On Wednesday, The Washington Post took us behind the scenes into what it reports were heated debates between FBI agents and Justice Department prosecutors over whether to search for classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, or close the case altogether. Like any glimpse at the proverbial sausage being made, the revelations weren’t pretty, and the raw details were difficult to digest.
Rigorous — and even loud — disagreements between FBI agents and federal prosecutors frequently happen in complex, high-stakes cases.
The truth is that rigorous — and even loud — disagreements between FBI agents and federal prosecutors frequently happen in complex, high-stakes cases. That’s a sign of a healthy collaborative environment. So the fact that there were disagreements on how or if to proceed with an investigation into Trump isn’t necessarily a problem. But I’m convinced that these disagreements arose in part because of the attacks Trump has launched against the FBI, and that’s a serious concern.
The newspaper cites four officials with knowledge of the case who say that “months of disputes,” beginning in May 2022, involved at least “two senior agents” in the FBI’s Washington field office who resisted a plan to use a search warrant “and proposed instead to seek Trump’s permission to search his property.” The FBI pushback led to an incremental, and perhaps prudent, step: the issuance of a subpoena for the records and a June 3 visit to Mar-a-Lago. After that June visit, during which the Trump team had asserted it had turned over everything, some of the officials who spoke to The Washington Post said some FBI agents “wanted to shutter the criminal investigation altogether.”
Even after a video showing a Trump employee moving boxes from where other classified documents were stored and even after witnesses indicated there were still more classified documents on the property, according to The Washington Post, two officials with knowledge of the investigation said the head of the FBI’s Washington field office told prosecutors he would only lead an execution of a warrant if ordered to do so.
Why did this happen? How did the FBI get to the point where some of its field office officials reportedly lost the compass that’s supposed to point them to the correct path? Why was there such a protracted delay in seeking and executing the Mar-a-Lago warrant, and why were some FBI agents reportedly wanting to treat the Trump case differently than other cases involving an uncooperative, deceptive former government employee?
I’ve got three theories. Some FBI agents may have been responding to growing perceptions that their beloved institution had become too political. Some may have been remembering the unfair treatment of previous FBI agents and leaders who got on the wrong side of Trump, and still others may have been acting out of political allegiance with the former president. If either of my three theories is correct, it suggests that Trump’s bullying of the FBI has worked to his advantage.
Report: FBI fought with DOJ over Trump searchMarch 2, 202304:13
As for the idea that some agents may have been concerned about the public’s perception of the agency, keep in mind that for the FBI to succeed, the public must trust the bureau and believe in its credibility. However, Trump and his allies launched, and continue to launch, withering attacks on that trust and credibility. For example, Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, now leads a House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government that has the FBI squarely in its sights.
Bashing of the FBI by Trump and others compelled me to write a book defending the agency’s values-based approach to its mission. Putting our key institutions, like the FBI, on the defensive and having them second-guess the rule of law, is an almost inevitable byproduct — perhaps even the objective — of a MAGA mindset hell-bent on eroding the public’s faith in government.
How did the FBI get to the point where some of its field office officials reportedly lost the compass that’s supposed to point them to the correct path?
Undoubtedly, agents assigned to the Trump documents case must have been keenly aware of the inevitable media maelstrom that would follow a search of a former president’s residence. And, indeed, far-right factions slammed the search of Mar-a-Lago as FBI “tyranny.” But agents ought not to be giving priority to the bureau’s public perception over its imperative to defend the nation, even when there’s a potentially painful organizational price to pay.
As for those worried about their own reputations, don’t dismiss the toll Trump’s years of personal attacks against FBI personnel may have had. FBI agents are human, and they know that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for simply doing his job and investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and for failing to pledge his loyalty to Trump.
Jeff Sessions, who was attorney general at the time, dismissed Comey’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, 23 hours before McCabe would have become eligible for his pension after a process that lacked any semblance of established procedures for terminating a senior FBI executive. Comey and McCabe were improbably subjected to a highly invasive and rare form of IRS tax audit under Trump’s IRS commissioner. (McCabe challenged his firing and won back his pension.)
Agent Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence official overseeing the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into Russia’s campaign interference, was fired for inappropriate texts with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who was also terminated. They filed lawsuits claiming they were illegally targeted for retribution.
What happened to Comey, McCabe and Strzok might understandably make an otherwise brave FBI agent “gun shy” about certain investigations. After all, Trump has said he’s running for president again, and his GOP stalwarts are in charge of the House of Representatives. Any such concerns about retaliation would be valid.
That third possible explanation for FBI agents’ reluctance to investigate Trump — the one that would be unforgivable — is that some agents may have allowed their personal politics to interfere with their professional decision-making.
What happened to Comey, McCabe and Strzok might understandably make an otherwise brave FBI agent “gun shy” about certain investigations.
That may explain why some agents reportedly suggested the Trump case be closed — even when they were reportedly presented with video evidence of a Trump employee moving boxes of documents, evidence that a Trump attorney signed off on an inaccurate attestation that all classified documents had been turned over after a subpoena was served and information from sources that there were still classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
We’ve already heard about other agents who’ve been disciplined or fired because they allowed their personal politics to alter their professional judgment. As I’ve previously written, at least 14 FBI employees have chosen to challenge valid assignments or question the agency’s domestic terrorism strategy by running to members of Congress who adore Trump.
If agents like that are assigned to one of the highest-profile cases in FBI history — it’s time to find some new agents. Trump’s allies like to claim that the FBI is at war with him, but agents’ reported reluctance to aggressively investigate him, as they would anyone else, reminds us that Trump has long been at war with the FBI. His tactics may have succeeded in eroding the public’s confidence in the bureau, and even some agents' confidence in themselves. But Mar-a-Lago was still searched. So it’s way too early for Trump to declare victory.