partisan villains we have been led to believe.

  • James B. Stewart:

    Well, that's correct.

    And I want to clarify, Peter Strzok never did lie about the existence of the affair. Obviously, neither one of them wanted it to become public, and they never thought that it would become public. And they ended it before it did become public.

    But let's put that aside for a moment. They did have an affair. They did, in what they thought were private texts, express political views that were hostile to Trump.

    But everyone in the FBI, everyone in the government, everyone in this country has a First Amendment right to think whatever they want. Everybody has political views. Some of them are pro-Trump. Some of them are anti-Trump. Some of them are pro-Clinton, anti-Clinton.

    The question is not, do they have views? Of course they do. Do their views affect their professional work?

    And in both my investigation and a thorough investigation by the inspector general, the conclusion was, no, it never did.

    And I demonstrate in the book, on the contrary, there were times when both Page and Strzok were harder on Hillary Clinton than their colleagues wanted to be and they were softer on Trump. They were very cautious about wanting to make Trump the subject, the formal subject of an FBI investigation.

  • William Brangham:

    Perhaps the most complicated, some would say damning, portrait in this book is of Rod Rosenstein, the acting attorney, who came in after Sessions recused himself.

    He appointed Robert Mueller to be special counsel, to take over the investigation, and, largely, at first, was seen as a calming influence.

  • James B. Stewart:

    Well, Rosenstein to me is both a fascinating character and someone who kind of captures what has happened to many people who come into the Trump administration with the highest of motives, wanting to serve the country, and they slowly but surely get brought into this vortex of amorality, dishonesty, expediency, and they seem to lose their bearings.

    I mean, he was a respected independent prosecutor. He almost immediately got sucked in by Trump to providing a false rationale for firing Comey. Trump wanted him to have a press conference and claim that he was the one who told Trump to fire Comey over the — Comey's handling of Clinton.

    All of this was completely false. And I think it completely unnerved him. And he also — there's a scene, a dramatic scene, in the book where he confides in Andrew McCabe. There's no one he can trust. He can't to Sessions or the attorney general. He can't talk to anyone in the White House. He can't talk to underlings in the Justice Department.

    And after Comey is fired, he says, the one person I wish I could talk to is Comey, which was — left everyone kind of flabbergasted.

    He then proposes wiring himself to secretly record Trump, invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him.

  • William Brangham:

    He has denied that, that he did any of that.

  • James B. Stewart:

    He said that the wiring thing was a joke.

    It's not a joke, as you can see in context. And he denied the 25th Amendment thing, but there are witnesses to that. I'm amply persuaded that that did happen.

    But he was — I think he was somewhat — he was unnerved by what was happening to him and the position he was thrust into. And you then see he manages to keep his job. What he had to promise Trump to do that, I don't really know. We don't really know.

    His defenders have told me that he was solely focused on helping Mueller over the finish line. But what compromises were made? Why didn't Mueller reach a conclusion on obstruction? Why didn't Mueller include these events about Rosenstein in his report?

    Why, in the end, did Rosenstein go along with Barr's characterization of the report, which was a blatant mischaracterization, as Mueller himself said in a letter?

  • William Brangham:

    We know, the Mueller report comes out, we saw the impact it had on our country.

    The president is now involved in another investigation, this impeachment inquiry, about whether he's trying to get foreign governments, like Ukraine, perhaps China, to investigate Joe Biden.

    Does — does what we are seeing documented about the president's behavior now make sense to you, given the two years you spent looking at the president's behavior during the election and thereafter?

  • James B. Stewart:

    It makes total sense to me.

    If you read last few paragraphs of "Deep State," not to mention all that's gone before it, it's almost as though this was going to be inevitable.

    The reason is, there are certain qualities that emerge in "Deep State" that are built into Trump's DNA. Number one, he's extremely impulsive. Two, he doesn't listen to anyone around him.

    Three, if people don't let him get his way, he gets rid of them. He fires them. Four, he lies about it, which then makes it look like he has something to hide or cover up.

    And, finally, the important thing, he doesn't really recognize the constraints of law on his office. All he concluded, as far as I can tell, from the whole Mueller episode, which put the country through years of turmoil, is, it was a total victory for him. He was exonerated. He won.

    And it only emboldened him to go out and behave in an even more egregious fashion.

    The Russia investigation, it lacked one critical piece of evidence to conclude that he broke the law, which was that Trump himself didn't instigate or conspire with anyone to get a foreign government involved.

    What has he done now? He makes a phone call, where he asks a foreign government to undertake acts that would interfere with the next election. He just handed the Democrats the very missing piece from the Mueller report. That is, I find, pretty flabbergasting.

  • William Brangham:

    The book is "Deep State: Trump, the FBI, and the Rule of Law."

    James B. Stewart, thank you very much.

  • James B. Stewart:

    Thank you.

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