“I find it astonishing and, to me, it tells me a lot about the people running the FBI.”
That’s what Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked on “Fox News Sunday” about the New York Times report that the FBI had opened a counterintelligence investigation in May 2017 to determine whether President Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia.
Graham was right, but not in the way he meant. The senator, who has become a Trump toady in his single-minded quest to avoid a primary challenge in 2020, went on to castigate the FBI and its leadership. “I don’t trust them as far as I throw them,” he said. But, in fact, the FBI’s willingness to investigate the president is a sign that it is an admirable, indeed essential, safeguard of American democracy.
There are precious few countries in the world where a sitting leader can be investigated by law enforcement authorities on the principle that no person is above the law. Israel, a robust democracy, is one of the few exceptions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently under police investigation for corruption. A previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, spent 16 months in prison on bribery charges as a result of an investigation that was launched while he was still in office.
Even in democracies, the normal practice is not to investigate presidents until they have left office and are able to retaliate against the investigators. Prosecutions are normally launched when their political opponents take power. In South Korea, for example, two conservative presidents, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, now sit in prison on charges of corruption that were filed by the current progressive government.
Two former presidents of the Philippines — Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada — were also imprisoned on corruption charges. But the Philippines shows how difficult it is to enforce the law against the chief executive. The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, admits to ordering extrajudicial killings, having presided over the deaths of an estimated 20,000 people. He also admits to having sexually abused a housemaid as a teenager. And he has jailed two senators who have criticized his death squads. But Duterte is in no danger of facing any legal consequences, at least not while he remains in office.
It is a wonderful tribute to American democracy that we have a legal system that does not shrink from investigating the president — as has happened to Richard M. Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and now Trump. Even in our system, investigating their ultimate boss is not a step that any FBI agent or Justice Department prosecutor would take lightly, knowing how high the stakes are for their own careers. That makes it ludicrous for Trump to suggest that the FBI actions were part of a "witch hunt" by “known scoundrels” and “dirty cops.”
Why would the FBI have wanted to pursue a vendetta against Trump? As Politico noted in 2016, “the typical Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent is white, male, and middle-aged, often with a military background — in short, drawn from the segment of the U.S. population most likely to support GOP nominee Donald Trump.” In fact, during the 2016 campaign, the predominant view was that the FBI was full of pro-Trump agents who were furious that FBI Director James B. Comey, himself a Republican, had decided not to pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for use of a private email server. There was widespread speculation that Comey felt compelled to reopen the Clinton investigation just before the election — an act that would help cost Clinton the presidency — because he feared leaks from FBI agents in the New York office who were close to Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former mayor of New York and U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. “The FBI is Trumpland,” one agent told the Guardian.
So, no, the FBI wasn’t — and isn’t — part of some (nonexistent) deep-state plot against Trump. It was, and is, pursuing its duty to enforce the law and stop foreign penetrations of American politics — no matter how high the threat goes.
If anything, the FBI waited too long to probe Trump personally — until May 2017 — given that all the way back in July 2016, it had launched Operation Crossfire Hurricane to investigate the suspicious links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. But it is natural that the FBI during the Barack Obama presidency shied away from investigating the presidential nominee of the opposition party. The bureau was bending over backward to avoid even in the appearance of political favoritism. It was not until Trump fired Comey and confessed that he did so to stop the investigation of the “Russia thing” that the FBI finally felt compelled to act. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein heroically risked Trump’s wrath by appointing former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to take over the investigation as special counsel. The Mueller investigation continues to this day, despite all of Trump’s attempts to obstruct it.
That federal investigators have been on the president’s trail for nearly two years shows that, in the United States, the rule of law, however embattled, still prevails. The day that law enforcement officials cannot investigate a president suspected of selling out the country is the day that we become a banana republic.