Less than nine months after Donald Trump promised to "restore law and order" in a speech about fallen police officers, the Republican Party has turned on America's top law enforcement agency. On Wednesday, the Bureau issued an official statement warning against publication of the so-called Nunes memo, a four-page document detailing alleged abuses by investigators looking into Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Democrats and FBI officials insist the memo, which Republicans voted to release earlier this week and could drop any minute, twists the facts to paint a misleading picture of an anti-Trump witch hunt. Some fear the document and its criticism of investigators' tactics will be used as ammunition to shut down Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump's presidential campaign, or at least muddy the waters enough to taint the investigation's conclusions.
This comes after weeks of loose anti-FBI talk from Republican politicians and their allies on Fox News. On Tuesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan called for a "cleanse" of the FBI. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson previously made wild accusations about a "secret society" of anti-Trump officials and "corruption at the highest levels of the FBI" before walking back those overheated claims. And House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes of memo fame announced this week that the FBI and the Department of Justice were themselves under investigation.
Veteran agents and law enforcement experts I canvassed this week were mostly dismayed and flummoxed by all this talk and the memo's potential release. Some pointed to the episode as a seminal moment in the history of one of the country's most prominent and respected institutions, an attack that looks like a naked partisan effort to protect a president from the law.
"It's a smearing campaign," Michael German, a former FBI agent and fellow at the Liberty and National Security Program at NYU's Brennan Center who left the agency after raising concerns about terrorism investigations in the Bush era, told me over the phone.
Of course, Trump is far from the first president to clash with the FBI—Bill Clinton fired his first FBI chief in 1993 when allegations of ethical improprieties clouded the director's tenure. And it's not like the agency doesn't have a bona fide history of overreach, from snooping on environmentalists to allegedly targeting marginalized communities in the war on terror era. In the Bureau's early years, founding Director J. Edgar Hoover ran the place like a personal fiefdom, targeting everyone from Communist sportswriters to (at Robert F. Kennedy's request) Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to Sanford J. Ungar, director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University and author of the 1975 book FBI: An Uncensored Look Behind the Walls, Lyndon Johnson's administration clashed with Hoover over his unwillingness to aggressively pursue civil-rights crimes in the South. A few years later under Richard Nixon, however, Hoover was suddenly concerned about the Bureau's reputation and in some cases resisted instructions to go after alleged subversives.
But the agency has never before faced an all-out assault from one of America's major political parties for conducting an investigation into a national security threat like this one.
"All these institutions are fragile," Unger told me, later adding of Trump and his team, "We'e dealing with a cast of characters that doesn't necessarily take the long view."
It's one thing for the president to fire James Comey—a man who was generally supported by the FBI's rank and file—and pressured his deputy Andrew McCabe to quit, as Trump did earlier this week. It's quite another matter to cast a shadow over the entire agency and attempt to discredit an important investigation that's still in progress, as many Republicans seem to be doing.
"It's a deliberate attack designed to ruin the reputation of an institution that's over 100 years old," David Gomez, a former FBI counterterrorism executive (and past VICE contributor), told me Wednesday of the GOP broadsides against his old employer. "It boggles my mind—I'm almost at a loss for words."
Not that any of this is likely to actually discourage FBI agents from following the evidence where it leads. On the contrary, the seemingly coordinated effort between the president and Republicans in Congress could backfire.
"In some ways it steels your resolve to actually do the best job you can," Gomez told me of how rank and file agents might react. "If it's affecting anybody, it's actually making them want to work harder."
Not every ex-agent I spoke to was aghast at the current state of affairs. Jeffrey A. Danik, a retired FBI supervisor now working as a criminal defense consultant, said the investigations into both Hillary Clinton's emails and Trump's campaign have been mishandled.
"These investigations are being conducted by people who are not independent," he told me. "The word 'cleanse' has a negative connotation that there was something really wrong being done. But you can't get around the fact that there was something perceptually very wrong being done."
Danik was critical of the way the FBI has historically promoted people to key jobs, and suggested the current mess was largely a function of failed leadership. "First they threw Hillary's potential win into doubt, then they cast aspersions on Trump's win, now they're raining down on the Russia investigation. It's a comedy of errors with these clowns at the top," he told me.
But even if everyone from Comey on down has made mistakes, it seems telling that the long beef between Trump and the FBI is blowing up at this particular moment. At least two Trump associates have already been convicted and another indicted in the Russia investigation, and the New York Times reported late Wednesday that Mueller is honing in on the president's role in obfuscating the planned purpose of a 2016 meeting between his son and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Clinton. According to the Times, that is one of "about a dozen subjects that prosecutors want to discuss in a face-to-face interview of Mr. Trump that is still being negotiated."
So just as Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill may be more desperate than ever to cast doubt on the Russia investigation, it looks like FBI officials are digging in for the long haul. Some ex-agents went so far as to tell the Daily Beast that Christopher Wray, Trump's hand-picked successor to Mueller, should resign if and when the memo comes out.
"Each side is ratcheting up," German, the former agent, told me. "It makes me wonder what they all know is coming."
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