The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The FBI is not the enemy

Security fencing outside the FBI's headquarters in D.C. on Aug. 15. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

“The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants,” Attorney General Merrick Garland declared last week. This should go without saying — but now, amid rhetorical and physical attacks on federal law enforcement agents around the country, it can’t be said enough.

Former president Donald Trump and his allies have veered from one wild claim to another after last week’s FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. His team insisted at first that it had handed over all the relevant documents — an assertion that proved untrue when the FBI recovered boxes of material marked as classified. Then his team said without evidence that Mr. Trump had instituted a “standing order” under which documents brought from the Oval Office to his residence were “deemed to be declassified the moment he removed them,” which is implausible under declassification procedures. Perhaps the most harmful claim was the suggestion that FBI agents planted evidence during their time on the property.

Republican allies of the former president have called the Mar-a-Lago search an act of tyranny, involving “third-world tactics” by a “rotten to the core” government no better than a dictatorship. Calls to “defund the FBI” are bizarre given that the GOP has made support for law enforcement an electoral strategy; opposition to an investigation that appears to have been conducted by the book is especially hypocritical coming from the same people who cried out for imprisoning Hillary Clinton. These smears are not only damaging to democracy; they’re also dangerous to the individual people working for agencies and institutions that have now become targets.

Those people include the federal judge who authorized the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. He and his family face threats on online message boards. (“I see a rope around his neck,” reads one post.) They include the FBI employees at a Cincinnati facility who were terrorized Thursday when an armed man tried to breach their building, and those in Phoenix, where armed protesters marched across the street from FBI offices over the weekend. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo on Friday noting a surge in menacing rhetoric, including a threat to place a dirty bomb outside FBI headquarters.

The New York Times reported that ever since the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, this type of behavior has been mounting, with election workers, school board officials, librarians and more facing threats and intimidation — just for doing their jobs. Bellicose language contributes to the likelihood that violence will break out, because it makes everyday people feel as though they’re at war. Too many elected officials are fostering those feelings, casting men and women who are doing their duty as aggressors and enemies of the nation. They should instead say what Mr. Garland said, which is the truth: “Every day, they protect the American people from violent crime, terrorism and other threats to their safety. ... They do so at great personal sacrifice and risk to themselves.” Unfortunately, now that risk is even higher.

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Editorials represent the views of The Washington Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Deputy Editorial Page Editor Karen Tumulty; Deputy Editorial Page Editor Ruth Marcus; Associate Editorial Page Editor Jo-Ann Armao (education, D.C. affairs); Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Molly Roberts (technology and society); and Stephen Stromberg (elections, the White House, Congress, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care).