At first blush, this report from The Tennessean appears to be a local controversy about a state legislator with a legal problem. But as the Republican's response shows, there's a national dimension to this that's worth appreciating.
Tennessee Sen. Brian Kelsey has been indicted in a campaign finance conspiracy alongside a Nashville social club owner, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Nashville announced Monday. A federal grand jury returned a five-count indictment charging Kelsey, 43, and club owner Joshua Smith, 44, with violating multiple campaign finance laws as part of a conspiracy to benefit Kelsey's 2016 campaign for U.S. Congress.
Reading the Justice Department's summary, the controversy is a little complicated, but the bottom line is clear: The state senator has been accused of conspiring with others to violate federal campaign finance laws. Kelsey has been charged with conspiracy, illegally transferring "soft money," and both making and accepting excessive contributions to a federal campaign.
The state senator insisted yesterday that he's innocent — but that's not all he said.
"This is nothing but a political witch hunt," Kelsey wrote on Twitter. "The Biden Administration is trying to take me out because I'm conservative, and I'm the #1 target of the Tennessee Democratic Party."
In other words, the Tennessee legislator wants the public to believe that federal law enforcement is conspiring against him. Sure, it may look like a federal grand jury in Nashville returned a five-count indictment charging Kelsey with a variety of crimes, but he'd like voters to see this as an example of the Biden administration politicizing the Justice Department as part of an electoral scheme.
To the extent that reality matters, the claim is foolish. The grand jury probe began in 2019 — two years before the Biden administration existed. Unless Kelsey is prepared to argue that Democratic prosecutors had access to a time machine, we know that the conspiracy theory isn't true.
But it's entirely possible that some of Kelsey's supporters will believe the line anyway — and therein lies a problem.
Indeed, the Tennessean isn't the only politician with legal troubles pushing this line. Before U.S. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry was charged last week with lying to the FBI, the Nebraska Republican created a legal expense fund. It's online fundraising page said Fortenberry was facing "the Deep State's bottomless pockets," and went so far as to claim that President Joe Biden's FBI "is using its unlimited power to prosecute me on a bogus charge."
Like the Tennessee story, the investigation into the Nebraska congressman pre-dates Biden's presidency. The conspiracy theory is difficult to take seriously.
What matters more, however, than the rhetoric being wrong is the fact that it's also inherently unhealthy. These Republicans have effectively argued that federal charges brought against GOP officials during a Democratic presidency should be seen as suspect, as if federal law enforcement is necessarily an extension of the White House's political agenda.
Donald Trump may have tragically adopted such a worldview, but it's important for the Justice Department as an institution to be seen in a more independent light, and no one benefits from bogus conspiratorial thinking.