Presidents don’t win fights with the FBI. Donald Trump apparently wants to learn this lesson the hard way.
Most presidents have had the sense not to bully the FBI by defaming its leaders and – ridiculously – painting its agents as leftist political hacks. Most members of Congress have also understood how unwise it would be to pull such stunts. But Trump and his hapless henchmen on Capitol Hill, led by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., have chosen the wrong enemy. History strongly suggests they will be sorry.
The far-right echo chamber resounds with wailing and braying about something called the “deep state” – a purported fifth column of entrenched federal bureaucrats whose only goal in life, apparently, is to deny America the greatness that Dear Leader Trump has come to bestow. It is unclear who is supposed to be directing this vast conspiracy. Could it be Dr. Evil? Supreme Leader Snoke? Hillary Clinton? This whole paranoid fantasy, as any sane person realizes, is utter rubbish.*
The asterisk is for the FBI.
The bureau has no political ax to grind, and the attempt by Nunes and others to portray it as some kind of liberal cabal is comical. But it does have great institutional cohesion, a proud sense of mission, and a culture that inculcates the “us vs. the world” attitude that is so common among law enforcement agencies.
I’m old enough to remember the days when J. Edgar Hoover ran the place like his own private Stasi – wiretapping civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, infiltrating anti-Vietnam War groups with informers and provocateurs, seeking or manufacturing damaging “evidence” against those he targeted, keeping copious files on the peccadilloes of the politicians who were theoretically his masters. Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon coexisted warily with Hoover, afraid to fire him for fear of all the beans he might spill.
Harry Truman was an especially bitter opponent. “We want no Gestapo or secret police. The FBI is tending in that direction,” he said. “They are dabbling in sex-life scandals and plain blackmail. … J. Edgar Hoover would give his right eye to take over, and all congressmen and senators are afraid of him.”
But when Truman left office, Hoover was still FBI director. He held on to the job from the FBI’s founding in 1935 until his death in 1972 – six weeks before the Watergate break-in.
The day after what Nixon’s spokesman would call “a third-rate burglary attempt” took place, the FBI’s major-crimes duty officer, a supervisor named Daniel Bledsoe, opened a federal wiretapping investigation. According to Bledsoe, he received a phone call from Nixon aide John Ehrlichman ordering him to shut down the probe. His simple reply: “No.”
It was another FBI man – Mark Felt, then deputy director – who became the famous source Deep Throat, secretly meeting Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a parking garage to guide the paper’s illumination of the president’s crimes.
In 2004, according to journalist Tim Weiner’s book “Enemies: A History of the FBI,” George W. Bush was confronted by the man he had appointed to lead the bureau: Robert Mueller. In Weiner’s telling, Mueller threatened to resign unless Bush curtailed some aspects of the domestic electronic surveillance that was taking place in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Bush reportedly agreed to put the program on a more legal footing.
Now comes Trump. His oafish attempts to neutralize the FBI director he inherited, James Comey – trying to extract a Godfather-style loyalty pledge, asking him to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, ultimately firing him – are potential fodder for what may be an obstruction of justice case against Trump being assembled by Mueller.
Comey wrote everything down. The FBI always writes everything down.
Do you see a pattern here? The idea that the likes of Trump and Nunes are going to put a scratch on the FBI with ludicrous innuendo – we’re supposed to believe the bureau is a nest of Bolsheviks? – and selectively edited memos would be laughable, if Mueller and his team were the laughing kind. Which they’re not.
The Trumpists were so proud of themselves when they found evidence that Peter Strzok, an FBI agent originally on Mueller’s team, thought Trump would be a bad president. Now, however, someone has leaked to CNN that Strzok drafted the “October surprise” Comey letter that reopened the bureau’s investigation into Clinton’s emails – without which Trump probably would have lost the election.
Trump and his minions seem to think they can out-leak the FBI. Obviously they haven’t been paying attention.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.