WASHINGTON: This is not the country I live in.
In my country — in our country — the ruler does not call in the head of the state police and demand proof of loyalty. That is because in our country the ruler is an elected, term-limited official, and the state police is, or is supposed to be, an independent, professionalized entity.
Indeed, the FBI director is granted a 10-year term, longer than any president, not merely to constrain the director’s power (to save us from another J. Edgar Hoover) but to shield the director from being the tool of any particular president.
As Susan Hennessy, writing in Lawfare, reminded us after President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey — just the second director fired in the history of the bureau — the 10-year term was established in the wake of Richard Nixon’s abuses of the FBI during Watergate, including an acting director who resigned after revelations that he was giving the White House daily updates on the probe and had destroyed relevant documents. Now that was loyalty.
Trump, as Comey testified, pressed Comey to pledge similar fealty. And now we know, from the Washington Post, that Trump summoned Comey’s temporary successor, shortly after Comey’s firing, for a get-to-know-you session in which the pleasantries quickly turned sinister: Trump wanted to know whether Andrew McCabe had voted for him or for his opponent.
McCabe, the Post reports, gave an answer that was true, conveniently exculpatory — and disquieting: He had not voted for president. But I wish McCabe had said his vote was none of anyone’s business unless he chose to share it, and certainly none of the president’s, given the need for the FBI to remain independent and unpoliticized.
Trump being Trump, it didn’t end there. According to the Post, the president also “vented his anger at McCabe” over money that flowed to his wife’s state Senate campaign from a political action committee controlled by a Hillary Clinton ally. No surprise that this enraged Trump, who makes no distinction between family and business. Both exist to serve his interests. The notion that a husband and wife could pursue individual careers and take pains to keep them separate would never occur to Trump.
Of course, the president gets to name political appointees and take party into account. But a history lesson is in order here: President Jimmy Carter named a Republican, William H. Webster, to head the FBI. President Bill Clinton named a Republican, Louis Freeh, to the job. President Barack Obama extended the term of then-FBI Director Robert Mueller, a Republican, for two years. Then he named another Republican, Comey.
That bipartisanship is no accident. Politics is supposed to stop at law enforcement’s edge — a norm that rankles Trump.
The best witness on this, as always, is Trump himself: “You know, the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said last November. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I’m very frustrated by it.”
No doubt. Trump is not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department and the FBI because of the imperative that the power they wield not be used to punish political enemies, and the accompanying imperative that the public be able to trust in the department’s impartiality.
Thus the George W. Bush Justice Department prosecuted Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. The Obama Justice Department prosecuted former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards. Both cases were flawed, but that strengthens my point about the need for apolitical justice. Now the Trump Justice Department has decided to seek a retrial in the case of Sen. Robert Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat originally indicted during the Obama administration. How can the public now be confident that this move is untainted by politics?
Once again, the what-about-ists shout: What about the five months’ worth of missing text messages between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page? What about the “secret society” of FBI agents supposedly dedicated to exonerating Clinton and framing Trump? Certainly, it was correct for Mueller, upon learning of the Strzok texts, to remove him from the Russia probe. By all means, let’s figure out what happened to the texts and determine whether there was other misconduct.
But let us not allow the fevered cries of conspiracy to distract us from the chilling fact: We live, for now, in a country whose president chafes at the independence of the Justice Department. To Trump, that is not a feature, but a bug.
Marcus is a Washington Post columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ruth Marcus: Not the question a president asks
WASHINGTON: This is not the country I live in.