Defund… the F.B.I.?

Christopher Wray
F.B.I. director Christopher Wray. Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP
Julia Ioffe
August 9, 2022

It’s amazing that we didn’t find out about the daylong F.B.I. raid on Mar-a-Lago until after it ended, and even more amazing that news of it didn’t leak until Donald Trump himself unofficially announced it in a deeply whiny press release. (“They even broke into my safe!”) The news blew up the news cycle in a way that only Trump news can, a throwback to the bad old days of the man’s presidency. In many ways, it brought some extremely expected reactions from different corners of the political spectrum: liberals gloated and right-wingers cried foul. Democrats held up the raid as justice delayed but delivered; Republicans pointed to it as still more evidence of a tyrannical “Regime” bent on destroying them and any dissenters. 

But it did produce one deeply unexpected wrinkle in the political universe. Two years after Republicans made quick work of tying even the most moderate Democrats to their more progressive colleagues who called to “defund the police,” attempting to sink them in the 2020 elections, Republicans took to social media last night to loudly call for defunding, well, federal law enforcement. 

Marjorie Taylor Greene, who by now needs no introduction, led the charge by declaring, simply, “DEFUND THE F.B.I.!” Others quickly followed. Erick Erickson, the conservative commentator who went from Never Trump to Always Trump, tweeted that, even as he struggles to form an opinion about what happened, he can already say that the F.B.I. should “be in line for defunding right behind the I.R.S.” The white nationalist House Republican Paul Gosar went so far as to call the F.B.I. “brown shirts” and to demand their “dismantling and elimination.” A Republican state representative from Florida who is running for Congress, Anthony Sabatini, said local Florida law enforcement should arrest F.B.I. agents on sight and that “it’s time to completely gut the F.B.I. and D.O.J.” Russ Vought, a conservative think tanker, went on Fox News, to preach the same gospel: defund the F.B.I. In a matter of hours, the idea had spread like wildfire.

It’s not news that the MAGA wing of the G.O.P.—a Venn diagram that is increasingly looking like a simple circle—hates the F.B.I. It’s a blood feud that goes back to Jim Comey and Robert Mueller, to Russiagate and wiretapping warrants, and the anti-Trump text messages of a couple of canoodling F.B.I. agents in 2016. The animus isn’t new. What’s different now is the defunding message, lifted straight from the playbook of the progressive left, whom these people cast as antifa radicals hellbent on destroying America by advocating for such things as… defunding the police.

It is also deeply ironic, if you can call it that. When the national spotlight finally turned on law enforcement killing unarmed Black civilians, Republicans saw the call to “defund the police” as offensively unpatriotic. When the F.B.I. came after a former president who obstructed justice, flushed public records down the toilet, and did all kinds of other things that, let’s just say, weren’t extremely friendly with the law, it was suddenly time to get serious about defunding law enforcement. Funny how that works.

It’ll be interesting to see where this goes. Does this become nothing more than just another coopting and weaponization of a term from the left—like “woke”—or one that was originally designed, like “fake news,” to criticize the right? Or does it become something more serious, if and when the G.O.P. takes the House in November? They don’t have the power to defund the F.B.I., let alone dismantle it, but they can make life miserable for Merrick Garland, Christopher Wray, and any number of D.O.J. and F.B.I. officials, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already threatened to do. “Attorney General Garland,” McCarthy tweeted on Monday night, “preserve your documents and clear your calendar.”

Is the “Juice” Worth the “Squeeze”?

Meanwhile, from the center on leftward, there are plenty of political observers who worry, as one former D.O.J. official put it, that “the squeeze isn’t worth the juice.” In other words, if, as now seems likely, the F.B.I. raid was intended to retrieve classified information, Trump’s allies will make mountain ranges of political hay out of the fact that the F.B.I. raided the home of a former president to retrieve, essentially, a few pieces of paper. 

It won’t matter to them that being a former president does not confer any kind of legal immunity. Nor will it matter that the D.O.J. presumably had probable cause that a crime had been committed and that the evidence of said crime was at this one location, and this was the only way to get it. And, of course, it won’t matter that, on his way to the White House in 2016, Trump made so much of Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information that his supporters began chanting “lock her up” at his rallies—and they still do. After all, there is nothing more boring in this town than tales of hypocrisy.

Because of all that, when the dust settles, the raid might very well end up looking disproportionate: the armor-plated F.B.I. violated the tropical sanctum of a former president for… what, exactly? A few pieces of paper with a red stamp on them? And this, of course, will feed the right-wing dystopian narrative about a “Regime” that will bring down the full force of its coercive machinery on those that dare to stand up to it. 

For liberals and other Trump critics, I predict, this will be a disappointment. After all the misconduct that Trump and his associates engaged in for four years, the raid of Mar-a-Lago won’t be for staging a coup to overturn American democracy or about colluding with Vladimir Putin but about… a few pieces of paper. 

That’s not to say that more shoes won’t drop, but I’ve heard some surprise in town that, after all the heat Garland has taken for his caution and circumspection, the first round of fireworks is over, of all things, mishandled classified material. But then again, said a former D.O.J. official, rules are rules, and if you’d do this for anyone else suspected of mishandling classified information, you have to do it here, too—former president or not. “As we’ve learned,” the former official reminded me, “the act of trying to not be political is itself a political act.”