Trump's Critics Worry That He's Undermining Trust in the FBI, As If That's a Bad Thing

More Republican skepticism of law enforcement agencies is a welcome development.


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According to a Survey Monkey poll conducted last Thursday and Friday, 38 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the FBI, compared to 64 percent of Democrats. A "news analysis" in The New York Times blames that counterintuitive partisan divide on Donald Trump, who "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 Times worries that Trump is "tearing at the credibility of some of the most important institutions in American life to save himself."

The charge rings true in the sense that Trump is mendacious and unprincipled, the sort of man who would say anything for political gain. But forgive me if I have trouble feeling bad for the poor FBI. Whatever the merits of Trump's complaints about the investigation of links between his campaign and Russian agents who tried to influence the presidential election, the controversy will do some good if it makes Republicans less inclined to trust the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Even putting aside the bureau's long history of corruption and incompetence, the controversy over the Russia investigation is a useful reminder that the FBI consists of fallible humans with their own ambitions, agendas, and opinions, which may not always be conducive to a dispassionate search for truth and justice. Case in point: An agent who called Trump an "idiot" and hoped he would lose the election was involved in both the Russia probe and the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email practices as secretary of state. Somewhat less shocking: The FBI may have exaggerated the evidence that former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was a Russian agent. Even less shocking, for anyone familiar with how easy it is to get permission for a wiretap under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA): The exaggeration was probably unnecessary.

Although the charges raised by the Republican memo about the FBI's surveillance of Page are troubling, Democrats dispute several key points, including the role that information from former British spy Christopher Steele played in the warrant applications and whether the FBI revealed that Steele, whose work was underwritten by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, had a political agenda. But the fact remains that law enforcement officials have a strong incentive to exaggerate when they apply for warrants, a tendency that is especially problematic when the applications and the orders issued in response to them are classified, as they are under FISA. Another point highlighted by this case: Probable cause, defined by the Supreme Court as "a fair probability," is not a very hard standard to meet, especially when it applies not to the likelihood that someone has committed a crime but to the likelihood that he is a foreign agent, which may or may not involve breaking any laws.

I don't know that the Republicans who are suddenly mistrustful of the FBI will absorb any of these lessons, which would require reasoning in a principled way rather than reacting out of partisan reflex. But there is a chance that at least some of them will come away from this episode with a new appreciation for the cracks in "the pillars of the criminal justice system," just as some Republicans embrace sentencing reform after serving time in prison. That would be a heartening development.

By contrast, the uncritical embrace of the FBI by some of Trump's opponents is pretty sickening. The Times portrays Trump's spat with the bureau as a black-and-white conflict between a dishonest demagogue and dedicated professionals who only want to uphold the law:

More than a dozen officials who work at or recently left the Justice Department and the F.B.I. said they feared that the president was mortgaging the credibility of those agencies for his own short-term political gain as he seeks to undercut the Russia inquiry…

"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 F.B.I. agent and prosecutor who left the Justice Department at the end of last year. Mr. Hunter said he worried that juries might be more skeptical of testimony from agents even in criminal trials unrelated to Mr. Trump. "All it takes to sink a case," he said, "is for one juror to disbelieve the F.B.I."…

David Strauss, a University of Chicago law professor, said Mr. Trump's accusations against the F.B.I. and the Justice Department were not mere political rhetoric, but messages with consequences. "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 said…

Josh Campbell, who spent a decade at the F.B.I. and worked directly for Mr. Comey at one time, wrote in The Times on Saturday that he was resigning so that 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 F.B.I. cannot be trusted, they will also have succeeded in making our nation less safe."

If you think it is self-evidently a bad thing that "juries might be more skeptical of testimony from agents even in criminal trials unrelated to Mr. Trump," the rest of this self-serving twaddle will not bother you. Question the FBI, the FBI says, and you are endangering national security. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the dedicated professionals and the dishonest demagogues.