james comey
Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigations/flickr

This should come as no surprise:

A new poll released by NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist University shows that about 3-in-10 Americans think that the FBI is biased against the Trump administration…Sixty-one percent of Americans think that the FBI is just doing its job.

While the number of Americans who distrust the FBI’s motives is growing, I’m actually comforted that the number isn’t higher. After all, the FBI has been under sustained tribal attack from the president, Republicans in Congress, and the organs of the mighty right-wing media wurlitzer. The 31 percent number is close enough to the Alan Keyes Constant that it’s within the margin of error. In other words, under normal circumstances, the percentage of FBI skeptics in the population is about as low as you can reasonably expect it to go in any situation where the FBI is under attack from the right.

In a way, it seems obvious that a decent chunk of the electorate will ascribe bias to anyone who criticizes the president they support, especially if that president is constantly calling the whole thing a witch hunt and effort to delegitimize his election. When that view is amplified in peoples’ news feeds and on the television programs they watch, it’s hard to see how we’d ever get a lower number than 31 percent in our present circumstances.

What’s a sign of corrosion in our democracy is not the absolute percentage of FBI skeptics, but the fact that the FBI is under attack at all. When the FBI deserves criticism, they should receive it. That’s how our system self-corrects. But when they try to protect the country from foreign interference in our elections and are called biased for their efforts, that’s a problem. It’s a problem because it’s not something they can correct without surrendering to that foreign power.

Now, James Comey isn’t helping things by going out and doing more than a dozen media appearances where he expresses his disdain for Donald Trump’s character, appearance, and fitness for office. That doesn’t make him look like a neutral or dispassionate observer or strengthen him as an objective witness of fact. When he basically says that the election of Trump made him nauseated, that weakens his standing as someone who stands above and outside politics.

To be clear, his credibility would be attacked regardless of what he did so long as he was testifying to potentially criminal acts on the part of the president, but he’s making it too easy for his opponents to dismiss him. But judgment has never been James Comey’s strength.

On the broader question, the FBI and the law enforcement, judicial and intelligence communities are increasingly hostile to the Trump administration, but it’s with cause. You don’t say that people are biased against a criminal suspect if they have good reason to for suspecting that person of committing crimes. We have people and institutions whose jobs are to investigate and prosecute criminals. We don’t allow those people to cast the verdict. They present the facts they’ve collected, and a hopefully neutral jury renders their judgement. And juries will consider evidence that prosecutors and investigators were not open-minded but instead intent on bending the evidence to suit their theory of the case. That’s basically why James Comey isn’t being helpful right now. He should have saved his fire for the courtroom.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com