FBI Director Christopher A. Wray before the Senate Intelligence Committee in February. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), wrote an open letter to the FBI on Wednesday, ostensibly voicing his support for the men and women who’ve been under a partisan assault from Republicans on the Hill, as well as from the president. In reality, it was a devastating indictment of Republicans’ handling of the Russia investigation.

Schiff began by defending the exemplary work of the FBI in its various law enforcement capacities. He continued:

In recent weeks, the FBI has come under unprecedented and unjustified criticism. FBI agents have been slandered as “stormtroopers” for executing lawful search warrants and described as part of a corrupt “deep state” for pursuing a lawful counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in our elections.

The president’s allies have put forward a succession of attacks against the FBI and the intelligence agencies that responded to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. Each has withered under scrutiny, but they have served their purpose of casting a shadow on the origins of the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign, and ultimately Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work.

Schiff noted the phony, subsequently debunked conspiracy claims (e.g., the warrant to conduct surveillance on Carter Page; messages between two FBI agents complaining about President Trump, though “there has been no evidence produced to date that the private views of two FBI personnel affected the handling of either the Clinton or Trump investigations”; accusations of “spying”). He then recounted:

This is not the first time the FBI has been tested by political interference, nor will it be the last. In 1972, Special Agent Dan Bledsoe was on duty at the major crimes desk the day after the burglary of the Watergate hotel. John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s chief of staff, called to convey an order to terminate the investigation into the break in, explaining it came from the president himself. Agent Bledsoe refused the order, informing the White House that the law required him to open the investigation, and he was bound to do so.

The current storm around the bureau, like that in 1972, will pass, because your commitment is not to party, or to a president, but to the rule of law.

The ethic that has been cultivated at the bureau is one of faithful and diligent adherence to the law. This does not mean that the FBI, like any institution, is beyond reproach. In a democratic society, it is healthy and normal for citizens to critique and to question. Agents are subject to rigorous oversight, from internal monitors, the courts, and Congress, and that is as it should be, indeed, as it must be.

He concluded by praising FBI Director Christopher A. Wray to the hilt: “The FBI is deeply fortunate to have someone of [Wray’s] fine character and caliber at its helm.”

We should not forget how extraordinary are the circumstances that would necessitate such a letter. We have never see so many attacks on the rule of law emanating from the White House, and aided and abetted by the president’s party. A few other points are worth noting:

(1) The reference to Watergate is purposeful. Trump’s attacks on the FBI have, to a degree, put the president’s critics on defense. Schiff emphasizes that the attacks themselves are improper, and akin to the obstruction seen during Watergate. When Trump initiates a new attack against the rule of law, as he surely will, those resisting should do more than defend the Bureau. They should go on the offensive, citing Trump’s pattern of obstruction and placing his attack in the context of a long list of actions that assail democratic norms.

(2) Democrats would do well to explain that refusing to cooperate with the special counsel — either by declining an interview or asserting his Fifth Amendment protections — would be unprecedented, and would be evidence that he has something to hide. They also might point out that, as the chief of the executive branch and charged to “take care” that laws are enforced, a refusal to cooperate would constitute a violation of the president’s oath. It is long overdue that Trump be held accountable, not merely for following the law (i.e., not obstructing justice), but for the higher obligations required of any president. At the very least, they should repeat again and again — so the media will finally get it — that it is Mueller’s choice, not Trump’s, whether the president will give testimony. Either Trump consents, or he gets a subpoena; the enforcement of which should be supported by every member of Congress.

(3) Schiff rightly points out that the entire notion the FBI is biased against Trump is fanciful. He states that “the public disclosure of only the [Hillary] Clinton investigation belies the suggestion that the FBI was impermissibly favoring her campaign.” On top of that, he might have added that the FBI’s intrusion into the campaign 11 days before the 2016 election almost certainly had an effect on the result. (It sure coincided with a shift in the polls.)

(4) Schiff underscores the degree to which Republicans have forfeited claim to being the party of law and order. It is Democrats who defend the integrity of law enforcement, while Republicans sound as though they are reading from a 1960’s-era crackpot, Marxist manifesto. (“The system’s the criminal, maaaan.”)

(5) Schiff’s letter reminds us how critical control of the House — and of each of the committees — will be for the preservation of our democracy. Consider what it would mean to swap out Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and co-author of many of Trump’s dopey conspiracies, for Schiff. We’d go from someone trying to disrupt the investigation and smear the FBI to someone willing to conduct rigorous oversight and stand up for the FBI and special counsel.

If that does not provide incentive to get and out and vote, I’m not sure what will.