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The GOP’s anti-FBI turn, explained

Republicans’ war on the FBI is really about protecting Trump.

Wray speaks into a microphone at the hearing.
FBI Director Christopher Wray testifies during a Senate Judiciary hearing about the Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Larry Nassar investigation on Capitol Hill on September 15, 2021, in Washington, DC. 
Graeme Jennings/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Republicans grilled FBI Director Christopher Wray about the agency’s investigations into former President Donald Trump during a hearing Wednesday, offering a reminder of just how far the party is willing to go to protect the former president.

The hearing stretched on for hours, with Republicans repeatedly advancing their idea that the FBI has become a political weapon Democrats use against Trump — and conservatives more broadly.

Rep. Harriet Hageman (R-WY), for instance, argued that the FBI was promoting a “two-tier justice system” that has been used to “persecute people based on their political beliefs.” And Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA) contended that the FBI had become “a political tool of the Biden administration,” characterizing its raid of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate last summer as an example of how “conservative political opponents” have been targeted.

Wray, a Republican appointed by Trump, called those depictions “insane.”

“I would disagree with your characterization of the FBI and certainly your description of my own approach,” Wray said. “The idea that I’m biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me, given my own personal background.”

The hearing was just the latest reflection of how strongly Republicans have turned against the law enforcement agencies that have sought to investigate Trump, their ideological standard-bearer and 2024 presidential frontrunner.

With Trump now facing federal charges in the classified documents case investigated by the FBI, many Republicans are wrestling with how to reconcile their absolute support for the former president with the notion that they are the party of “law and order.” Some far-right members of Congress are even calling on their peers to defund or dismantle the FBI, and that’s an awkward battle cry for a party that claims to “always back the blue.”

Republicans’ longstanding political attacks on the FBI and other law enforcement agencies

Republicans’ war on the FBI goes back to 2016, when then-FBI Director James Comey, a registered Republican for most of his life, decided not to seek charges against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. She had stored emails from her time as secretary of state, including discussions about classified information, on a private, unsecured server that the agency found may have been vulnerable to hackers. But Comey concluded that there was no evidence that Clinton intended to commit a crime, which would have been required to indict her for mishandling classified information. GOP lawmakers nevertheless decried what they believed was political favoritism.

Republicans went on to attack the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Special counsel Robert Mueller found in 2019 that Trump’s campaign didn’t conspire with Russia to influence the 2016 election (but may have colluded with Russians) and identified multiple examples in which Trump possibly sought to obstruct justice during his investigation. He did not recommend that Trump be referred for criminal prosecution, in part because of longstanding Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

In response, Trump blasted what he argued was unfair treatment by the FBI and called the investigation the “Russia hoax,” while often repeating the phrase “no collusion.” He spawned a four-year (now-failed) investigation by Trump-era special counsel John Durham into what he argued was a criminal conspiracy to frame him.

Attacks on the FBI have only escalated in the wake of January 6 and Trump’s classified documents probe. Republicans took control of the House in 2022, elevating many of Trump’s congressional allies to positions of power. Now, those allies are escalating accusatory rhetoric to actual investigations.

The House GOP is using its newfound power to investigate federal law enforcement

Though political attacks on the FBI may have started with Trump, they’ve now spawned a broader movement on the right to overhaul and even defund and dismantle the bureau. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, came out with a report earlier this week proposing reforms to the structure and mandate of the FBI that it argued were necessary to protect Americans from “politicized national security agencies.” Among their recommendations was to repeal the 10-year term for the FBI director and instead allow each president to appoint leadership at the FBI — a measure that would make the bureau more political, not less so.

Meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress have sought to go further in defunding or even dismantling the FBI. Among them are Republicans Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, Republican Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene of Georgia. Those calls haven’t manifested in successful legislation yet, though an early version of the Republican proposal for a deal on raising the debt limit earlier this year would have cut $10 billion from federal law enforcement agencies including the FBI.

Even Trump himself backed the movement in April: “Republicans in Congress should defund the DOJ and FBI until they come to their senses. The Democrats have totally weaponized law enforcement in our country and are viciously using this abuse of power to interfere with our already under siege elections!”

As that statement suggests, it’s not just the FBI that’s become a target of Republicans. Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading two separate investigations of Trump, has been frequently accused by Republicans of misusing his prosecutorial power since Trump was indicted in Florida in the classified documents case.

So, too, has Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who was the first official to indict Trump in March in connection to hush money payments he made to the porn star Stormy Daniels during his 2016 campaign. Before the charges were even filed in that case, Jordan claimed that Bragg had committed an “unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial authority.” Once the indictment was made public, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said that Bragg had “irreparably damaged our country in an attempt to interfere in our Presidential election” and “weaponized our sacred system of justice against President Trump.”

And the Justice Department more broadly has been the subject of rancor as well. Some Republicans have argued that Hunter Biden, the president’s son, got off easy in a DOJ plea deal in a case about his taxes and business dealings, which allowed him to avoid prosecution for a felony firearm possession charge. (His allies have argued that it’s unusual for the DOJ to pursue such firearm charges against nonviolent offenders.) Jordan has called for a special counsel in the Hunter Biden investigation, and House Republicans have called for a deeper inquiry into the matter.

President Joe Biden is also under investigation by the DOJ and Republican-led committees in the House in connection to the classified documents found in a locked closet at a University of Pennsylvania center where he kept an office between 2017 and 2020 and his residence in Wilmington. Trump himself and his Republican allies have argued that his retaining of classified documents is no different, and that he has been unfairly charged in his own documents case. (Biden’s aides, however, have said that they immediately turned over the documents upon finding them, unlike Trump, who is accused of willfully retaining classified documents in defiance of a subpoena.)

When asked about the impact that kind of rhetoric has law enforcement’s ability to carry out its mission, FBI Agents Association President Brian O’Hare referenced an op-ed he wrote for Fox News in which he argued that “our nation’s opinion leaders and policymakers should not be sowing seeds of mistrust.”

“Smearing the FBI and Special Agents with inflammatory allegations can only erode the foundations of our partnerships that are so important to our work,” he said.

Correction, July 14, 12:40 pm ET: A previous version of this story misidentified Rep. Matt Gaetz as a member of the House Freedom Caucus. He has never been a member.

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