Amidst a crescendo of right-wing anger aimed at Robert Mueller and the FBI over the Russia inquiry, President Donald Trump looked past the bureau and held a love fest for the cops it trains at Quantico.
It was Trump’s first speech as president on FBI territory. Only he didn’t direct it at FBI agents, analysts or trainees—but instead at the police officers from around the country and the world whom the bureau instructs for at its National Academy. With Trump’s recent and intensifying criticism of the FBI, which accelerated just before his speech, those officers were a safer venue for applause and adulation.
“Local police cannot investigate the allegations of obstruction of justice by the president, or the Russia collusion, or his suspicious family-business dealings, or be able to indict senior members of his staff, as seen by the Mueller investigation,” noted Ali Soufan, a retired FBI counterterrorism special agent.
Despite the locale and an introduction by his hand-picked FBI director, Chris Wray, Trump barely mentioned the FBI at all. He twice referred to the bureau, saying he had “so many friends in the FBI” and closing with a “thank you to the FBI,” but both references were wrapped in broader praise of law enforcement generally.
“With me as your president, America’s police will have a true friend and loyal champion in the White House, more loyal than anyone else can be,” Trump said in his 20-minute speech, sounding typical Blue Lives Matter-style notes about immigration, violent crime, MS-13, terrorism and the media.
Trump had more direct words for the bureau right before he arrived at Quantico. “When you look at what’s going on with the FBI and the Justice Department, people are very, very angry,” Trump stated—a reference to the paroxysm of anger directed, particularly this week, at the bureau, from the Russia probe to its allegedly insufficient focus on Hillary Clinton. A Lawfare poll, however, showed that the American public is not angry at the FBI.
It’s a presidential ambiguity that leaves the FBI and its future relationship under Trump uncertain at a precarious time—for the bureau, for Mueller and for the legal fortunes of the president’s coterie. Rarely has there been such a wave of criticism directed at the FBI on the right, and particularly on Fox News, all of which amplifies Trump’s sense of persecution over Russia. ("I had nothing to do with Russia, everybody knows,” he insisted before the speech.) The wave hits as special prosecutor Robert Mueller has brought charges against or obtained guilty pleas from four top aides in barely a month.
On December 4, shortly after his former adviser Mike Flynn pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with Mueller, Trump tweeted that the FBI’s reputation was “in Tatters – worst in History!” and vaguely pledged to “bring it back to greatness.” That fueled speculation that Trump will purge the bureau and remake it in his image. For good measure, he continued to take shots at James Comey, the FBI director whom he fired over the Russia inquiry.
Then, on Wednesday, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee turned a hearing with Mueller’s functional overseer, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, into an orgy of anger at the Russia probe. After the bureau turned over texts disparaging Trump from an FBI counterintelligence official whom Mueller had removed from the inquiry this summer, several of them demanded Mueller be fired, the Russia probe itself investigated, and a different special prosecutor empanelled—to investigate Hillary Clinton yet again. Far less noticed were the official’s criticisms of left-of-center figures.
Similarly, the top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, has been warning of late that his GOP counterparts may be looking to announce a conclusion to the Russia probe in the near future. Schiff’s warning raises the prospect that the Republicans will issue a report exonerating Trump of collusion, which will be a useful political cudgel against both Mueller and the counterpart Senate investigation.
Forgotten in the Trump-Russia fight is that Trump has a well of support within the FBI that is deeper than the current headlines might suggest.
Current and former FBI officials in early November 2016 described the FBI as “Trumpland,” both for agents and analysts’ comfort with Trump and their more-evident hostility to Clinton. Demographics may help explain why. Trump’s bedrock base of support, whites, are overrepresented within the bureau. White men, according to the FBI’s most recent diversity statistics, are 67.2 percent of its special agents; white women are another 16.2 percent.
At the same time, Trump’s attacks on the bureau throughout 2017 may have taken an internal toll. In contradiction to Trump’s presentations of a bureau rebelling against its old leader, FBI officials registered high regard for Comey, whom Trump has sought to paint as a liar.
Enter Trump at the FBI National Academy on Friday morning. He got major applause and laugh lines from the assembled police and their families by vowing unshakeable support for cops and by lambasting their assumed mutual enemies. He took winking, euphemistic shots at immigrants and black people, both of whom he presented as criminals and terrorists; Barack Obama; and the media. In typical Trump fashion, he expressed it all in highly personalized tones.
Police are “overstretched, underfunded and totally under-appreciated, except by me,” Trump said. He attacked “chain migration,” a process by which legal immigrants sponsor their relatives to join them in the U.S., as a pipeline for terrorism, such as the recent attacks in New York City. Trump sounded as if the visa lottery was more akin to a state lotto than a program with eligibility requirements and called on Congress to end both practices.
Trump praised his decision to permit police to obtain surplus military equipment – a practice curbed but not stopped by Obama in the wake of imagery of militarized police confronting protesters angry over unjustified police killings of black people. That’s “something the previous administration for some reason refused to do, explain that one, explain it to me, please, never understood that one,” he said, to applause.
“I want to send a message to those who threaten violence to our police: we will protect those who protect us. And we believe criminals who kill police officers should get the death penalty,” Trump vowed, again to applause.
As is now standard for Trump in such police-focused speeches, the president attacked violence in Baltimore and Chicago, two substantially black cities that right-wing politicians and media often portray as war zones, asking: “what the hell is going on in Chicago… you don’t think the people in this room could stop that? They’d stop that.” He pointed to the “fake news” cameras, saying, in an echo of his infamous campaign-announcement line about immigration: “actually, some of them are fine people. Yeah, about 30 percent.”
If FBI agents were awaiting a clearer signal about Trump’s intentions for them, they will have to wait longer. But they can look to the sheriffs and the cops leaving Quantico to disperse around the country and see the bond Trump has assiduously cultivated with local police.