Updated at 7:30 p.m.
This is not the country I live in.
In my country — in our country — the ruler does not call in the head of the state police and demand proof of loyalty. That is because in our country the ruler is an elected, term-limited official, and the state police is, or is supposed to be, an independent, professionalized entity.
Indeed, the FBI director is granted a 10-year term, longer than even a two-term president may serve, not only in order to constrain the director’s power (in other words, to prevent another J. Edgar Hoover from abusing authority) but also to shield the director from being the tool of any particular president.
As Andrew Kent, Susan Hennessey and Matthew Kahn, writing in Lawfare, reminded us after President Trump took the extraordinary step of firing FBI Director James B. Comey — just the second time that had happened in the history of the bureau — the 10-year term was established in the wake of Richard Nixon’s abuses of the FBI during Watergate. The Lawfare post notes, “Nixon’s acting FBI Director and nominee for the permanent post, L. Patrick Gray, had resigned in 1973 after it was revealed that he was giving the White House daily briefings on the FBI’s Watergate investigation and that he destroyed documents relevant to the inquiry.” Now that was loyalty.
Trump, as we know from Comey’s testimony, pressed Comey to pledge similar fealty before firing him. And now we know, from The Post’s Ellen Nakashima, Josh Dawsey and Devlin Barrett, that Trump summoned Comey’s temporary successor, shortly after Comey’s firing, for a get-to-know-you session in which the pleasantries quickly turned sinister: In the dark wake of Comey’s ouster, Trump wanted to know whether Andrew McCabe had voted for him or for his opponent, Hillary Clinton. This was stomach-churningly inappropriate.
McCabe, The Post reports, gave an answer that was true, conveniently exculpatory — and disquieting: He had not voted for president. I wish McCabe had gone further. I wish he had said — and, granted, it is hard to admonish a president — that his vote was a private matter, none of anyone’s business unless he chose, voluntarily, to share it, and certainly none of the president’s, given the need for the FBI to remain independent and unpoliticized.
Trump being Trump, it didn’t end there. According to The Post, the president “also vented his anger at McCabe over the several hundred thousand dollars in donations that his wife, a Democrat, received for her failed 2015 Virginia state Senate bid from a political action committee controlled by a close friend of Hillary Clinton.” No surprise that this enraged Trump, who makes no distinction between family and business. Both exist to serve his interests. The notion that a husband and wife could pursue individual careers and take pains to keep them appropriately separate would never occur to Trump.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump, in classic form, said both that he didn’t recall asking McCabe about how he voted and dismissed the notion that asking this “very unimportant question” would matter. “I don’t know what’s the big deal with that,” he said, and that part is entirely believable. He doesn’t.
A reminder about the history of FBI directors: President Jimmy Carter named a Republican, William H. Webster, to head the FBI. President Bill Clinton named a Republican, Louis Freeh, to the job. President Barack Obama extended the term of then-FBI director Robert S. Mueller III, a Republican, for two years. Then he named another Republican, Comey.
Of course, for appropriate positions, the president gets to name political appointees and to take into account, when naming those political appointees, their personal politics. But our country has a civil service that provides a continuing corps of expertise from administration to administration — what Trumpists demean as the “deep state.” Nowhere is the independence of that group more essential than in the arena of law enforcement; nowhere has that independence more rankled Trump.
The best witness on this, as always, is Trump himself: “You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said in an interview last November with a conservative radio host. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”
No doubt. The reason Trump is not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department or the FBI involves the power these institutions wield to investigate and prosecute crimes, the imperative that this power not be used to punish political enemies or shield political allies, and the accompanying imperative that the public be able to trust in the department’s impartiality.
Thus the George W. Bush Justice Department brought charges against Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, a Republican. Thus the Obama Justice Department brought charges against former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. That both these cases were flawed does not undercut my point about the need for apolitical justice — it strengthens it. Now the Trump Justice Department has decided to seek a retrial in the case of Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat originally indicted during the Obama administration. How can the public, given the behavior of this administration, be confident that this move is untainted by politics?
Once again, the whataboutists shout: What about the missing 50,000 text messages between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page? What about the “secret society” of FBI agents supposedly dedicated to exonerating Clinton and framing Trump? Certainly, it was correct for Mueller, upon learning of the Strzok texts, to remove him from the Russia probe. By all means, let’s figure out what happened to the texts and determine whether there was other misconduct.
But let us not allow the fevered cries of conspiracy to distract us from the chilling fact: We live, for the moment, in a country whose president considers the independence of the Justice Department not a feature, but a bug.