Sorry, Nunes, The FBI Just Isn’t A Hotbed Of Democratic Partisans

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 20: tour of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, which is the headquarters of the FBI on Thursday August 20, 2015 in Washington, DC. The agency is looking for a new home that meets their needs. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The Washington Post/The Washington Post

If you’ve spent much time watching Fox News or Republican-led congressional committee hearings over the past year, you’d be forgiven for believing the FBI is a teeming nest of anti-Trump liberals.

One problem: That doesn’t square with the bureau’s modern history or demographics, nor with the events of the 2016 presidential election.

There is compelling evidence that former FBI Director James Comey’s two public pronouncements on the Hillary Clinton email investigation damaged the Democratic nominee’s standing in the polls. The two FBI officials who were found to have exchanged text messages disparaging Trump also criticized former Obama Justice Department officials. And now, it is the President’s own Republican appointees at the DOJ and FBI who are warning against the validity of a controversial GOP memo, expected to be released Friday, that purportedly shows anti-Trump bias at those agencies.

To protect Trump from the federal investigation into Russia’s election interference, the White House and Capitol Hill Republicans have had to manufacture an image of the nation’s premiere law enforcement agency that has no basis in reality.

“The idea that there’s this giant conspiracy and that the entire FBI is politicized is pure nonsense,” former FBI special agent Mark Pollitt told TPM, calling the Nunes memo fracas “bizarre.”

“At the end of the day that’s not why these people joined,” Pollitt added. “In some ways it’s a very old-fashioned organization.”

In a testament to the tradition of hierarchy and professionalism at the bureau, the FBI Agents Association released a statement on Thursday voicing support for Director Christopher Wray “standing together with the men and the women of the FBI” during the prolonged public fight over the memo release.

Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a history professor at the University of Edinburgh and author of “FBI: A History,” noted that the FBI “always has been a bone of political contention.” Towards the second half of J. Edgar Hoover’s long tenure as director, the bureau became “very much associated with an anti-communist drive and persecution of the left—black civil rights activists, the women’s movement, the burgeoning gay rights movement in the 1950s.”

“At that point the FBI becomes a Republican party icon and can do no wrong,” Jeffreys-Jones said.

But the left’s concern about the politically-motivated persecution of activists, communists and homosexuals was grounded in fact, as the Church Committee’s investigations into the FBI’s investigatory abuses confirmed.

There is little ready comparison to the current political moment.

Pro-Trump conservatives’ attacks initially focused on top leadership. But former FBI Director James Comey has since been fired, his deputy Andrew McCabe is gone, and Wray, Trump’s own pick, was installed six months ago.

Then there are the demographics. As Politico reported in late 2016, 67 percent of the bureau’s agents are white men. Many are middle aged and have backgrounds in law enforcement or the military. Those demographics, of course, line up well with Trump’s own base.

And even if most FBI agents were liberals, Pollitt and FBI historians emphasize that FBI agents and officials must subsume their political opinions to work on whatever cases they are assigned.

Still, the anti-FBI campaign has been surprisingly successful with its target audience. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll released Wednesday found that the share of Republicans who have at least a fair amount of trust in the FBI has plummeted from 68 percent in 2015 to 45 percent now.

Tracking this strange evolution requires going back to the final months of the 2016 election.

In July, Comey took the unprecedented step of publicly announcing that Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state was “extremely careless” but that the federal investigation into it would result in no charges. Then in late October, Comey made the equally fateful decision of announcing that the FBI was investigating a newly-discovered trove of Clinton-related emails, uncovered by agents in the New York office.

Comey’s handling of the sensitive probe—and his conclusion that Clinton should not face charges—sparked something of a mini-revolt at the bureau. That revolt was headquartered at the New York office, whose agents had a longstanding reputation for hardline tactics, and, according to a flurry of stories, deep anti-Clinton sentiment.

In the final weeks of the campaign, two close Trump allies—Rudy Giuliani and former FBI Assistant Director James Kallstrom—claimed that they were hearing rumors of mutiny inside the bureau from disgruntled former agents. “The FBI is Trumpland” and Clinton is “the antichrist to a large swath of FBI personnel,” a current FBI agent told The Guardian.

But then, to America’s surprise, Trump won.

After he took office and the focus turned to the investigation of his campaign’s possible coordination with Russia to influence the election, congressional Republicans turned against the bureau.

Trump and his backers on Capitol Hill were suddenly consumed with concerns about the “witch hunt” being carried out by “deep state” Clinton and Obama loyalists in the intelligence community. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a Republican former FBI director appointed by President George W. Bush, was painted as an anti-Trump partisan leading an investigative team of Democrats. Joking text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was kicked off of Mueller’s team after their discovery, and FBI attorney Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair, were seriously discussed as evidence of an anti-Trump “secret society” at the bureau.

We’re now at a moment where Fox hosts are routinely calling for top FBI officials to be dragged off in handcuffs, and the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee believes he is tasked with investigating the DOJ and FBI themselves.

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