At the center of all of this is Trump, who has shown no scruples about the truth, both in general and on this specific issue. He continues to claim that every Democrat has said there was no collusion with Russia, which is false, and still sporadically pushes a speculative conspiracy theory about his “wires” being “tapped” at Trump Tower during the election, even though his own Justice Department has debunked it.
These are all powerful reasons to disbelieve those who seek to cast doubt on the FBI. And yet their critique derives its power from the long history of abuses by the intelligence community. The FBI in particular has a demonstrated pattern of targeting those it has deemed politically dangerous, a practice entrenched by its creator and longtime leader, J. Edgar Hoover. The bureau has, at times, targeted and sought to intimidate leftists, civil-rights organizations, anti-war protesters, and others. It compiled 360,000 files on government workers suspected of being gay or lesbian. There have been both internal and external efforts at reform since then, and the FBI’s defenders insist it has mended its ways, but the bureau is still housed in a building bearing Hoover’s name.
While Trump’s critics eagerly mention Watergate in the same breath as the current scandal, it’s easy to forget that the crucial inside source for reporting on the scandal, dubbed Deep Throat, was Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI; by some accounts, he was motivated by anger that he had been passed over in favor of L. Patrick Gray as Hoover’s successor.
In the summer and fall of 2016—indeed, almost up to the moment of his firing by Donald Trump—Democrats seethed at FBI Director James Comey. Given Comey’s Republican affiliation, the bureau’s historic conservatism, and Comey’s unorthodox approach to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server (as laid out by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in the memo used to justify Comey’s firing), many Democrats were convinced Comey was trying to throw the election to Trump. Their concern was heightened by Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani speaking on TV about receiving inside info from the FBI.
Late in his tenure as director, Comey argued that the “Ferguson effect,” a backlash against police after the killing of Michael Brown, was real, despite a lack of evidence to support it. As recently as this winter, Democrats were demanding questions about a strange FBI report on “Black Identity Extremists” that relied on long out-of-date information.
Nor would it be unprecedented for a branch of the intelligence community to destroy materials that could damage it. In 2005, the CIA destroyed 92 tapes depicting torture of detainees. Democrats later assembled a report on the use of torture during the Bush years, but when Republicans took back the Senate, the new chair of the intelligence committee moved to suppress the report and keep it from being made public. That chair? None other than Richard Burr. The CIA also said it had shredded a copy, only to suddenly find it months later.