Interview: White House-FBI feud creates 'new scenario'

Despite the FBI’s “grave concerns” about its accuracy, President Donald J. Trump has authorised the release of a memo authored by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee alleging an anti-Trump bias within the agency (Reuters).

The “open conflict” (Washington Post) between the White House and the nation’s top law enforcement agency has moved the historically turbulent relationship into “a new scenario,” according to Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, a University of Edinburgh history professor who specializes in American security services. He is also the author of The FBI: a History.

“The FBI has often been regarded as part of the deep state, but not by the president,” Jeffreys-Jones said.

Since assuming office, President Trump has criticized the bureau’s investigations into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump later fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, telling NBCNews that the firing was in part because the Russia investigation was dealing with “a made up story.”

Former Trump aide Steve Bannon said firing Comey may have been the biggest mistake “in modern political history.” (Politico).

The president escalated the confrontation with the FBI with a Twitter message just before the memo was released, suggesting political interference in the “sacred investigative process”.

Donald J. Trump on Twitter

The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans – something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago. Rank & File are great people!

Read the memo and the White House letter authorizing its release here.

WikiTribune spoke to Jeffreys-Jones about the White House’s relationship with the FBI, which came under fresh scrutiny this week after deputy director Andrew McCabe stepped down from the role. A public dispute also erupted over plans to release the memo that’s expected to reveal how the FBI handled requests to surveil members of Trump’s presidential campaign team.

Dr Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones is a scholar of the FBI and CIA. Photo: Courtesy of the subject

WikiTribune: Has there always been an inherent tension in the relationship between the FBI and Oval Office?

Jeffreys-Jones: I’m not sure I would put it quite that way. But the FBI has always been politicized – so there’s always been tension within politics over the FBI.

The FBI had a precursor called the Secret Service. After the Civil War the Secret Service was given the job, by President [Ulysses S.] Grant, of smashing the Ku Klux Klan – which it set out to do. But that made it politicized, because the House was Democratic, and basically favored the Klan and took the view that the federal government was oppressive, in the same way people talk about the FBI and the “Deep State.”

The Bureau of Investigation was established by a Republican president – Theodore Roosevelt. And the Democrats were deeply resentful and said that the FBI was being used to spy on them.

In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. He was a Democrat but not beholden to the South. But nonetheless [the first FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover struck a deal with southern senators and appointed 100 southerners as special agents in the FBI in an effort to keep his job. He was a great survivor.

Later on, when [John F.] Kennedy became president [in 1961], progressives or liberals had high expectations that Hoover would be fired. Kennedy didn’t do that, he kept Hoover on to try to reassure conservatives and try to unify the country. So there have been tensions of this kind in the past.

WikiTribune: Trump and his supporters often seem to suggest the FBI is part of a “deep state” apparatus. Is there a precedent for this type of attitude?

Jeffreys-Jones: The FBI has often been regarded as part of the deep state, but not by the president. It’s critics of American policy who take that view and normally the president is regarded as part of the deep state himself.

WikiTribune: Trump fired Comey. He criticized the FBI. McCabe quit. Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been investigating Trump. Has any other president had such a confrontational relationship with the FBI?

Jeffreys-Jones: In a word: no. This is a new scenario. But if you were to ask about a clash between the presidency and the judiciary – broadly defined – then Richard Nixon is clearly a precedent.

Nixon tried to interfere with the course of justice. Not in Watergate itself, which was purely political espionage, but in the Daniel Ellsberg case, where his plumbers robbed the offices of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg and tried to get material that could be used to defame him so that Ellsberg could be put in prison. And that’s interference in the judicial system, which is an impeachable offense. Nixon committed a number of impeachable offenses.

It’s not a precise comparison because it was not the FBI directly involved in the case with Nixon.

Nixon kept on denying that he had anything to do with the Watergate break-in. Trump is denying that any Russian interference took place, and in the same line of defence saying he had nothing to do with it.

It’s a major error – it’s best to admit early and let the news move on. It’s a flaw with some politicians that they dig their heels in.

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