How Republicans turned on the FBI6 min read
A version of this story appears in NEWS’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
Former President Donald Trump wants to “defund” the FBI and Department of Justice.
Republicans, alleging the FBI and DOJ have been weaponized against them, have held hearings featuring disgruntled former agents and are also gaming out ways to restrict funding for the federal law enforcement agency.
Now Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who is running for president, has pledged to fire the FBI director on his first day in office.
Forget for a moment that FBI Director Christopher Wray, along with most confirmed directors since J. Edgar Hoover, is a Republican.
The arguably more important part of DeSantis’ declaration about Wray, which came during an interview on Fox News with federal prosecutor turned congressman turned TV host Trey Gowdy, is the DeSantis view that Republicans should completely reevaluate the American justice system.
“Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the DOJ and FBI are ‘independent.’ They are not independent agencies,” DeSantis said. He would, therefore, clean house and fire people at the agencies.
Former President Donald Trump’s long-raging anger at the FBI has now infected the party writ large and could soon have very real consequences for federal law enforcement – not the least of which is that even presidential candidates not named Trump are promising to exert more partisan control over law enforcement.
Strictly speaking, DeSantis is correct since the president nominates an attorney general and an FBI director.
But he misses the point that the FBI director is appointed for a 10-year term, which is meant to insulate the director from the whims of politicians. And an attorney general obviously needs to prosecute the law independently of partisanship.
Much of this stems from Trump’s fury at the FBI’s investigation into connections between his presidential campaign and Russia. He fired former FBI Director James Comey for not letting it go. He lost faith in his first attorney general Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from it. He demanded a special counsel, John Durham, be appointed to investigate the origins.
The long-awaited Durham report was recently released and found no criminal wrongdoing, but argued the Russia investigation should never have occurred.
More recently, Republicans have accused the FBI of trying to bury reports on the embarrassing contents of a laptop tied to President Joe Biden’s son in 2020 and for pursuing people who took part in the Capitol insurrection.
NEWS’s Annie Grayer covers Capitol Hill and she has reported on how the complaints could have consequences.
She writes: …a growing number of House Republicans are proposing ways to act on calls made by former President Donald Trump to crack down on federal law enforcement. Support started building after Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home was searched by the FBI in August 2022, as part of an investigation into the handling of presidential documents, including classified documents. And that support to act on the calls was super-charged by Trump’s indictment by the Manhattan District Attorney at the end of March.
In addition to the “weaponization” hearings chaired by Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Grayer lists possible ideas Republicans are considering to rein in the DOJ and FBI, most of which have to do with restricting funding. Read her report.
What does all of this mean for the FBI and for the country?
I talked to Josh Campbell, NEWS’s security correspondent and a former FBI supervisory special agent, about what DeSantis said and about how the FBI should deal with this partisan shift.
Our conversation, conducted by email, is below.
WOLF: Republicans are threatening to cut funding for the FBI. How seriously is that effort being viewed by the people you talk to at the bureau?
CAMPBELL: Many FBI sources tell me they are furious that the agency remains in the crosshairs of politicians seeking to politicize the agency for electoral gain.
The agency was thrust into the political spotlight during the 2016 election over its investigations into Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and has remained a favorite punching bag for political operatives.
While threatening agency funding may be a good talking point on Sunday talk shows, the consequences of such an action would have serious implications on public safety if the bureau is stripped of resources necessary to fight crime, terrorism and foreign intelligence threats.
WOLF: How does DeSantis’ pledge to fire FBI Director Chris Wray change all of this? Wray is actually a Republican who was appointed by Trump. And FBI directors are supposed to serve in a nonpartisan way, which is why their term lasts 10 years.
CAMPBELL: Until former President Donald Trump shattered institutional norms by firing FBI Director James Comey for investigating his inner circle, the bureau enjoyed decades of independence from politicization.
To be sure, past intelligence abuses required Congress to institute rigorous oversight of the agency, but one way to shield federal law enforcement from politics was establishing a 10-year term for the FBI director. Until Comey’s firing, only one other director – William Sessions – had been fired, and that was based on allegations of ethics violations.
There have been no credible allegations of impropriety against Christopher Wray. If anything, like Comey, he has been forceful in ferreting out wrongdoing and enacting reforms when abuses come to light.
The threat by DeSantis to fire Wray is likely a harbinger of what’s to come if and when the Republican governor becomes president: the continued ignoring of historical norms and an effort to ensure the director of the FBI does the president’s bidding.
That is a very dangerous place for the nation if the powerful head of America’s premier law enforcement agency is replaced by a political ally who runs the agency in a way that helps achieve the president’s personal partisan goals.
WOLF: Trump’s dislike of the FBI is no secret, and it has now infected other Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates. As a former official still reporting on that world, how can the federal law enforcement apparatus get out of this cycle where it has lost the faith of leaders of a major political party?
CAMPBELL: In many ways, the FBI is at a disadvantage when it comes to the slings of arrows from political operatives.
Unlike politics, where shamelessness can be a net positive for those motivated purely by the pursuit of power, the apolitical FBI has opted not to tangle with every politician lobbing baseless claims against the agency.
That is understandable when it comes to truly outlandish claims, but at times, Wray’s unwillingness to defend the agency against political lies has caused great consternation within the organization; I continually hear from bureau personnel who think morale could be improved if Wray more forcefully spoke out to counter the torrent of lies that continues to be told about the organization.
But that is not his style. He is much more reserved that some past directors. Wray regularly speaks in generalities about the honesty and hardworking nature of his people, but has opted to let the organization absorb the blows rather than engage in detailed rebuttals against those trying to politicize the FBI.
WOLF: DeSantis’ pledge to fire Wray is getting attention, but his idea that the FBI should not be independent is arguably more important. That makes it sound like a worldview that could actually weaponize the FBI.
CAMPBELL: DeSantis’ reference to FBI independence as a “canard” is both troubling and highly telling.
Most everyone agrees that an agency as powerful as the FBI – with the ability to literally deny people their liberty – requires rigorous oversight. That is done via Congress and independent inspectors general that continually look over the bureau’s shoulders to ensure agents and analysts aren’t engaged in impropriety.
And, yes, the president has the ability to nominate and remove FBI directors, but “clearing out” bureau personnel has historically only been done for cause after the legitimate finding of wrongdoing.
But the FBI has historically mostly enjoyed a significant level of independence from the White House, for the very reason that you don’t want political operatives influencing the FBI’s work.
Since the bureau is the leading agency responsible for public corruption investigations, it has in the past found itself in the uncomfortable position of investigating presidents of both political parties. Imagine a world where that level of independence is destroyed and powerful federal law enforcement agencies – with all their intrusive tools and the ability to ruin lives – was controlled by the White House.
You actually don’t have to imagine it: We’ve seen this movie before under the reign of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who routinely offered to do the bidding of politicians. Many in the FBI fear that is the unfortunate world the organization will again find itself in if DeSantis makes good on his threat to dismantle the bureau’s historical independence from politics.