From the very first moments after news broke that the FBI had searched former president Donald Trump’s home in Florida, Trump and his allies cast the FBI, the Justice Department and anyone else believed to be involved as acting out of a dishonest, political motivation. Trump had spent years stoking distrust of the FBI in large part to distract from consideration of his own actions, and that effort rapidly bore fruit.
There’s a demonstrated risk to elevating the idea that Trump is the target of nefarious plotting by his opponents, however politically useful that narrative might be. We saw this on Jan. 6, 2021, certainly, when months of dishonest claims by Trump about an effort to block his reelection culminated in a furious mob storming the U.S. Capitol.
And, in the days since news of the FBI search emerged, there have been similar rumblings. Increased threats against Attorney General Merrick Garland. Against the FBI. Targeting the judge who signed the search warrant. More broadly, a flurry of violent discussion among pro-Trump groups online. Jan. 6 occurred because that anger was given a crystallizing time and place, but that doesn’t mean that isolated incidents of violence aren’t possible.
Yet when asked about the toxic climate the FBI is facing during a Fox News interview on Thursday morning, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) chose not to condemn it but to rationalize it.
Scalise was being interviewed by the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” a show that is not known for its interest in holding Republicans’ feet to the fire. But on this occasion, host Steve Doocy did.
“The FBI, with 35,000 members, now they apparently are receiving — a lot of specific field agents are receiving specific death threats because there are a number of people online and elsewhere who are demonizing the FBI,” Doocy said. He pointed to anti-FBI rhetoric from members of Scalise’s caucus, such as Reps. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).
“I’m just curious,” Doocy continued: “Whatever happened to the Republican Party backing the blue, and in particular the 35,000 members of law enforcement, federal law enforcement at the FBI?”
The question is clear: Given the rhetoric and the threats, how is the GOP demonstrating its support for those law enforcement officers? Scalise’s response was probably unsatisfying for any officers who might have been watching.
“Frankly, we’re very strong supporters of law enforcement,” he said, “and it concerns everybody if you see some agents go rogue and if you see an agency that doesn’t have the right checks and balances at the top. This is coming from the top.”
Doocy couldn’t abide that response.
“Steve, who went rogue?” he pressed. “They were following a search warrant!”
“We want to find that out,” Scalise replied. “We want to find that out.” He then pivoted to criticism of Garland.
Outside of the context of the threats, this is a remarkable response. Scalise claims that FBI agents are going rogue and, when asked who did, says that Republicans aim to find out. This is known as “begging the question.”
But it should be considered in the context of those threats. Typically, an established Republican politician would offer his sympathies to those law enforcement officials who were being targeted even if he then transitioned to his political point. Scalise didn’t, instead simply claiming that the GOP are “strong supporters of law enforcement.” This divide between “law enforcement” and “the FBI” has been particularly important this week, with the former often excluding the latter.
When members of the Supreme Court faced threats after the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Scalise was among Republicans who criticized that response. In fact, he did so on “Fox & Friends,” calling for House Democrats to bring to a vote legislation protecting justices. (They did so; it became law.)
“Any kind of federal judges are not, by law, allowed to be threatened that way,” Scalise said then, “and yet the Justice Department won’t take action. They need to. This is a real concern.”
The difference is obvious: Who’s making the threats. Threats against Supreme Court justices and protests at their houses (violating a legal statute and spurring Scalise’s excoriation of the Justice Department) came from advocates of abortion access, largely on the left. Threats against the FBI and those involved in the Mar-a-Lago search are coming from the right. From Scalise’s base. And just as Republicans spent weeks playing along with Trump’s false claims about the election after November 2020, Republicans are now playing along with his insistence that the search is necessarily partisan and illegitimate.
On Thursday, an armed man tried to breach an FBI field office in Cincinnati before engaging in a confrontation with agents. It remains to be seen if it is connected to the idea that the FBI acted inappropriately at Mar-a-Lago.