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Opinion Trump’s anti-FBI rhetoric will take a real-life toll

A Donald Trump supporter protests near the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., on Aug. 9, a day after FBI agents searched the former president's Mar-a-Lago residence. (Eduardo Munoz/ Reuters)

Sometimes, in politics, one party does something so stupid that it rescues the other party from its own dumb mistakes. That’s partly what’s going on right now with the FBI.

Democrats were only just emerging this summer from the left’s nutty, two-year love affair with the “defund the police” movement. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who represents the district where George Floyd’s 2020 murder triggered a summer of national unrest, narrowly survived an Aug. 9 primary challenge motivated by her support for a ballot measure intended to replace most cops with social workers. San Francisco voters recalled District Attorney Chesa Boudin in June for being soft on crime. Former police captain Eric Adams took over as New York mayor in January.

So, it is more than a little ironic that Republicans have now put themselves in a similar bind with voters, thanks to the way former president Donald Trump has been demonizing the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He calls the court-ordered search of his Mar-a-Lago home in Florida a “break-in” while suggesting that agents planted top-secret material to incriminate him.

His remarks led former vice president Mike Pence to say that “calls to defund the FBI are just as wrong as calls to defund the police.” Moments later, however, Trump shared on social media a piece headlined “The Fascist Bureau of Investigation.”

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Assuming they will retake the House, Republicans are already discussing how they can use parliamentary maneuvers next year to zero out funding for FBI programs and personnel they don’t like. “The antidote has to be not one more damn penny for this administrative state,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who remains under FBI investigation regarding allegations of sex with a minor, which he denies. (Gaetz shared that idea on a podcast with former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon, who was recently convicted of criminal contempt of Congress.)

Meanwhile, some right-wing voices now sound like members of the Weather Underground, circa 1970. Fox News host Dan Bongino called the FBI “irredeemably corrupt.” Republican Party of Texas chairman Matt Rinaldi said, “Abolish the FBI.” Betsy McCaughey, a former GOP lieutenant governor of New York, said Republicans must “shut every field office, fire all staff, and start anew.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is selling hats and T-shirts that say “Defund the FBI” for $30 each.

So much for backing the blue. The biggest difference between the two defund movements is party leadership. Trump, the leader of the Republican Party, started the war on the FBI. The furthest Joe Biden went to align himself with the “defund the police” crowd was to endorse “conditioning federal aid to police based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards.”

In fact, activists for police abolition complained throughout the 2020 campaign that Biden wasn’t supporting their cause. Biden campaign advisers, knowing their boss was generally pro-cop, decided on a mostly say-nothing approach, hoping the idea would go away. As House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) urged Democrats during a private conference call that June: “Don’t let yourselves be drawn into the debate about defunding police forces.”

Now, GOP strategists privately acknowledge that their party is walking into its own harebrained trap as the midterms near, with GOP candidates afraid to antagonize Trump and the MAGA cause by offering a full-throated defense of law enforcement. This will likely cost them votes this fall.

The irony is that the FBI is easily one of the most conservative arms of the federal government. Its first director, J. Edgar Hoover, filled its ranks with White Catholic men with a reputation for secrecy and deep patriotism. Bureaucratically, its folkways are still allergic to change. Its recent directors, by and large, have been Republicans.

Trump has clearly decided that attacking the bureau as an arm of the “deep state” will help reactivate his suspicion-filled base and raise questions about the motivations behind the many investigations that seem to be closing in on him.

But his reckless rhetoric will take a real-life toll. There has been a spike in threats against FBI agents and their families. And a man who was active on Trump’s social media site, Truth Social, was killed after firing into the FBI’s Cincinnati field office and an hours-long standoff.

Americans already ask the FBI to do far more, with no margin for error, than can reasonably be expected: sniff out foreign spies, prevent terrorist attacks, trace cybercrimes, crush gangs and organized crime, conduct court-ordered searches, squelch the drug trade, conduct background checks on gun buyers and enforce civil rights laws. Now, agents must put up with a lot of noise from a former president, too.

While Trump raged on social media this week, the bureau announced that a task force had located 37 missing children. The average age was 15. The youngest was 11.

Violent crime surged across the United States as officers pulled back from traditional policing in 2020, afraid that politicians wouldn’t have their backs when they needed to use force. Only thugs, spies, terrorists and child predators should root for the Republicans to repeat the Democrats’ mistake.