WASHINGTON — Two days after the 2020 election that Donald Trump refused to admit he lost, his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., made an urgent recommendation: “Fire Wray.”
The younger Trump did not explain in the text he sent why it was necessary to oust Christopher Wray, the FBI director his father had appointed more than three years earlier. He did not have to. Everyone understood. Wray, in the view of the Trump family and its followers, was not personally loyal enough to the departing president.
Throughout his four years in the White House, Trump tried to turn the nation’s law enforcement apparatus into an instrument of political power to carry out his wishes.
Now, as the FBI under Wray has executed an unprecedented search warrant at the former president’s Florida home, Trump is accusing the nation’s justice system of being exactly what he tried to turn it into: a political weapon for a president, just not for him.
There is, in fact, no evidence that President Joe Biden has had any role in the investigation.
Biden has not publicly demanded that the Justice Department lock up Trump the way Trump publicly demanded that the Justice Department lock up Biden and other Democrats. Nor has anyone knowledgeably contradicted the White House statement that it was not even informed about the search at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate beforehand, much less involved in ordering it. But Trump has a long history of accusing adversaries of doing what he himself does or would do in the same situation.
His efforts to politicize the law enforcement system have now become his shield to try to deflect accusations of wrongdoing. Just as he asserted Monday that the FBI search was political persecution, he made the same claim Wednesday about the New York attorney general’s unrelated investigation of his business practices as he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to avoid testifying because his answers could incriminate him.
“Now to flip the script and falsely claim that he’s the victim of the exact same tactics that he once deployed is just the rankest hypocrisy,” said Norman L. Eisen, who was special counsel to the House Judiciary Committee during the first Trump impeachment. “But consistency, logic, evidence, truth — those are always the first to go by the board when a democracy comes under assault from within.”
Trump’s Republican allies argue that he was not the one who undercut the apolitical tradition of the FBI and law enforcement, or at least he was not the first to do so. Instead, they maintain, the system was corrupted by the bureau’s leadership and even members of the Obama administration when Trump and his campaign were investigated for possible collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign, an inquiry that ended with no charges of conspiracy with Moscow.
The former president’s camp has long pointed to text messages between a pair of FBI officials that sharply criticized Trump during that campaign and to surveillance warrants obtained against an adviser to Trump that were later deemed unjustified. The Justice Department acknowledged the warrants were flawed, and an inspector general faulted the FBI officials for their texts. But the inspector general found nothing to conclude that anyone had tried to harm Trump out of political bias.
In a letter to Wray on Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, alluded to the history of the FBI’s previous investigation of Trump to cast doubt on the current inquiry that led to Monday’s search for classified documents that the former president may have improperly taken when he left office.
“The FBI’s actions, less than three months from the upcoming elections, are doing more to erode public trust in our government institutions, the electoral process and the rule of law in the U.S. than the Russian Federation or any other foreign adversary,” Rubio said in the letter.
The search was approved by a magistrate judge and high-level law enforcement officials required to meet a high level of proof of possible crimes. Attorney General Merrick Garland, a former appeals court judge who was appointed by Biden with bipartisan support and whose caution in pursuing the former president until now had generated criticism from liberals, has offered no public explanation. The degree to which Trump has succeeded in promoting his view of a politicized law enforcement system was evident in the hours after the FBI search Monday when many Republicans, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House minority leader, wasted little time assailing the bureau’s action as partisan without waiting to find out what it was based on or what it turned up.
Even Republicans who have been critical of the former president in the past felt compelled to challenge the validity of the search. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader who excoriated Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on Congress, waited 24 hours but finally spoke out Tuesday to question whether something untoward had happened.
“The country deserves a thorough and immediate explanation of what led to the events of Monday,” he said in a statement. “Attorney General Garland and the Department of Justice should already have provided answers to the American people and must do so immediately.” But some law enforcement veterans said Trump simply projects his own views onto others. “Trump may actually believe that Merrick Garland is serving a political agenda because he has trouble processing anything else,” said Michael R. Bromwich, a former Justice Department inspector general. “Trump simply doesn’t understand people like Garland and the top leadership of DOJ and the FBI because their values are so alien to him.”
The FBI has a history at the intersection of politics and investigations. Under J. Edgar Hoover, its longtime director, the bureau bugged and pursued domestic opponents of the federal government, at times serving as a political tool of various presidents of both parties. But with revelations of past abuses after Hoover’s death in 1972, Congress and the FBI sought to cast off the bureau’s history and transform it into a more professional, politically neutral organization.
FBI directors were appointed to 10-year terms to make them less subject to presidential whims; a new office of professional responsibility was established; the House and the Senate set up intelligence oversight committees; and other reforms were enacted to remove the bureau from politics. Along the way, the bureau earned the respect of both parties and many Americans in the past half-century.
That built-up store of public credibility has eroded significantly in the Trump years. The proportion of Americans who told Gallup pollsters that they thought the FBI was doing a good job fell from 57% in 2019 to 44% in 2021.
And while public approval of the bureau had long been bipartisan, views have now diverged along party lines. In Trump’s first year in office, as he attacked the FBI over the Russia investigation, the share of Republicans who had a favorable view of the bureau fell to 49% from 65% in surveys by the Pew Research Center while remaining steady among Democrats at 77%.
“Trump upset the post-1970s status quo when he became president, tipping off balance over 40 years of an imperfect-though-laudable DOJ- and FBI-constructed culture of apolitical independence,” said Douglas M. Charles, a historian of the FBI at Penn State and the author or editor of several books on the bureau. “It seems to me Trump has really put that culture and the FBI itself to the test to expose the weaknesses and limitations of the post-1970s system.”
Trump’s view of the law enforcement system has been shaped by his own encounters with it, starting as a young developer in New York when the Justice Department sued his family company in 1973, accusing it of racial discrimination. Eventually, the Trump firm settled and agreed to change its policies, leaving a bitter taste in Trump’s mouth.
By the time he ran for office, Trump viewed the justice system through a political lens. He led rally crowds in “lock her up” chants as he suggested he would imprison his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was investigated but not prosecuted for improper handling of classified information — much as he is now suspected of doing.
After winning, Trump saw law enforcement agencies as another institution to bend to his will, firing FBI Director James Comey when he declined to pledge personal loyalty to the president or publicly declare that Trump was not a target of the Russia inquiry. The president later fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from that investigation and therefore not protecting Trump from it.
During his time in office, Trump repeatedly called on the Justice Department and the FBI to investigate his foes and let off his friends. He publicly criticized the prosecutions of campaign advisers like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, eventually reversing their convictions with pardons after they refused to testify against him. He complained when two Republican congressmen were charged shortly before the 2018 midterm elections because it could cost the party seats.
Frustrated with Wray, Trump sought to install a more supportive director at the FBI in 2020, backing down after protests by Attorney General William Barr. By that fall, as the president trailed in the polls for reelection, he pushed for the prosecution of Biden’s son Hunter and lashed out at Barr and Wray for not prosecuting Democrats like the elder Biden and Barack Obama because of the Russia inquiry.
“These people should be indicted,” Trump said. “This was the greatest political crime in the history of our country, and that includes Obama and it includes Biden.”
After losing his bid for a second term, Trump ultimately disregarded his son’s advice and did not fire Wray, but in his final weeks in office pushed the Justice Department to help him overturn the election. Barr rebuffed Trump and publicly rejected the false election claims before resigning.
Trump repeatedly pressed Barr’s successor, Jeffrey Rosen, to go along with his scheme to discredit the election results and came close to firing him when he would not and installing an ally who would, Jeffrey Clark. The president was blocked only when told that every senior Justice Department official would resign in protest.
That was his last chance to influence law enforcement from the inside, at least for now. So from the outside, he rails against what he calls the injustice of a law enforcement agency run by his own appointee.