Fear and Loathing and the FBI

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey, Washington, D.C., June 2016
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and FBI Director James Comey, Washington, D.C., June 2016

We’ve been arguing about the FBI since President Theodore Roosevelt established it in 1908. The bureau is a secretive, nosy national police force in a country that originally made law enforcement the responsibility of the states. Under the ugly and aggressive leadership of J. Edgar Hoover from 1924 to 1972, it kept showing up on the edges of our politics, or right in the middle of them, from the Palmer Raids in search of radicals and anarchists after World War I to the harassment of anti–Vietnam War protesters and civil rights activists. Only death could remove Hoover from office, and his departure eventually did lead to significant reforms, but the notoriety of the FBI has endured—thanks often to fiascos of its own making—as has contentious disputation about it.

Here’s a typical example: “The truth is that we have a nation that is disgusted with the FBI. We have a crisis of confidence in the number one law enforcement agency in this country.” The public figure who said this is not the sort of civil libertarian who typically makes harsh criticisms of the bureau—it was President Trump, writing to his 66 million Twitter followers on September 3, 2019. He added: “Thanks, Comey!”

This was one of dozens of tweets that Trump has aimed at James Comey, whom he fired in May 2017 as director of the FBI. There have been dozens more slamming the bureau for various transgressions, most of them figments of the fecund presidential imagination. Numerous Trump tweets attacked FBI executives and agents by name. Such public denunciations of the government’s main law enforcement agency and its personnel from the president himself are without precedent in American history.

Trump won the 2016 election with the help of votes from the kinds of Americans who made Hoover a hero, and he has enjoyed the support of “conservative” Republican members of Congress, heirs to a tradition of opposing liberals who criticized Hoover and the conservative, conformist America he stood for. Trump has transformed all that. Now, his Republican sycophants, particularly in the House, have eagerly joined him in casting doubt on the patriotism and honesty of FBI agents, CIA analysts, and other members of the national security apparatus.

James Stewart, one of the best reporters of his generation, and Josh Campbell, a former FBI agent and special assistant to Comey who now comments on law enforcement for CNN, offer revealing new accounts of the bizarre warfare that has been going on between President Trump and the FBI for three years. Stewart in Deep State writes as a gifted storyteller and thorough reporter. His sources (several of them quite easy to identify) have provided many historical tidbits of interest…

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