Trump Is Winning His War on the FBI

Within the bureau, there’s an asymmetry that even those who seek to play by the rules cannot ignore.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

Former FBI Director James Comey influenced the course of the 2016 election, investigated presidential candidates from each party, and was fired by one of them for leading an inquiry into foreign interference with American democracy. So perhaps he found the chiding he received from Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz anticlimactic.

The IG’s report did not conclude that Comey broke any laws but that his “retention, handling, and dissemination of certain Memos” documenting his interactions with President Donald Trump and Trump’s efforts to influence the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election “violated Department and FBI policies, and his FBI Employment Agreement.” The Trump administration promptly and baselessly accused Comey of being a criminal.

Comey, who shares Trump’s appetite for dramatic public gestures that place him at the center of public attention, demanded an apology. Comey has never apologized for his role in placing Trump in office, but—like the president—he possesses a streak of self-righteousness that precludes reflection.

Nevertheless, the sanction Comey received was absurd: The IG concluded that Comey, fired by a president who was publicly seeking to cripple an investigation into a foreign hacking-and-disinformation campaign that helped put him in office, should have kept silent. That standard would not only incentivize presidential corruption, but establish that government officials who witness such corruption should not warn the public and instead adhere to a Mafialike omertà.

The ongoing reality-show-style fight between Comey and Trump seems petty, but the great significance of the IG report is that it establishes that bureau officials’ highest loyalty should be not to the Constitution or to the public but to the boss. The president has successfully purged bureau officials he perceives as hostile to the agency, at least one of whom is facing prosecution. The FBI’s internal investigations have focused on the president’s critics, not officials who abused their authority to aid Trump in the latter days of the 2016 campaign. The Democratic Party has shown no appetite for scrutinizing rogue bureau officials’ behavior, which tells leadership that it should fear only right-wing criticism. For all the president’s public feuding with the nation’s chief law-enforcement agency, he appears to have won the battle to redefine its nature.

Comey’s initial decision to tell Congress, in late October 2016, that he had reopened the investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails was itself rooted in fear about how the right would react, and that FBI officials sympathetic to Trump would leak word of the move to the press.

This is documented in great detail in Horowitz’s 2018 report into the bureau’s actions prior to the 2016 election. Comey himself told investigators, “My worry was, I have to be careful that people in New York aren’t by virtue of political enthusiasm, trying to take action that will generate noise that will have an impact on the election.”

That fear was echoed by other Justice Department and bureau officials. Former FBI counsel James A. Baker told investigators, “We were quite confident that … somebody is going to leak this fact. That we have all these emails. That, if we don’t put out a letter, somebody is going to leak it.” Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the IG that it was her understanding that Comey did not believe it was “survivable” for Comey not to notify Congress that the email probe was being reopened, and that “they felt confident that the New York Field Office would leak it and that it would come out regardless of whether he advised Congress or not.”

Regarding the New York Field Office, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch told investigators that Comey had informed her that “it had become clear to him, he didn’t say over the course of what investigation or whatever, he said it’s clear to me that there is a cadre of senior people in New York who have a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton. And he said it is, it is deep. It’s, and he said, he said it was surprising to him or stunning to him.” Lynch further elaborated that “it was hard to manage because these were agents that were very, very senior, or had even had timed out and were staying on, and therefore did not really feel under pressure from headquarters or anything to that effect.”

The president has spent much of his term complaining about a “deep state” conspiracy against him, but the available evidence suggests that Clinton is the one who should be complaining.

These statements mirror news reports from October 2016, when a series of damaging stories about FBI investigations into Clinton began leaking to the press. An FBI agent told The Guardian that Clinton is “the antichrist personified to a large swath of FBI personnel,” and that “the reason why they’re leaking is they’re pro-Trump.” The anti-Clinton leaks, however, appear to have drawn little interest from Horowitz, or from the Democrats now in charge of the House of Representatives. Comey himself reportedly ordered an investigation into whether FBI officials were leaking to Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani; The Wall Street Journal reported in late 2018 that “the status of the investigation is unknown.”

At this point in the 2016 election cycle, the FBI was already investigating ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian operation designed to put him in the White House. But in accordance with the bureau’s obligation to avoid interfering with elections, officials kept that investigation under wraps. Although Trump and his allies have called that investigation an attempt to overturn the result of the 2016 election, something close to the reverse is true: The FBI scrupulously held to its principles of noninterference with the Republican candidate, and disregarded those principles entirely with the Democratic candidate.

In hindsight, that disparity is even more inexplicable. Whereas the Clinton email case hinged on the possibility that the former secretary of state had compromised classified information, the current president carelessly tweets such information out, when he is not actively sharing it with hostile governments. Although the special-counsel investigation did not establish that Trump directly coordinated with the Kremlin, it documented that as a candidate, the president defended Russia from accusations of interference even as he knew he was benefiting from that interference, and even as he sought to profit from building a hotel in Moscow. Robert Mueller’s report all but accuses the president of obstruction of justice in his effort to stifle that investigation; an inquiry spun off from the probe established that the president may have committed a felony when he paid hush money during the 2016 campaign to cover up evidence of extramarital affairs. Against this litany of corruption, the president and his attorney general can only brandish a Justice Department policy against prosecution of a sitting president.

Yet the reasons for this partisan discrepancy in the bureau’s treatment of Clinton and Trump are fairly obvious. While the Republican Party responds to its displeasure with the bureau by attacking, delegitimizing, and investigating it, the Democratic Party responds by doing nothing. Although the vast majority of bureau personnel are attempting to do their jobs as apolitically as possible, this creates an asymmetry that even those who seek to play by the rules cannot ignore: You can safely disregard Democratic concerns, but anger the GOP and your career may not survive. The most honorable, well-intentioned individual cannot wholly reverse the trajectory of a system designed to go in the other direction. Democrats, who hold the House, have it within their power to alter this dynamic, by investigating how political bias within the agency affected its conduct during the 2016 campaign. But they have shown as little interest in investigating anti-Clinton FBI officials’ attempts to sway the 2016 election as Horowitz has.

The IG’s conclusion in its latest report affirms this dynamic. Comey was fired and then chided for warning the country that the president was trying to shield his criminal associates from investigation and prosecution. His deputy, Andrew McCabe, was fired and may face prosecution for allegedly lying to FBI investigators about leaking derogatory information to the press about Clinton; but Trump saw McCabe, a Comey ally, as an enemy. Baker was pushed out of the bureau. The FBI officials of Trumplandia, however, remain safe and secure, having abused their authority on behalf of the man now in the White House. Should they have the opportunity to interfere in the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf, there is no one in the executive branch or in Congress who will try to stop them.

This is only one of the ways in which Trump has successfully made the U.S. government more like a branch of the Trump Organization, where the only real principle is fealty to the boss. Once upon a time, executive-branch leadership encouraged the FBI to prosecute such organizations, rather than imitate them.