White House

The FBI Tramples Our Political Order

(Jim Bourg/Reuters)
The FBI should brush up on the powers of the chief executive.

The FBI took it upon itself to determine whether the president of the United States is a threat to national security.

No one had ever before thought that this was an appropriate role for the FBI, a subordinate agency in the executive branch, but Donald Trump isn’t the only one in Washington trampling norms. 

The New York Times reported the astonishing news. “Counterintelligence investigators,” the paper writes, “had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security.” U.S. presidents over the decades have made many foolhardy decisions that have undermined our security; never before have they been deemed a fit subject for an FBI investigation. 

The proximate cause for the probe into Trump was his firing of FBI director James Comey, which the FBI considered both a potential crime and a national-security matter because it might shut down the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. 

Even if they were shocked by the treatment of Comey, top FBI officials should have been able to quickly ascertain that the Russia investigation continued unimpeded — indeed, it is still ongoing today. 

If the Times reporting is correct, the FBI grew more suspicious of Trump’s conduct based on comments that have been widely misunderstood. Among the bill of particulars:

—During the campaign, he urged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. Trump clearly meant this line sardonically, though. 

—The GOP platform allegedly was softened toward Russia. Never mind that, as Byron York of the Washington Examiner has demonstrated, this didn’t actually happen. 

—And in his Lester Holt interview after the Comey firing, Trump said that “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” The president added, it’s worth noting, that he knew firing Comey probably extended the investigation rather than shortened it. 

More legitimately, agents were disturbed by Trump’s continual praise for Vladimir Putin. These comments were blameworthy, but not a federal offense. 

The Times implies that foreign policy played into the FBI internal debate whether to investigate Trump. “Many involved in the case,” the paper reports, “viewed Russia as the chief threat to American democratic values.” That is an entirely defensible and perhaps correct view (China is the other candidate for the dubious distinction). But there is no warrant for the FBI letting it influence the momentous decision whether to investigate a president of the United States.

As part of the executive branch, the FBI should brush up on the powers of the chief executive. The president gets to fire subordinate executive-branch officials. He gets to meet with and talk to foreign leaders. He gets to make policy toward foreign nations. Especially important to the current investigation, he gets to say foolish, ill-informed, and destructive things.

If the president wants to tilt toward Russia (not that Trump really has, except in his words), he can. If he wants to butter up China’s dictatorial president during high-stakes trade negotiations, he can. If he wants to announce a precipitous withdrawal from Syria and make it slightly less precipitous in a fog of confusion, he can.

And the FBI should have nothing to say about it.

The Times story is another sign that we have forgotten the role of our respective branches of government. It is Congress that exists to check and investigate the president, not the FBI. Congress can inveigh against his foreign policy and constrain his options. It can build a case for not reelecting him and perhaps impeach him. These are all actions to be undertaken out in the open by politically accountable players, so the public can make informed judgments about them. 

Perhaps the Times report is exaggerated, or the FBI has serious evidence of a criminally corrupt quid pro quo between Trump and Moscow that there’s no public indication of yet.

Otherwise, the Times story is a damning account of an offense against our political order, and not by Donald Trump.

© 2019 by King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Hillary Ruins the Plan

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the first in a series of excerpts.  There really was a collusion plot. It really did target our election system. It absolutely sought to usurp our capacity for ... Read More

Another Pop-Culture Christian Loses His Faith

It’s happened again. For the second time in three weeks, a prominent (at least in Evangelical circles) Christian has renounced his faith. In July, it was Josh Harris, a pastor and author of the mega-best-selling purity-culture book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This month, it’s Hillsong United songwriter and ... Read More

Max Boot’s Dishonesty

Before yesterday, my primary criticism of the Washington Post’s Max Boot was political in nature. As I wrote in a recent book review, I found it regrettable that Boot’s opposition to the president had not prevented him from “succumbing reactively to Trump’s cult of personality, or from making Trump the ... Read More

A Brief History of Election Meddling

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the second in a series of excerpts. ‘The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Thus spoke President Barack Obama just a couple of weeks before ... Read More

The End of Hong Kong as We Know It

The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than four months now, and no matter how the current crisis concludes in the coming days or weeks, it will mark the end of Hong Kong as we know it. The protests started in response to an extradition bill that was proposed by the city’s Beijing-backed ... Read More