For nearly two years, Republicans stuck with their mantras: Robert Mueller was on a witch hunt. The FBI was some sort of liberal resistance haven. The Russia investigation shouldn’t have even begun. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions were part of the “deep state.” Everyone was out to get Donald Trump.
Now that Attorney General William Barr has released a four-page summary of the Mueller probe’s findings, Trump and his team have changed their tune. Trump, who has called the special counsel team a “National Disgrace” and Mueller a “conflicted prosecutor gone rogue,” said Monday that he thought Mueller had acted honorably. “Total exoneration,” he said of a report that explicitly says it “does not exonerate” the president.
But the law enforcement community worries that the sudden shift in Trump’s rhetoric won’t soon erase the long-term consequences of Trump’s attacks on the Justice Department and the FBI. Trump ran on law and order but unleashed an extensive campaign against the nation’s premier law enforcement organization. Republicans’ trust in the FBI plummeted as Trump and his supporters convinced the GOP base that the conservative-leaning FBI was biased against Trump. Federal prosecutors now contend with jury pools full of Republicans who think the FBI is corrupt.
“It has been tough to watch,” said Greg Brower, who stepped down as the FBI’s congressional liaison last spring. “The FBI has taken some hits, mostly undeserved. It’s not good.”
Brower, who was elected to the Nevada legislature as a Republican and served as Nevada’s top federal prosecutor under George W. Bush, said the FBI was generally a conservative organization “with a very small ‘c’” and that attempts to characterize the bureau as Republican or Democratic were “very misplaced, potentially very misleading, and just not accurate at all in my experience.”
Trump’s attacks on the FBI “never made sense,” even for Trump’s own interests, Brower said. Had Trump taken the normal political approach to the Mueller probe ― saying two years ago that he welcomed the investigation, that he’s confident there was no inappropriate conduct, and that he looked forward to the investigation’s conclusion ― then he could now be credibly touting the Mueller report’s conclusions, he added.
“He just took the wrong approach in every possible way, in my view, but mostly because of the deeply offensive, false accusations and characterizations of Bob Mueller,” Brower said. “It was beneath the dignity of the president. It was shocking.”
Brower said he worried about the real-world impact of the president’s attacks when FBI agents testify in court. Even in places with a high level of skepticism of the federal government, judges and juries often take the word of FBI witnesses seriously, he said.
“I’m afraid that, whereas FBI agents are able to ignore the background noise and do their jobs, ordinary people ― especially people that support the president ― have been unfortunately sucked into this view as propagated by the president that maybe the FBI can’t be trusted,” Brower said. “That is a very, very negative, destructive thing for the system.”
Brower said his own friends and family members have questioned him about the FBI, ranging from “polite questioning” to “flat-out assumptions of the worst” about the bureau’s work.
“There’s just so much information, so many erroneous assumptions. Unfortunately, people who watch Fox News, they’ve taken those erroneous assumptions and false facts as true, and it becomes a reality,” Brower said. “It’s a challenge.”
“[Trump] just took the wrong approach in every possible way, in my view, but mostly because of the deeply offensive, false accusations and characterizations of Bob Mueller. It was beneath the dignity of the president. It was shocking.”
Tim Purdon, who served as U.S. Attorney in North Dakota during the Obama administration, oversaw a large body of atypical federal prosecutions: crimes like homicide, rape or child sexual abuse on Native American reservations. He’s worried what the drop in trust in the FBI could do in a red state like his, where a key trial witness is often the lone FBI agent who investigated the case.
“Obviously, we’re a state that voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump,” Purdon said. “If you’re asking me if I wonder if the president’s constant denigration of the FBI as an institution and of individual FBI agents, if that might have some really tragic and horrific real-world consequences in courtrooms in North Dakota, I think the answer to that is yes.”
Purdon said the view that the FBI is a hotbed of progressivism is completely out of whack with his own experience, echoing the description of the bureau as a “small ‘c’ conservative” organization.
“I’ve met a lot of FBI agents. I met dozens and dozens if not hundreds of FBI agents. I don’t know if any of them were Democrats. I know for sure none of them were liberal,” Purdon said. “The idea that the FBI is some bastion of left-wing influence, to anybody who’s worked in the federal criminal justice system, is laughable.”
Republicans on the Hill this week weren’t thinking much about the long-term consequences of the president’s campaign against the FBI and DOJ.
“I hope not,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told HuffPost when asked if he was worried the Justice Department has sustained permanent damage. “I really worry about the FBI and the Department of Justice, but my concerns go back to the Loretta Lynch, James Comey term of office.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said he’s tried to keep mum about the Mueller investigation for the past couple of years, saying he had great respect for the former FBI director and was glad to see the investigation completed.
“I think he’s now done so in a very professional way. I think that should actually help to increase respect for our judicial system,” Alexander said. He dodged a question about whether Trump’s attacks were helpful. “I don’t give the president daily report cards,” he said. “I’d like for us to move away from hyperventilating on both sides of the Mueller investigation and so-called Russian collusion, which should now be settled.”
Lindsay Graham, the Trump supporter and Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, isn’t ready to let things stand. Graham on Monday called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate whether the FBI and Justice Department ― which kept quiet about the Russia investigation during the 2016 campaign ― had tried to swing the election for Hillary Clinton.
And although Trump is crowing about Barr’s conclusion that Mueller’s team didn’t find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, he’s ignored another key component of Barr’s summary: that Russia interfered in the presidential election.
Democrats may have had false hope about Mueller finding Trump-Russia collusion. But most Republicans don’t believe a core finding of the Mueller report: Just 27% of them believe Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.