Trump Will Use the FBI as a Weapon Against His Opponents if He Wins Another Term
As President Trump approaches the home stretch for this year’s election, he has repeatedly tried to reprise one of his greatest hits from 2016 — namely, that his opponent should be “locked up” for purported violations of the law. Unfortunately for him, this time, the FBI hasn’t helped: Trump has reportedly been frustrated that his FBI director, Christopher A. Wray, hasn’t delivered an announcement before the election, like his predecessor, James B. Comey, did in 2016, that his opponent is under investigation. Trump has also allegedly discussed firing Wray after the election as a result. Trump’s obsession with the appearance of criminality — rather than any real evidence of substantive wrongdoing — is a window into how he will further weaponize law enforcement for his own political ends if he wins a second term.
Trump’s view of law enforcement as political spectacle — one in which perception, rather than reality, is all that matters — can be traced back to his initial interactions with Comey starting in January 2017. According to Comey’s contemporaneous memos of Trump’s repeated (and inappropriate) contacts with the FBI director, Trump’s overarching preoccupation wasn’t about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, but with getting Comey to state, publicly, that Trump himself was not under investigation. In fact, Trump went to great lengths to get someone, anyone, to make such an announcement, approaching the then-director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and the director of the National Security Agency, Michael S. Rogers, to make a public announcement when Comey refused. (Both Coats and Rogers refused this request as well.) Trump finally made the public declaration himself, including in his letter firing Comey the preface, “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation” before signing on to then-deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein’s argument that Comey was unfit to continue in the job.
These actions reveal that Trump believes that guilt or innocence isn’t about what a jury decides in a courtroom, but about what is announced publicly in the court of public opinion. This was echoed in the sequence of events that led to his impeachment: The president’s focus in his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was whether Zelensky planned to “announce” an investigation into the Bidens — preferably on a widely watched (and apparently, in Trump’s view, credible) news network, like CNN. More than looking for the fruits of any such investigation to help him, Trump believed that the mere cloud of suspicion — especially coming “independently” from a third party, like Ukraine — would do the trick.
Trump’s focus on public statements of investigations, rather than actually pursuing the substance of them, makes sense. After all, Trump doesn’t have control over our judicial system (for now). That means any actual charges would have to be backed up by evidence, and his own Justice Department would have to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt in front of a jury. We saw how this weakness in Trump’s strategy played out in his repeated proclamations about “Obamagate” — a vague and unspecified basket of crimes ostensibly committed by Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, which gained a lot of traction in right-wing media circles until it fell flat when it turned out that investigating U.S. Attorney John Bash didn’t actually uncover anything illegal. It’s in Trump’s interest to generate as much suspicion of wrongdoing as possible, without having to specify the crimes committed or test them against actual facts — and that’s what public announcements, rather than real investigations, achieve.
But in a second term, with different people running the FBI, this could become even more dangerous. Trump’s concern with the appearance of criminality means that a future FBI toady could “announce” investigations of Trump’s opponents whenever it is politically convenient, and on Trump’s deadlines, without ever bringing any charges (or even pursuing them in the first place). With an FBI willing to prop up his imaginary investigations, Trump would have endless fodder not only to substantiate his claims of criminality against his political opponents, but also to gin up fear against so-called domestic terrorists like antifa, or provide “proof” of a system rigged against him through things like widespread voter fraud. For now, those claims have not gained traction outside right-wing circles because of Wray’s public statements to the contrary.
We have known for some time that Trump sees the Justice Department as his own personal law firm: Attorney General William P. Barr has taken on and advanced causes well outside his professional purview, like promoting the drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for coronavirus, or defending the president against a rape allegation that would have occurred before he took office. His new director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, has similarly distorted and declassified intelligence to fit Trump’s preferred narrative. Firing Wray would help Trump expand his political reach into the FBI, allowing him to make law enforcement a further extension of his own propaganda.
The FBI’s unwillingness, under Wray, to validate Trump’s narrative might be the last institutional check we have against the president’s manufactured reality. If Trump wins and is able to replace Wray with a yes-man (or woman) like Barr or Ratcliffe, there will be no way for the country’s most powerful federal law enforcement agency to push back on Trump’s claims. And when it comes to his enemies, the danger won’t be that Trump will actually “lock them up” — it’s that he won’t even bother trying, instead conveniently keeping his opponents under a perpetual cloud of suspicion.
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