by SHARON LaFRANIERE, KATIE BENNER and PETER BAKER
WASHINGTON – In the days before the 2016 election, Donald Trump expressed “great respect” for the “courage” of the FBI and Justice Department for reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Sixteen months later, he has changed his mind.
The agencies have been “disgraceful” and “should be ashamed,” he declared Friday, just weeks after pronouncing the FBI’s reputation “in tatters” and the “worst in history.” Under attack by Trump, the deputy FBI director, Andrew G. McCabe, was pushed out last week. Trump has hinted that he may fire the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein. And his aides fear that Christopher A. Wray, his second FBI director, may resign over the president’s criticism of the bureau.
The war between the president and the nation’s law enforcement apparatus is unlike anything America has seen in modern times. With a special counsel investigating whether his campaign collaborated with Russia in 2016 and whether Trump obstructed justice in 2017, the president has engaged in a scorched-earth assault on the pillars of the criminal justice system in a way that no other occupant of the White House has done.
The president’s focus on a memo drafted by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee and released Friday reflected years of conspiracy-minded thinking by Trump. “Something is going on, folks,” he would warn at his campaign rallies. He has long sought to find the hidden hand at work behind the scenes in government, and he has encouraged that theme in the disparagement by his supporters of a “deep state” organized to resist the policies of an elected president.
At the start of his administration, Trump targeted the intelligence community for his criticism. Now he has broadened the attacks to include the sprawling federal law enforcement bureaucracy he oversees.
In his telling, that bureaucracy, now run by his own appointees, is a nest of political saboteurs out to undermine him – an accusation that raised fears he was tearing at the credibility of some of the most important institutions in American life to save himself.
“I can’t think of another time when this has happened,” said Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel under President George W. Bush. “And it’s happening largely because the president is being investigated.”
The attacks are having an impact. A new SurveyMonkey poll for Axios, a news website, released Saturday showed that only 38 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the FBI, compared with 64 percent of Democrats. In interviews, more than a dozen officials who work at or recently left the Justice Department and the FBI said they feared the president was mortgaging the credibility of those agencies for his own short-term political gain as he seeks to undercut the Russia inquiry led by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.
“Thanks to this rhetoric, there is a subset of the public that won’t believe what comes out of the Mueller investigation,” said Christopher Hunter, a former FBI agent and prosecutor who left the Justice Department at the end of last year. Hunter said he worried that juries might be more skeptical of testimony from agents in criminal trials. “All it takes to sink a case,” he said, “is for one juror to disbelieve the FBI.”
Since taking office, Trump has assailed a number of major institutions in society, including Congress, the courts, the news media, intelligence agencies, Hollywood, professional sports and even his own party. But the attacks on law enforcement are tied up with his own political fate as investigators bear down.
The closest analogy historians summon is the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973, when President Richard M. Nixon ordered the firing of the Watergate prosecutor, and both the attorney general and his deputy resigned rather than comply, leaving it to the Justice Department’s No. 3 official to carry it out. Even then, Nixon was publicly targeting the prosecutor, not the institutions themselves.
Ever since, the notion of a president dismissing investigators looking at his own actions had been unthinkable in Washington – at least until Trump fired James B. Comey, the FBI director, last year. President Bill Clinton’s surrogates relentlessly attacked Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel investigating him, but ousting him was never a viable option, and as much as Clinton detested Louis J. Freeh, the FBI director at the time, he did not launch a sustained public attack on him or the agency.
Even before this past week, Trump had publicly assailed Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation and left open the possibility that he might even fire him.
Last summer, Trump sought to fire Mueller, only to back down after the White House counsel threatened to resign, The New York Times reported last month. He also considered firing Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller.
“It’s scary when someone can use the forces of government for their own benefit, the way Nixon did and the way this president is now doing,” said Sidney Davidoff, a onetime adviser to Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York and one of 20 people on Nixon’s original enemies list. “As an attorney and as a private citizen, I’d like to believe that the investigatory agencies are doing a job for the American people, not at someone’s whim. It’s not a monarchy.”
Trump’s advisers dismiss such concerns as overwrought. They said the memo, drafted by Republicans led by Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman, and declassified by Trump, raised serious and legitimate questions about the way the FBI used information gathered by a former spy paid by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democrats to justify a warrant for surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser tied to Russia.
Trump’s critics, his advisers argue, are turning a blind eye to government misconduct out of their own partisan animus toward the president. Neither the FBI nor the Justice Department should be above questioning, they say, and Trump’s willingness to do so should not be taken as a slight against the vast majority of people who work there.
“The president has stated many times that he respects the rank and file of the FBI, the 25,000 men and women who do a great job there,” Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, said on Fox News. “This particular investigation has taken a lot of twists and turns, and it’s led us to a few bad actors who had direct responsibility for an investigation about his political opponent who are obviously biased against him.”
Trump seized on the memo Saturday to assert that it renders the Russia investigation moot. “This memo totally vindicates ‘Trump’ in probe,” he wrote on Twitter. “But the Russian Witch Hunt goes on and on. Their was no Collusion and there was no Obstruction (the word now used because, after one year of looking endlessly and finding NOTHING, collusion is dead). This is an American disgrace!”
Trump’s current campaign threatens the autonomy of the FBI and the Justice Department, which was seared into the public consciousness after Watergate, according to veterans of the legal system. “Starting with Jimmy Carter, every president has embraced norms that preserve the independence of the DOJ, law enforcement and intelligence matters from the White House,” Goldsmith said. “What is happening now is a violation of post-Watergate norms.”
David Strauss, a University of Chicago law professor, said Trump’s accusations were not mere political rhetoric, but messages with consequences. “It’s got to undermine public confidence in the FBI to a certain degree. And it’s got to undermine morale at the FBI and the Justice Department to an even greater degree,” he said.
“We have a president who seems to have no understanding of the professional ethos of the Justice Department, who has no understanding how these people think about their jobs,” he added.
Especially upsetting, some former officials said, is how Trump has publicly taunted specific individuals – a top FBI official, an FBI lawyer and an FBI supervisor.
“It’s one thing for the president to criticize political appointees – although it is quite odd for him to criticize his own political appointees,” said Alan Rozenshtein, a lawyer who left the Justice Department’s national security division in April and now teaches at the University of Minnesota law school. But to attack career employees at the FBI who are barred by regulations from publicly responding, he said, “that’s really bad.”
Some agents are leaving as a result. Josh Campbell, who spent a decade at the FBI, wrote in The Times on Saturday that he was resigning so he could speak out. “These political attacks on the bureau must stop,” he wrote. “If those critics of the agency persuade the public that the FBI cannot be trusted, they will also have succeeded in making our nation less safe.”
One FBI supervisor in a field office said public shaming of his colleagues had wiped out any desire he had to work at the bureau’s headquarters in Washington. “I’d rather eat glass,” he said.
Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general for the national security division, left the Justice Department in May after 23 years. Every new administration, she said, ushered in new priorities and policies. But only Trump, she said, had put the entire department under a cloud.
“I’ve never seen attacks on the FBI or the DOJ like we’ve seen in the last year,” she said. “It makes me just really sad.”