In Showdowns With The US President, The FBI Is 4-0
Tim Weiner, Pulitzer-prize winning author of “Legacy of Ashes” and a longtime chronicler of US intelligence agencies, sat down for an interview with Bloomberg’s Tobin Harshaw to discuss how the FBI has handled previous investigations involving the White House.
The feud between President Donald Trump and former FBI Director James Comey is hardly unprecedented in modern US history. As Weiner explains, there have been four instances during the past 45 years – excluding the present day – where the FBI has confronted a sitting president. And up until now, the bureau has prevailed every time.
“Five times in the last 45 years the bureau has gone up against the White House. With all due respect to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, it was the FBI that brought down Richard Nixon. Twelve years later it was the FBI that served search warrants and subpoenas on members of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council after the Iran-Contra imbroglio. Agents recovered 5,000 documents from their computers – a forensic feat unprecedented in technological virtuosity. That led to the indictments of a dozen of Reagan’s national security aids.
A decade later, it was the FBI, in the form of a subpoena to the White House physician who drew blood from the arm of President Bill Clinton for DNA evidence to match the famous blue dress of Monica Lewinsky, that proved he committed perjury and led to his impeachment in the House.
In 2004, then-director Robert Mueller, along with Comey, who was acting attorney general, directly confronted the George W. Bush administration over the unconstitutional and illegal effects of the eavesdropping program Stellar Wind. Bush later wrote in his memoirs that the two men threatened to resign, and that visions of the Saturday Night Massacre flashed before his eyes. The president backed down.”
The role of the FBI, and its director, has changed dramatically since the bureau was created by President Teddy Roosevelt and then-Attorney General Charles Bonaparte (a great-nephew of the French emperor) in 1908. Then known as the Bureau of Investigations, its primary duty was rooting out organized criminals and other “malefactors of great wealth,” though it was also tasked with investigating corruption in Congress.
But the bureau’s focus shifted away from this original intent after J Edgar Hoover became director in 1924, Weiner said. Hoover, remembered for his crackdowns on political radicals and civil rights activists, ran the agency for decades, until his death in 1972. Afterward, Congress tried to impose statutory limits on his former post to make it expressly apolitical, eventually imposing a term limit of 10 years.
But Congress was unsuccessful. If the tensions between Comey and his old boss, the Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible for the FBI director to be 100% free from political considerations, Harshaw said.
“Statutorily, the FBI is part of DOJ. But there is a reason its DC headquarters is located equidistant between the White House and the Capitol. The director has to answer to both the executive and legislative branches,” Weiner said.
Moving on from the Trump investigation, Harshaw asked Weiner about the so-called “Comey effect” – the idea that Comey cost Hillary Clinton the election by deciding to reopen the FBI’s investigation into her mishandling of classified information a week before the vote.
Weiner said this explanation for why Clinton lost is a “false assumption,” and far down the list of reasons why Clinton lost.
“It’s a false assumption. I know Hillary disagrees, but I think the Comey effect, knowing what we now know about Russian meddling in the election, is farther down the Top 10 list of why she lost.”
Weiner closed the interview by drawing one more comparison between Nixon and Trump – an apparent reference to the fact that Congressional investigators have subpoenaed any tapes Trump might have of his conversations with Comey.
“Let’s not forget what the smoking gun tape of Nixon was: an attempt to get the FBI to stop the Watergate investigation dead in its tracks. Once it was revealed by order of the Supreme Court, Nixon was finished. He resigned two days later.”
We can’t help but believe that by the end of President Trump’s term (whenever that is), The FBI will be leading 5-0 in this epic Deep State vs Democracy battle.
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