Depending on who you ask, you can get some pretty disparate views of the role of the nation’s most important law-enforcement bureau.
Certain Democrats were or remain convinced that the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email-server case—from then-Director James Comey’s condemnation of her “extremely careless” behavior to his late-October letter briefly reopening the investigation—was intended to hand the election to Donald Trump. Trump sees a conspiracy, too—to hand the election to Clinton. He’s gone so far as to say that texts between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page constitute “treason.” The bureau’s defenders, meanwhile, would have the public believe that the FBI is an island of objectivity, entirely immune from political considerations and unfairly buffeted by partisans.
Each of these positions is a caricature. Of course the FBI is political—how, as a powerful institution in Washington, with a leader appointed by the president, could it not be?—but its politics are not reducible to partisan allegiance, although its ranks include Democrats and Republicans. Like most bureaucratic institutions, the FBI’s primary loyalty is to its own interests, and when it intervenes in politics, that tends to be in its own service.
That reality comes through in the texts between Strzok and Page, who were reportedly in a romantic relationship. The messages show a pair of FBI employees who indeed detested Trump, but also detested many if not most Washington players in both parties and all institutions, and owed their allegiance to the bureau itself.
Parts of the texts have been previously reported, but the full logs were released by the Senate Homeland Security Committee Tuesday. The president tweeted Wednesday morning that “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!” In fact, the most interesting elements of the texts were long ago reported; the balance is largely banal, much of it consumed with internal politics. (Most of what goes on inside the FBI, it seems, is no more interesting than what goes on inside your office.)
Across the months of texts, Strzok and Page dismiss nearly everyone in politics who comes to their attention. Strzok complains that former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson pushes “a wildly liberal interpretation of immigration responsibilities.” Page “hope[s] Paul Ryan fails and crashes in a blaze of glory” and says former top counterterrorism official Richard Clarke “is an uninformed douche.” Strzok finds it “wildly offensive” that former Attorney General Eric Holder’s portrait is hung next to one of Elliot Richardson, who resigned in the Saturday Night Massacre. Later, when Holder speaks at the Democratic National Convention, he urges Page, “Oh God, Holder! Turn it off turn it off turn it off!!!!” Strzok tells Page, “i LOATHE Congress.” A month later, she says, “God i hate Congress. So utterly worthless.” Strzok replies, “Less than worthless. Contemptible.” They aren’t fans of Ted Cruz. The veteran political trickster Roger Stone “is horrible,” he says. At one point, the two fiercely debate Dreamers.
Among the few exceptions are Barack Obama and his family, and Joe Biden. During Michelle Obama’s DNC speech, Page writes, “God, she’s an incredibly impressive woman. The Obamas in general, really. While he has certainly made mistakes, I’m proud to have had him as my president.” She also says, “I really really like Joe Biden.” Strzok replies, “Was literally grabbing phone to say Joe’s doing great!” There is praise for the centrist conservative columnists David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan, too.
Strzok and Page especially detested Trump, who they call an “utter idiot” and complain about in many texts. “Trump is a disaster. l have no idea how destabilizing his Presidency would be,” Strzok says. But that doesn’t translate into much affection for Hillary Clinton. Strzok calls himself a “conservative Dem,” and grudgingly acknowledges in March 2016 that he’d vote for Clinton over Trump. (A colleague had him pegged as a John Kasich voter, he said.) But Strzok also says, “I’m worried about what happens if HRC is elected.” He complains that a fact-checker dismissed Bernie Sanders’s criticism of Clinton as too close to fossil-fuel lobbyists even though “everything Sanders said about Clinton is true … This is clear and utter bias by the media especially the NYTIMES, WAPO, and CNN who if you look at all of them have large donors for Clinton. The fact citing source they used is owed by a newspaper which publically endorsed Clinton.”
Frequently, however, the targets for criticism are people and ideas that threaten the FBI. Take Tim Cook, whose Apple refused to unlock an iPhone belonging to a San Bernardino terrorist. Strzok: “What makes me really angry about that Apple thing? The fact that Tim Cook plays such the privacy advocate. Yeah, jerky, your entire OS is designed to track me without me even knowin it.” Page replies, “I know. Hypocrite.” An article about Edward Snowden elicits this commentary from Page: “VOM-IT.VOMIT. Vomit vomitvomit.” Strzok writes, “I’m partial to any woman sending articles about how nasty the Russians are.” She replies, “hate them. l think they’re probably the worst. Very little I find redeeming about this. Even in history. Couple of good writers and artists I guess.” They complain about transparency requirements. Strzok has little use for civil-liberties complaints from Muslims: “There’s about to be an interview on NPR that l know is going to irritate me a Muslim leader who says it’s not their community’s job to look after itself because they’re not quote law enforcement quote.”
More than anything, they seem to revere the institution. A news article’s “whole tone is anti bu[reau],” Strzok complains. At another time he seethes, “I made the mistake of reading some stupid NY Post about how agents are ready to revolt against D”—presumably, Director James Comey—over the Clinton investigation. “There are a bunch of really ignorant people out there blinded by their politics.” Page replies, “You can’t read that sh*t. And honestly, let them. The bu would be better off without them.” Both of them get upset by a leak that the Department of Justice intends to accept whatever recommendation Comey makes about Hillary Clinton. It’s a result of the “snafu” of Attorney General Loretta Lynch meeting with Bill Clinton on the tarmac in Phoenix, they agree, but Strzok worries, “Timing looks like hell. Will appear choreographed.” He adds, “It’s a shame because now it begins to tarnish even the FBl’s good name. Very irritating.”
Given how the texts have been used as evidence to tarnish the FBI’s good name, that’s one of several moments that read as sharply poignant with hindsight. In another, they discuss a New York Times article about how former CIA Director David Petraeus had bounced back from his affair while Paula Broadwell was still grappling with fallout. Three days before the election, Page texts Strzok, “the nyt probability numbers are dropping every day. I’m scared for our organization.”
As it turns out, employees at the FBI had good reason to be worried about their organization in the Trump era. The president has repeatedly meddled in the bureau. Trump asked the director for personal loyalty, pressured him to end an investigation into a national-security adviser who had lied to the FBI, and then fired him, admitting that he did so because of the probe into Russian interference in the election. He pushed out a deputy director (for reasons not yet clear to the public), and has mounted a protracted campaign to undermine the leadership and independence of the Department of Justice and FBI, as Adam Serwer writes. The bureau didn’t fear Trump because of his politics, but because he was a threat to the bureau.
Employees at the FBI have personal political views, obviously, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as is it doesn’t affect their work. (An investigation that seeks to answer whether it affected Strzok’s is ongoing.) The alternative is untenable. It’s no surprise that views would range from left to right—though probably not too far left. Historically, when the bureau has waded into politics, it has often done so against Democratic politicians and left-wing groups, from trade unions to civil-rights leaders. That bent was because Republicans had, until the present moment, been deferential to the FBI, while left-wing groups were more likely to try to challenge or curtail its powers.
It’s also why Democrats were so quick to see J. Edgar Hoover-style machinations in Comey’s brief, 11th-hour reopening of the investigation into Clinton. But Comey was apparently acting in a disastrously miscalculated attempt to protect the bureau from politics, as a definitive New York Times piece reported last April. The director thought he could insulate the FBI, but instead managed to drag it directly into the center of the election. Later, reactions to Comey’s firing from within the FBI would demonstrate the kind of esprit de corps and bureau loyalty many employees felt.
The most notable exception to the FBI’s historical tendency to target Democrats and leftists is when a top FBI official helped bring down Richard Nixon. Mark Felt, then deputy director, spoke to The Washington Post about Watergate under the name Deep Throat. Felt was an old Hoover aide and had hoped to be named to the top job at the FBI; instead, it went to L. Patrick Gray. Gray later said he thought Felt had acted out of anger at missing the job. By choosing Gray instead of Hoover’s man, however, Nixon had also exerted outside control over the FBI. As James Mann wrote in The Atlantic in 1992, “Although it occasionally provided a bit of clandestine help to occupants of the Oval Office, the FBI saw itself as fearlessly independent—outside politics and ultimately beyond the control of the White House.”
But the FBI had gripes specific to Watergate, too. “The FBI took charge of the federal investigation at the same time that the Administration was trying to limit its scope,” Mann noted. In other words, leaking to the press about the Nixon administration’s misdeeds was a way to protect the bureau’s prerogatives to investigate Watergate and anything else it wanted, regardless of whether Felt was acting partially out of personal pique. (Intra-bureau loyalty helps explain why hundreds of FBI employees rallied outside the court when Felt and two other FBI veterans were convicted in 1978 of conducting illegal break-ins.)
The results of Watergate were a mixed bag for the bureau. In statutory terms, with Hoover’s abuses in mind, Congress in 1976 established a 10-year term for the director, and made sure the president appointed the post. But by setting a 10-year term, Congress also set the bureau somewhat aside from politics—every new president would not get a chance to install his own man (or woman), and firing a director would be unusual. Indeed, it has seldom happened since, and never on such a thin pretext as Comey’s firing. That, in turn, was part of a normative shift after Watergate: Nixon’s abuses established a norm of FBI independence that has gone largely unchallenged until now.
When Strzok and Page complain about Congress, about transparency requirements, and about Eric Holder, those complaints are a natural extension of the bureau’s historical antagonism to anyone and anything that might interfere with the FBI conducting its work in the way it believes is appropriate.
As I have written several times in recent weeks, the FBI’s history of abuses makes it a strange and ill-fitting ally for liberals who think the bureau could help stop Trump. Matt Ford demonstrates that one can be wary of the FBI’s political history, and the broader abuses of the intelligence community, while still opposing the weaponization of the FBI for partisan purposes. Yet it is important to remember, as the debate over the bureau continues, that the FBI is not a neutral force, waiting to be captured by the political interests of one party or the other. It already has its own politics, which center around the protection of its own preorgatives at all costs.