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Eli Lake dives deep into America

The longtime national security reporter talks party politics on this week’s episode of JI’s podcast

Eli Lake

On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by columnist Eli Lake, formerly of Bloomberg, The Daily Beast and Newsweek and currently a contributing editor at Commentary Magazine and host of “The Re-education with Eli Lake” podcast, for a deep dive into America’s ever-changing political parties, where both parties stand on the FBI, former President Donald Trump’s latest indictment and Israel’s controversial judicial reforms.

Below are excerpts of the conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jarrod Bernstein: The whole idea that Democrats and lefties are the fan club for the FBI and the CIA, it’s like, the world’s kind of got turned on its head. Where do you think that comes from, and does it have any chance of changing anytime soon?

Eli Lake:  I do think that there’s much more of a sense after 2016 that the Democrats blame Russia for losing that election, and that has sort of put them on a trajectory where they become, at times, the Baghdad Bobs of various scandals that have affected the FBI…That system seems to have broken down and it’s beyond just simply Russiagate. So, I think that’s where it comes from, which is that it looked like the FBI kind of had Trump in their crosshairs, and if you are a partisan, then, you know, you’re kind of applauding that, even though, on principle, I could see many liberals sort of saying, “Well, maybe these powers can be one day turned on our guy,” but so far that that insight has not yet occurred.

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Rich Goldberg: There is a culture of Washingtonians that has been built at the FBI. That doesn’t matter who’s in power, there are just these, like, political sycophants who have been put there in desk jobs just to work Washington, and that should not happen at the FBI. How do you react to that?

Lake: I would agree. I mean, I’ve written a lot about this. I did a big piece almost a year ago for Commentary basically asking the question, can we save the FBI and can we save ourselves from the FBI? And I would go even deeper. I would say that it’s no good to have a single agency that has both a counterintelligence function, which is a form of espionage, under the same roof as law enforcement or police functions…. So what we want is law enforcement to just focus on solving crimes in the past tense, whereas counterintelligence is preventing things to happen, whether it’s espionage or counterterrorism, preventing terrorist attacks. Maybe we should think about having another agency and then have the FBI, basically check that agency, instead of kind of having a foot in both camps, which I think it does.

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Goldberg: Right now [former President Donald Trump is the] presumptive nominee by many. If he is the nominee of the Republican Party in a presidential election [and is] on trial, potentially convicted while he’s running, I mean, are we on the verge of a civil war here? What is to be done here? 

Lake:  I just think that if you’re going to indict a former president who is currently running for office and is kind of the de facto leader of the opposition, it should be for what [former Attorney General] Bill Barr has called the “meat and potatoes” kind of crime, which is that, you know, he either stole a lot of money or killed somebody or something like that, not classified documents or this very novel legal theory that is trying to criminalize, admittedly, horrendous behavior, but it’s criminalizing what was a political crime and should have been. I totally supported the second impeachment, even though I also think it was written poorly, I don’t care, he should have been impeached at the very end, and that’s the way that our system is supposed to handle it… It’s almost like, in order to solve this problem of like this demagogue who has captured one of our political parties, we’re going to create another problem for our democracy, which is to effectively deprive millions of Americans of their choice to run for office in 2024. I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to work …I would hope for the party that currently controls the Justice Department to understand that even if you can, it doesn’t mean you should, and there are implications for criminalizing your opposition, even if you think the guy is the worst. There’s got to be another way.

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Bernstein: Why are Republicans so bad on Ukraine? It is a thing the Biden administration is doing right foreign policy-wise…We’re beating back the Russian empire, Putin is getting fought to a draw if not losing, relatively on the cheap from the [American standpoint], no American young men and women are in harm’s way, save a few special operators who I’m sure are monkeying around there, but like, not in the way they were in Afghanistan. Why would you be against this?

Lake: The reason that you’re seeing this, let’s call it isolationism… is because a lot of people look at it like, they’re committing this mistake that Christopher Hitchens used to say, letting your adversaries do your thinking for you. So a lot of people deeply feel, they’re very upset and angry about banning true information on social media, about COVID, for example, or they’re very upset that the teachers unions or universities are kind of promoting a view of gender that is, in their view, just anathema to common sense and science. So those are issues that we all know people are very upset about, and then they notice that the same people who will hector them and support the censorship of anti-maskers or something, right, have Ukraine flags in their bios on social media, and they say to themselves, “OK, well, if the regime is for an independent Ukraine, then I’m against it, because I don’t like what they said about COVID and I don’t like what they said about school closures and I don’t like what they say about trans issues,” you know what I’m saying?

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Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word or phrase? “My favorite Yiddish phrase, I think, is sechel, which is, like, ‘street sense’… I love that phrase, because, our people, we love book knowledge, we love learning, we sort of measure status by what universities you went to, back in the old days, how much of the Torah and the Talmud you knew. Sechel refers to that kind of other sort of intelligence.” Favorite Jewish food? “That is a tough one, because there’s so many good ones. I guess I would go with a latke, I love a good latke.” Favorite journalist of all time? “My favorite journalist of all time is Ze’ev Jabotinsky.” Favorite columnist of all time? “So, for sentimental reasons, because he was like a mentor of mine and a friend of mine, I want to say Christopher Hitchens, even though there are plenty of times I really disagreed with him.”

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