President Trump can’t fire the FBI.
Minutes before ridding himself of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, Trump answered a question about the Russia investigation at a White House news conference: “I could end it right now. I could say, ‘That investigation is over.’ ”
He could try.
He could order Sessions’s replacement, Matthew G. Whitaker, who has mused wistfully about stifling the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, to play the role of political assassin. He could direct Whitaker to cut the special counsel’s budget to zero. He could tell him to limit the inquiry’s scope. He could try to oust Mueller and to make sure his investigative report never sees the light of day. He could fire the FBI director, Christopher Wray — just as he fired the previous director, James Comey, last year — and put a political puppet in his place.
He could do any or all of these things, as politically foolhardy and constitutionally perilous as they might seem, while the Republicans who control the Senate look on and do nothing.
But short of sending tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue and blowing the J. Edgar Hoover Building to smithereens, Trump cannot stop the FBI. No commander in chief ever has, not before Hoover died 46 years ago, and certainly not since.
The 21st-century FBI, for all its flaws, has escaped the darkness of Hoover’s shadow, a legacy of warrantless wiretapping and vengeful attacks against the director’s enemies. It is in great part the creation of Mueller, who ran it from 2001 to 2013. It is decidedly not a political tool to be manipulated by presidents. It is as independent as a hog on ice — once launched, it has a mind of its own. I’ve been convinced of this while working on a five-hour documentary about how the FBI has confronted presidents who violated their oath of office. (“Enemies ” debuts Nov. 18 on Showtime.) The FBI has faced down five commanders in chief who threatened to run the ship of state aground: in the Watergate scandal, in the Iran-contra imbroglio, in the Monica Lewinsky affair, in the matter of post-9/11 spying on Americans and in its criminal investigation of the Trump team. Its record isn’t perfect, but it has by and large upheld the rule of law.
In no case was a president able to disrupt or derail an FBI investigation. In every case the bureau preserved evidence, pursued facts and persevered. The truth is that the FBI has the power to say no to presidents, but presidents can’t easily say no to the FBI.
Presidents have been caught bending and even breaking the bounds set by their oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution. The bureau can check them with its immense investigative force, which gives it the ability to execute subpoenas and seize records inside the West Wing, to reveal the deepest secrets and expose the boldest lies: “I’m not a crook.” “We did not — repeat, did not — trade weapons or anything else for hostages.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman. ” The FBI proved these presidential statements false.
The FBI can’t thwart Trump’s long train of abuses against the Constitution, common sense and common decency. But in time — since neither can Trump cavalierly counteract the momentum of the evidence accumulating against him and his close confidants -- it may establish that he is a common crook.
President George W. Bush couldn’t stop Mueller, then the FBI director, from compelling him to scale back his illegal eavesdropping on Americans. “I am forced to withdraw the FBI from participation in the program,” Mueller wrote in a letter he carried to the White House in 2004. If the president did not back down, “I would be constrained to resign as Director of the FBI.” (Senior Justice Department officials, including Comey and, lest we forget, Wray, also threatened to resign in protest.) Bush backed down.
President Bill Clinton couldn’t stop the FBI from drawing blood from his arm; the DNA evidence proved he had lied under oath about his sex life. That led directly to his impeachment.
[Republicans took oversight power from the minority. Democrats should restore it.]
President Ronald Reagan couldn’t stop the FBI from raiding the National Security Council’s offices, where agents found proof that the United States had sold weapons to Iran and skimmed the profits to finance the Central American counterrevolutionaries known as the contras, aid that Congress had expressly forbidden. The bureau’s work resulted in the indictments of 12 top national security officials. President George H.W. Bush pardoned the Iran-contra gang, but a law-breaking administration had been caught red-handed and brought to heel by the FBI.
Not even Richard Nixon could stop the G-men. God knows he tried. Trump is no student of history, but he would do well to recall Nixon’s battle with the bureau.
When Hoover died in May 1972 — six weeks before the Watergate break-in — Nixon installed a politically loyal stooge, L. Patrick Gray, in his place. “You’ve got to be a conspirator,” Nixon counseled Gray. “You’ve got to be totally ruthless.” Nixon tried to sabotage the FBI as soon as it started looking into the break-in, ordering the CIA to obstruct the bureau’s investigation, on spurious national security grounds. Gray destroyed devasting evidence linking the White House to the Watergate burglars. But to a man, the FBI agents on the case fought furiously against Gray’s attempts to undermine them.