GOP animus toward federal law enforcement intensifies

A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Ramin Talaie/Getty)
A US Department of Justice seal is displayed on a podium during a news conference on Dec. 11, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who oversees the Senate committee on domestic security, appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday and made clear he's not especially pleased with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. "My concern with Special Counsel Mueller is he's so close to the FBI," the Republican lawmaker argued before complaining about the FBI's examination of Hillary Clinton's emails.

It struck a dissonant note: since when do GOP senators look askance at officials who are "close" to federal law enforcement?

This morning, Johnson's ally in the Oval Office went a little further. Donald Trump published this tweet on the subject:

"So sad that the Department of 'Justice' and the FBI are slow walking, or even not giving, the unredacted documents requested by Congress. An embarrassment to our country!"

Note, of course, the scare-quotes around "Justice," as if the DOJ's commitment to the justice system is in doubt -- according to the president who is ostensibly responsible for executing federal law.

Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, whom Trump fired last year for giving him good legal advice, responded to the president's missive soon after: "For 27 years, I was privileged to work with the thousands of career DOJ lawyers and FBI agents who work hard every day to keep our country safe, our rights protected, and the rule of law intact. They deserve better than this."

I think that's right, though I think the country deserves better, too. We've never seen a president engage in such a concerted effort to undermine public confidence in federal law enforcement.

It was just a few months ago that Trump insisted that the FBI's reputation is "in Tatters" and is now the "worst in History." In February. he added, "The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process."

A month later, the president went after the bureau again, calling it "disgraceful" that Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn't done more to investigate the FBI.

The politics of the issue has been turned on its ear. In theory, Trump wants to be perceived as a champion of law enforcement. But in practice, the president is at the center of an ongoing criminal investigation -- several people in his orbit have already been charged with felonies -- which in his mind, necessarily means he has to lash out at law enforcement as his enemy.

What's more, the offensive goes beyond harsh rhetoric. When House Republicans wanted to disclose classified information as part of a partisan scheme, Trump thumbed his nose at FBI warnings and gave GOP lawmakers the green light. This is the same president who fired dozens of U.S. attorneys under unusual circumstances. He also fired an FBI director. And a deputy FBI director. And an acting attorney general.

The conventional wisdom has long been that federal law enforcement tends to be conservative and looks to Republican presidents as allies. As Trump becomes openly hostile toward the FBI and the Justice Department -- in ways without modern precedent -- it's clearly time to rethink those assumptions.

As we discussed several weeks ago, the traditional ties between Republican politics and law enforcement appear to be fraying in ways that would've been hard to predict in the recent past.