The perennial presidential urge to bring FBI 'under control'

The modern FBI is a maddeningly independent entity, as numerous presidents before Donald Trump have discovered.

Faith Ninivaggi/Reuters
FBI Director Christopher Wray leaves the stage after speaking at the 2018 Boston Conference on Cyber Security at Boston College in Boston, Mass., March 7, 2018.

The chief of staff was blunt. “The FBI is not under control,” he said.

The president agreed that they would have to pressure the bureau to stop its ongoing investigation. Otherwise agents might turn up information detailing White House involvement – a link that could be embarrassing for the administration, or worse.

“Play it tough,” the nation’s chief executive said. “That’s the way they play it and that’s the way we are going to play it.”

No, this isn’t Chief of Staff John Kelly and President Trump talking in 2018 about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election hacking. (Or as Mr. Trump calls it, the “witch hunt.”) It’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on June 23, 1972, trying to figure out how to shut the FBI’s Watergate investigation down.

The point here is not to compare today’s Russia probe with Watergate, per se. They’re entirely different in many ways. There’s no public evidence that Trump is connected to any collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 vote. There’s no proof, as yet, that he knew about any illegal activity on the part of his campaign or governing staff.

The point is that presidents have long wanted to put the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the nation’s top US cop, “under control.” Nixon was far from the first. Trump, with recent Twitter-fueled allegations of FBI malfeasance, is not likely to be the last.

But the modern FBI is a maddeningly independent entity, as Nixon, Trump, and numerous other presidents have discovered.

On paper, the president may be its boss. In reality, cabinet secretaries, congressional committees, and the permanent bureaucracy have a big say in its actions. And since the era of the controversial J. Edgar Hoover, Bureau directors have become much more guarded against possible political interference.

Since the Hoover years, with the FBI “we expect the distance, we expect a little independence,” says Douglas M. Charles, an associate professor of history at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in writing about the bureau.

A little FBI independence may not have been what Trump expected when he took office. At a dinner shortly after his inauguration, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey for “loyalty,” Mr. Comey said in a June 2017 appearance before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Trump later requested that the FBI go easy on Michael Flynn after the latter’s dismissal as national security adviser, according to Comey.

Trump has disputed Comey’s description of these conversations, saying they are “lies.”

The New York Times has also reported that in March 2017 Trump erupted in front of a number of White House officials, saying that he expected his top law enforcement official, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to protect him the way he believed Robert F. Kennedy had protected John F. Kennedy, and Eric Holder had protected Barack Obama.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump reportedly asked, referring to the legendarily aggressive attorney who helped Sen. Joe McCarthy in his hunt for alleged communists in government. Cohn later served Trump as a mentor and legal representative.

Since then the president has continued to publicly attack the FBI. Comey, fired as FBI chief on May 9, 2017, is now “lying James Comey” on Trump’s Twitter feed. The dismissal of deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe for alleged lack of candor in an Inspector General investigation was “a great day for Democracy,” according to a Trump tweet.

A cabal of corrupt FBI officials concocted the investigation into Russian meddling in the US electoral process as a way to keep Donald Trump out of the White House, claim the president and some congressional allies. That was the theme underlying much of the so-called Nunes memo, produced by Rep. Devin Nunes (R) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence, earlier this year.

The FBI has said it has “grave concerns” about the accuracy of the Nunes memo and its bias charges. House Democrats have claimed that the memo cherry picks bits of evidence and is misleading to the point of bad faith. The top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, drew up his own lengthy paper meant to rebut the chairman’s charges.

That has not stopped the president and his legal team from insisting that the Russia probe should be shut down due to the taint of its allegedly fraudulent origins. That is now one of Trump’s main lines of rhetorical defense against Special Counsel Mueller, a former FBI director hired by the Justice Department to run a probe staffed with federal prosecutors and FBI agents.

“As many are now finding out ... there was tremendous leaking, lying and corruption at the highest levels of the FBI, Justice, & State,” tweeted Trump on March 17, shortly after sending the nation an image of a green fountain at the White House and “Happy St. Patrick’s Day” greetings.

'They're all big boys and girls'

For FBI agents this situation can’t be comfortable. The bureau has long had a workaday, just-the-facts-please image – albeit an image polished by adroit internal PR. Now the president is charging that they’re the heart of some kind of “Deep State” conspiracy that’s trying to control national politics.

Given the type of people who work at the FBI and what they do, though, the impact here can be overstated, says one 16-year veteran of federal law enforcement. Agents are mostly interested in spending their 10-hour workday trying to solve their own cases, he says.

 “They don’t worry that much about the drama that is going on in D.C.... They’re all big boys and girls,” says Michael German, who specialized in domestic terrorism and covert operations at the FBI.

“They realize they are involved in important matters that are newsworthy and can be used by politicians to either raise them up or lower them down,” Mr. German says.

What about the broader voting public? That’s likely the real target for the president and his allies, after all. By denigrating Mueller and the FBI and Justice Department, experts say Trump is likely attempting to soften the impact of eventual Russia probe findings, while pushing to cut the probe short. Continued assertions that the investigation is a “witch hunt” might even prepare the way for firing Mueller himself.

In a general sense, it appears the effort to undercut the Russia probe per se is not working. Overall public confidence in Mueller’s work has remained steady for the past year. Sixty-one percent of Americans believe the special counsel will conduct a very fair or somewhat fair investigation, according to a Pew Research poll from March 2018. That’s actually an increase of six percentage points since December.

A USA Today/Suffolk University survey from late February reached a similar conclusion. A 58 percent majority said they had a lot or some trust in Mueller’s work, according to this poll. Trump fared less well – a 57 percent majority said they had little or no trust in the president’s Russia denials.

What's behind a partisan shift

But beneath the top line numbers something else is going on: Partisan opinion about the FBI itself has shifted dramatically. Conservative Republicans used to strongly back the law-and-order FBI; now they oppose it. For decades Democrats were more suspicious of FBI activities. Now they’re the bureau’s biggest fans.

Only three years ago, 62 percent of Republican voters said the FBI did a good or excellent job, according to Gallup poll data. The comparable figure from December 2017? Forty-nine percent, representing a drop of 13 percentage points.

Democratic numbers point in the opposite direction. Sixty percent of Democrats rated the FBI as good or excellent in 2014. That’s now jumped nine percentage points, to 69 percent.

Loop back to the Russia probe, and the divide is even bigger. A recent YouGov survey found that 64 percent of Republicans (and 79 percent of Trump voters) believe the FBI is biased against Trump. The percentage of Democrats who agree with this is ... 7 percent. Fifty-three percent of Democrats think the bureau is not biased either way.

Partly this is simply an automatic response to the political environment. Democratic support for the FBI, for instance, began to rise with the election of Barack Obama, and continued upward throughout his presidency. But the specifics of the Russia investigation – particularly Trump’s insistence that it is rooted in bias and illegality – are a big driver here as well, particularly for GOP opinion. In that sense the president’s attacks on the FBI are having an effect.

Support from GOP voters has a very practical effect for the president. It makes Republicans in Congress less likely to break with Trump in the wake of any Mueller indictments or revelations.

“I see this as a political effort,” says Dr. Charles of the administration attacks on the FBI and Mueller effort. “It’s a political effort to undermine an investigation.”

J. Edgar Hoover's role

Of course, in the past politics and the FBI were well acquainted. J. Edgar Hoover, who served as FBI director from 1924 to 1972, was an adroit Washington player who sometimes used the careful dissemination of secrets to curry favor with presidents and congressional leaders.

“That’s where the FBI’s power came from, doing favors for powerful people,” says Kenneth O’Reilly, an emeritus professor of political history at the University of Alaska and author of three books about the FBI’s investigations of civil rights leaders and support for the communist-hunting House Un-American Activities.

For instance, Hoover worked hard to curry favor with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, providing the White House with tidbits about political opponents and foreign leaders and writing fawning notes praising FDR’s “sterling, sincere, and altogether human qualities.”

During FDR’s time in office the bureau expanded greatly, from a small organization focused on John Dillinger and other notorious criminals to a larger agency capable of extensive counterintelligence operations.

Harry S. Truman was less fond of the FBI. On May 12, 1945, he scribbled a note on White House stationary complaining that the bureau was tending in the direction of becoming a US “Gestapo or Secret Police.”

“They are dabbling in sex life [scandals] and plain blackmail when they should be catching criminals,” Truman wrote.

Dwight Eisenhower looked more favorably on the bureau and allowed it to expand use of wiretaps, the original means of electronic surveillance. In contrast, John Kennedy and the FBI had an uneasy relationship. Hoover knew all about JFK’s then-secret womanizing – a wiretap on Mafia boss Sam Giancana turned up evidence of Kennedy’s relationship with Judith Campbell Exner, a California socialite with mob ties.

Lyndon Johnson and Hoover got along fine. LBJ appreciated Hoover’s willingness to provide him with political intelligence, while Hoover appreciated Johnson’s willingness to exempt him from federal retirement age rules.

Nixon appreciated – some might say feared – Hoover’s power. In 1971, Nixon chose to not remove the FBI director from his position in part because he worried that Hoover might “bring down the temple” by releasing damaging information about him, according to a conversation recorded by the White House taping system.

Nixon also found, to his frustration, that there were limits to what the FBI would do for him. Hoover resisted requests for activities he deemed, conveniently, to be extra-legal. The result: Nixon established his in-house “Plumbers” to try and stop news leaks. They ended up doing much more than that, leading to the excesses that produced the Watergate scandal.

The 'smoking gun' tape

The Watergate break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee occurred on June 17, 1972. The FBI was quickly on the case, and began running down clues that seemed to connect some of the burglars to White House officials.

Nixon wanted the FBI to back off. That was the purpose of the June 23, 1972, Oval Office meeting. The idea discussed was getting the CIA to call the FBI and claim national security was involved, and the bureau needed to stay out of it. It didn’t work. The FBI kept going. Ultimately, the meeting was Nixon’s undoing. When the tape of the meeting became public, on Aug. 5, 1974, the president’s remaining support vanished. He announced his resignation on Aug. 8. That’s why today, it’s called the “smoking gun” White House tape.

When Nixon and his aides had their “smoking gun” discussion the bureau was dealing with its own internal upheaval. Hoover died on May 2, 1972. The FBI was about to enter a modern era.

Congressional investigations were the spur. In 1975, both the House and Senate launched broad committee probes that revealed widespread illegal spying on Americans by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other federal agencies.

Anti-war protesters, government employees suspected of being gay, and civil rights leaders were among the FBI’s targets. In one of the most notorious incidents discovered by congressional investigators, in 1964 a top Hoover deputy wrote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. an anonymous letter threatening to make public King’s extramarital affairs. It ended with the statement, “There is only one thing left for you to do.” King said he took that as a reference urging suicide.

“Things were changed after the abuses became public ... guidelines were put into place and this distance was established,” says Charles.

In 1976, Congress passed a law limiting FBI directors to a 10-year term. This was meant to block the rise of another Hoover – a director whose accumulated power, derived from accumulated secrets, made him almost unaccountable.

Throughout the late 1970s and early '80s, a series of attorneys general issued various guidelines establishing rules for FBI investigations and for dealing with the White House. These included outlines of procedures to be followed for official communications between executive branch officials, including the president and the FBI command.

The FBI became somewhat independent of the Department of Justice, of which it is a part.

“The FBI director and its director and [the Attorney General] would operate closely or not, mainly based on personality,” says Charles.

Now Trump wants to upend those arrangements. Citing such evidence as anti-Trump texts between a leader of the original FBI Russia probe and a colleague, the fact that fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s wife ran for state office as a Democrat, and the Nunes memo’s charge of impropriety in obtaining a search warrant against a Trump associate, Trump charges that the bureau is in thrall to an anti-Trump cabal.

“The FBI, its reputation is in tatters – worst in History! But fear not, we will bring it back to greatness,” Trump tweeted last December.

One result has been a deepening partisan divide. As noted above, the vast majority of Republicans support Trump against the FBI, while virtually all Democrats now support the bureau. That’s a head-spinning reverse from the public opinion of the Watergate era.

That divide may soon get worse, or at least more obvious. Comey’s book will be released in early April. Meanwhile, the Russia investigation keeps grinding away, perhaps heading toward some sort of showdown between the president and the special counsel. It appears an end to Mueller’s probe remains months away.

“I’m concerned that the length of time it is taking is moving people further into their corners,” says former FBI agent Michael German, who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law. “Whatever comes out will already be divisive, because it will likely support one side more than the other.”

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