The FBI is America’s best hope against Trump – Vox

Let’s start by acknowledging something that’s become extremely clear: If anything within Donald Trump’s government brings him down, it’s going to be the FBI.

Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey sparked not only a revolt within the organization (and a resulting cascade of leaks about the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia); it appears to have placed the president himself under investigation for obstruction of justice.

That investigation is being led by the former FBI Director Robert Mueller. And Comey himself has worked, since his ouster, to shore up the integrity of the agency he used to run and condemn the president for trying to meddle in it.

Trump’s attorney general had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because of his own Russia ties. His deputy attorney general was forced under pressure to appoint a special counsel to lead the investigation, and now, facing questions about his own role in Comey’s firing, might recuse himself as well. But the FBI continues to chug along.

It might seem ironic, if you know the bureau’s history, that the FBI is being cast as a bunch of defenders of the American republic. But it shouldn’t.

The very things that make the FBI, or organizations like it, troublesome or even dangerous under better circumstances and better presidents are the things that make it best equipped to resist abuses of power. The FBI might take down President Trump; it’s inevitable that they would be the ones to do it.

To successfully be apolitical, there has to be something else for which you’re striving

One of the most striking features of the Trump presidency so far has been the extent to which nearly everyone who joins the administration ends up debasing themselves: press secretary Sean Spicer, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and a number of Republicans in Congress who are looking for excuses to look the other way on revelations on the Russia investigation.

The fact of the matter is that, while everyone fantasizes that he or she would be the whistleblower, it’s not always easy to trust your own intuitions that something is immoral — especially if speaking out against it would go against achieving whatever policy goals one might have as a Republican official in a Republican administration, or a Republican lawmaker under unified Republican government.

At the FBI, as depicted by Comey and others, that professionalism stems from a commitment to the rule of law and the integrity of an investigation.

The “rule of law” is a procedural value: It says that the right thing for the government to do is to set, and adhere to, proper processes in all cases, without favor or prejudice to where those processes might lead. No man is above the law, and no man strong enough to defeat it; and upholding the law means going about things “the right way.”

Take the choice Comey faced, as described in his Senate testimony, about what to do after President Trump urged him in a private meeting to “see his way” to letting ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn go without charges. To act in service to politics (the president being, after all, his ultimate boss), he could have passed on the president’s instruction and urged the investigators to turn their attentions elsewhere. To act against politics, he could have passed on the president’s remarks as possible evidence in the investigation — or ordered the bureau to start investigating Trump himself.

He did neither. Instead, he recorded the conversation in a memo, but deliberately didn’t tell the people working on the Russia investigation about it. Because he wanted the investigation to unfold exactly as it would have in the absence of presidential pressure.

That’s what professionalism meant to him. He immediately, and clearly, saw an ethical breach open up, and sought to prevent it from occurring. But, in Comey’s telling, it simply deepened his commitment to doing the job.


James Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US ElectionJames Comey Testifies At Senate Hearing On Russian Interference In US Election

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Of course, everyone’s the hero of his own story, and Comey may well have been engaging in a little self-aggrandizing. But it’s all the more revealing that, given the chance to cast himself as a hero, this is the heroism he chose. Comey was self-consciously making himself into an avatar of the “dogged FBI agent” — and by doing so, reinforcing (for current FBI agents as well as the general public) the idea that this is what every FBI agent should strive to be.

The institutions strong enough to undermine leaders are also the ones strong enough to resist tyrants

The term “deep state” has gotten stretched beyond recognition in the hands of Trump allies like Newt Gingrich. As often as not, they use it to mean nothing more than “there are lots of people in the federal government who are liberals, and therefore they’re going to try to undermine the president’s agenda from the inside.”

It’s a conspiratorial concept that barely deserves debunking, but here goes: The federal government doesn’t act with a single mind. There are tremendous amounts of squabbling between departments, agencies, offices, and individuals: everything from debates over strategy, to fights over scarce resources, to management/labor disputes, bureaucratic turf wars.

The institutions that come the closest to acting with a single mind are the ones with a robust internal culture, where everyone agrees on what it means to do the job well and defends each other for it.

A proper “deep state” — an institution whose control over the government not only can’t be touched by elected officials, but actually exceeds their power — takes that one step further. It sees itself not only as the protector of its own values, but of the values of the entire nation.

Arguably, America really did have a “deep state” once: the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover’s FBI really did operate without political accountability and saw itself as superior to the presidents who ruled it. The values, in this case, were Hoover’s own law-and-order self-righteousness. Men, as a rule, were weak and needed aggressive reminders to stay on the straight and narrow; politicians were simply men. But G-men were G-men.


FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (center) looks unimpressed by President John F. Kennedy (left).

Keystone via Getty Images

The FBI doesn’t have the overweening power it had under Hoover. But there’s still some of that self-righteousness in its institutional DNA. That can be a problem in some cases, in the way that full-hearted dedication to any morality can create excess.

But you can’t create an institution that is transparent, humble, and open to suggestion in good times, and resilient, independent, and resistant in bad ones. It’s the organizations that are least willing to take direction from the outside about what they ought to value that are most likely to retain their identity in the face of attempted subversion. It’s the organizations that take threats to their own independence personally that are the ones most likely to act in self-defense when someone tries to overpower them.

This can be bad for democracy. But it’s good for despotism.

The complicating factor here is that civil servants are also public servants. If politicians are elected to carry out their agenda, it only makes sense that that agenda should change the way government employees do their jobs. There is, even in the best of times, a tension between apolitical professionalism and serving the public will.

Immigration agents under the Obama administration, for example, saw their job as enforcing immigration law — that was their definition of professionalism. But Obama and his political appointees, especially in their second term, believed they had been (re-)elected in part to protect unauthorized immigrant families who hadn’t committed crimes from deportation. They’d run on that platform and had been rewarded for it. The result was a grinding, years-long battle between labor and management that looked like a fight over “morale,” but was really a fight over what the job was field agents were supposed to do.

It’s a tough balance to strike. But that isn’t the situation we’re in right now.

Donald Trump isn’t going hard at the FBI because they’re getting in the way of his agenda. He’s attacking them because they’re scrutinizing his own behavior and he is trying to protect himself.

The Russia scandal might get in the way of Trump’s agenda because it reduces the amount of public attention paid to it, or Trump’s sway with lawmakers to enact it. But that’s not an argument that Trump should be exempt from scrutiny. If the notion of republican government is to mean anything, it must mean that the act of electing a man does not permit him to legal impunity. His policy agenda does not come before the law.

There’s no clearer way to underscore that than by putting the president himself under investigation. If Trump were the sort of person who were willing to learn things, he might have interpreted that as a brushback pitch — a reminder of where the boundaries are. And it would have been welcome, even to those with no love for the FBI. But he doesn’t take those signals. He’s spoiling for a fight, and the good news is that it appears at least one government agency is willing to give it to him.

The FBI is America’s best hope against Trump – Vox

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