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Commentary: Why conservatives are all over the FBI scandal

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 27: Committee chairman Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee September 27, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on "Fifteen Years After 9/11: Threats to the Homeland."

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Is the current political scandal "worse than Watergate?"

Before I answer your question, you'll have to answer mine: which scandal?

On CNN, MSNBC and at the New York Times, there is only one scandal: Russiagate. And yes, according to James Fallows at The Atlantic, it is "worse than Watergate."

Meanwhile on Fox News and talk radio folks roll their eyes at the Trump-Russia story. It's a hoax, they say, designed to cover-up the real scandal: The Obama Department of Justice and FBI colluding to protect Hillary Clinton and undermine Donald Trump. And yes, this too is "worse than Watergate."

So who's right? Time will tell. But Americans on the political Right believe that the scandal they're so concerned about—a sitting president using his power to spy on the other party's presidential nominee—isn't getting the attention it deserves outside conservative media. This, in turn, feeds their distrust of the media and promotes Team Trump's #FakeNews narrative.

And on this story, conservative critics have a point. Whether or not you think it's "bigger than Watergate," it's still a pretty amazing news story.

For example, thanks to documents the FBI reluctantly released to Congress, Hillary Clinton used her unsecure email to communicate with President Obama from what Republican Sen. Ron Johnson called "the territory of sophisticated adversaries." Then-FBI Director James Comey was going to mention that fact when he announced the Department of Justice would not be prosecuting Secretary Clinton.

But, we now know, Comey's comments were changed. "The president" became "another senior government official." Eventually all references to the Secretary of State having unsecured communications with the president while on foreign soil were simply removed.

How many Americans, even Americans who follow the news closely, know this story?

Ask a co-worker who listens regularly to Rush Limbaugh or watches Fox News, and they can likely tell you all about Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who was texting to a co-worker about how they needed an "insurance policy" (whatever that meant) should Trump win the election. Conservatives know all the questions about how someone so openly partisan could be allowed to work on the Hillary Clinton email investigation—where he worked to mitigate the damage Hillary might suffer—then work on the investigation into Hillary's opponent and "Russiagate."

Conservative news consumers know all about Bruce Ohr, a Justice Department official who worked on the Russiagate investigation despite the fact that his wife worked for the opposition-research firm, Fusion GPS, that was doing oppo-research on Trump while her husband investigated him. Fusion GPS would later engineer the infamous "Russia dossier."

And conservatives know all about the missing texts President Trump has tweeted about, texts between Strzok and his fellow agent Lisa Page (with whom he was having an extramarital affair), and the many other missing texts that the FBI blames on a "glitch."

Millions of Americans on the Right know all of these facts, and they get frustrated when they perceive the mainstream media to be brushing it all off as some crazy conspiracy. Maybe this really is just a series of unfortunate, unrelated events. But you don't have to be a "Beware the Deep State" kook to admit these facts are disturbing and deserve more attention.

Andrew McCarthy is a former federal prosecutor who helped convict the "Blind Sheik" in the first World Trade Center bombing. He's very serious about his work in the Department of Justice and defensive of the reputations of the good women and men he worked with. 

"Before this story broke, I had heard nothing but good things about Peter Strzok " McCarthy told me recently. "The only ones who would celebrate his being removed from counterintelligence work would be the Kremlin because he was a very effective agent."

But now? "What bothers me is when you get a guy who says we can't have this guy the president of the United States the bureau can't afford it and therefore we need an 'insurance policy' against that," McCarthy says. 

"And then when you couple that up with the fact that they got this dossier which really doesn't look like very good work...it makes you think that their politics made it such that these allegations, rather than being rigorously investigated, became something like pushing on an open door. Like the FBI believe things they politically wanted to believe."

What some conservatives want to believe is that President Obama's FBI used unsubstantiated information from a oppo-researach dossier provided by Democratic partisans to get a FISA warrant to spy on the Republican nominee for president and his campaign. They want to believe that the Department of Justice misled the court about the provenance of their evidence in order to get the warrants.

Like Democrats talking about Russiagate, Republicans want to believe the worst about the FBI/Dossier scandal.

Most troubling of all? There's a chance they both could be right.

  • Michael Graham

    CBSN contributor Michael Graham is a conservative columnist for the Boston Herald.