Republican outrage over the FBI’s search of former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home follows years of growing skepticism and distrust of the agency shaped by Trump’s own bitter attacks against probes into his 2016 campaign.
It is now culminating in a GOP, the traditional party of law and order, that at times looks like it is in a political war with the FBI.
Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), in response to the FBI seizing Rep. Scott Perry’s (R-Pa.) cell phone on Tuesday, described the situation as a “hot war between the embedded elements of big government and conservatives who threaten their existence.”
The fire has also come from Trump himself, who is flirting with conspiracy theories about the FBI planting evidence at Mar-a-Lago.
The FBI conducted a search of Trump’s winter home on Monday, reportedly as part of an investigation related to classified documents.
It’s an unprecedented search. But the GOP outrage itself has been particularly sharp, referencing deeper distrust.
GOP firebrands who opposed defunding the police, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), want to “defund the FBI.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) said that the Justice Department “has reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.”
And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, like Trump a possible presidential contender in 2024, called the search “another escalation in the weaponization of federal agencies against the regime’s political opponents.”
The animosity raises all kinds of questions for the FBI.
It may pose risks for the agency’s near-term future, since if the GOP takes back the House or the Senate majorities, it will have the power of the purse.
Much more important could be the long-lasting effects. The FBI’s status as a source of policing authority may be at risk when most leaders of one of the nation’s two major parties are casting doubt on its credibility.
It’s yet another firestorm of the Trump era testing national institutions.
“There’s a dangerous possibility that we are moving in a direction where we have one party that sort of across the board doesn’t trust institutions, doesn’t trust the media, doesn’t trust the courts … doesn’t trust federal government employees writ large, doesn’t trust federal law enforcement,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of the ethics watchdog CREW and a former federal prosecutor.
“You start to dismantle those institutions and then, you know, a lot of the things that keep us safe and healthy and doing as a society the things that we should do, stop working,” Bookbinder said.
The bad blood between the FBI and GOP has been stoked for years by Trump and his allies, and goes back to the investigation surrounding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
That probe actually culminated in then-FBI Director James Comey issuing a letter just more than a week before the 2016 election reopening a probe into Clinton — who blames the move for costing her the election to Trump.
Yet it is the right that also takes its grievances back to that probe.
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, noted the findings in a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz on the FBI’s actions in advance of the 2016 election.
“That report is so shocking and so filled with wrongdoing by the FBI agents that it’s hard to have any reaction other than a lack of confidence in the FBI,” von Spakovsky said.
Among the report’s findings were that text messages between special counsel Lisa Page and FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok critical of Trump “cast a cloud” over its investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified information as secretary of State.
It also raised issues about warrants that allowed the FBI to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The Justice Department has declared two of the four warrants invalid.
Horwitz’s report, however, found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” by the FBI.
Van Spakovsky also said that Comey “damaged the reputation of the FBI enormously when he basically decided to let Hillary Clinton off” — not charge her with a crime — “even though it was clear that she had mishandled classified material.”
Through a number of those probes, including special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s campaign, Trump went further and declared a political “witch hunt” intended to keep him from power.
“There has always been skepticism of law enforcement, you know, within the government, the FBI, the CIA … All of those doubts that had already been there. [Trump] stoked them and used them, ultimately, to his advantage,” said Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University–Camden. “I don’t think you can discount the significant role that he played” in sowing distrust, she added.
Trust in the FBI among the Republican-leaning public has sharply dropped as Trump came to power and Republicans circulated details about FBI activities, Gallup public opinion surveys show.
Republicans who said that the department was doing an excellent or good job were at 59 percent in 2014, 48 percent in 2019, and 26 percent in 2021. Democrats’ approval of the agency has remained relatively steady, from 61 percent in 2014, 64 percent in 2019, and 66 percent in 2021. Among independents, approval fell from 58 percent in 2019 to 41 percent in 2021.
Democrats’ opinion of the FBI is now higher than it was nearly two decades ago in 2003, when 45 percent said the FBI was doing an excellent or good job. It was 62 percent for Republicans at that time.
Suspicion of a politically motivated federal law enforcement has stretched to other areas of investigation, such as Republicans alleging that the FBI tracked parents who criticized school boards and other alleged political bias at the department.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has said that “multiple Justice Department whistleblowers” approached his office about alleged political bias in the department revolving around election and campaign finance investigations and matters revolving around Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son.
The search warrant execution at Trump’s home has further ignited suspicions. GOP congressional leaders have called on the Justice Department to explain its reasoning for the warrant, expressing concerns about an actual or appearance of a politicized department.
Distrust is so rampant among the GOP, most think it will be a long time for a relationship to heal.
“There’s got to be a sweeping out of staff and personnel in the Washington headquarters and the Washington Field Office,” Van Spakovsky said.
The FBI no doubt knew it would be picking at these wounds and grievances with the Mar-a-Lago search warrant.
Bookbinder, of CREW, argued that the warrant suggests the FBI had strong legal reasoning for its decision — even if it cannot publicly defend its actions given an active investigation.
“It’s not really appropriate for [the FBI] to be defending themselves politically or responding to a political allegation,” Bookbinder said. “In some ways, the proof is in the pudding, right? That if they bring charges, they’d better have the goods behind them, and you know, and be able to show that there were serious criminal violations and there’s evidence behind them.”