The New York Times columnist synthesizes interviews with key FBI, Justice Department, and White House officials, and voluminous transcripts, notes, and internal reports, to tell the saga of the FBI and its simultaneous 2016 investigations of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—the first time in American history the FBI has been thrust into the middle of both parties' campaigns for the Presidency.
In times of crisis, history can be a comfort, reminding us that our own era is not nearly as dire or unique as we might think. James B. Stewart’s new book...does the opposite: It’s a first draft of history that reminds us just how bizarre these times really are ... Stewart has assembled a gripping blow-by-blow account of President Trump’s years-long showdown with the FBI ... Readers will be familiar with the basic outlines: the election itself, the Trump-Russia investigation, the firing of FBI director James Comey, the release of the Steele dossier. But encountering it all smashed between the pages of a single book is a new experience, less the stop-start jerkiness of a tweetstorm than the slow-build dread of a dramatic tragedy ... This makes the book a timely guide for the layperson hoping to brush up on the whole sorry saga (who was George Papadopoulos again?), even if it does not yield new impeachment-worthy smoking guns ... What makes the book more than a recitation of unseemly facts is its well-rendered human drama ... If Stewart appreciates the human aspects of this confrontation, he also sees larger issues at stake. At the heart of the book, and of our recent politics, is a conflict over the very idea of nonpartisan, professional government work, so central to the identity of an agency like the FBI ... Deep State delivers the critical first chapters of...the Trump era, as we all watch and wait to find out how it is going to end.
Stewart in Deep State writes as a gifted storyteller and thorough reporter. His sources (several of them quite easy to identify) have provided many historical tidbits of interest but no dramatic scoops ... Curiously, despite all the official investigations and digging by reporters that have informed us about these strange events, the main plotline is full of holes ... Stewart...neither fill[s] all the holes nor, for the most part, even acknowledge[s] them. Yet [he] illuminate[s] failures by the FBI, Mueller, and other investigators to figure out what was going on between the Trump campaign and the Russians ... Trump has denied any advance knowledge of the [Lieutenant General Michael] Flynn phone call. Stewart implicitly accepts that Flynn acted alone and lied to everyone. I’m not convinced ... The FBI and the US attorney for the Southern District of New York took over the [Anthony] Weiner case and obtained a search warrant that allowed them to seize his personal electronic devices, including a laptop computer. FBI technicians soon discovered that the laptop held a huge cache of 340,000 e-mails, and many of them came from the domains clintonemail.com and hillaryclinton .com ... Stewart tells this bizarre tale particularly well[.]
His account produces few new facts, nor a bold new thesis, that would dramatically alter our understanding of either. Instead, his contribution is to combine the two accounts [of investigations into Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump] into a single chronological narrative. He shows how the twin investigations turn out to be closely linked, and not just because an election pitted their subjects against each other ... his account of the Russia investigation is less satisfying [than his account of the investigation into Clinton] ... for all the suspicious patterns he reveals, for all the dots he connects, Stewart does not manage to produce a smoking gun that proves misconduct. We never learn the depth of Trump’s involvement with Russia, or whether he or Attorney General Barr applied undue pressure on the department. If these questions have incriminating answers, the people who hold them probably have no incentive to reveal them and possibly never will. What Deep State does tell us is that there are ample grounds for suspicion that Trump’s well-documented efforts to obstruct justice succeeded. To what end? That remains a mystery.