A top House Republican told leaders of the FBI and the CIA last week he hoped they would spend time “on activities other than spying on conservatives.”
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump may be gone from Washington, but House Republicans — who hope to retake control of the lower chamber in next year’s elections — continue to nurse his longstanding grievances against the American intelligence community.
At last week’s House hearing on the top threats to national security, Republican after Republican grilled intelligence agency leaders not about Russia, China or North Korea — but about a series of niche issues with which only ardent consumers of right-wing news sources would be conversant. The lawmakers made it clear that they had little trust in America’s security agencies.
“I’m telling you, if an FBI agent came up and asked to talk to me, there’s no way in the world I would talk to them without a lawyer present. I don’t care what they wanted to know,” Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah told FBI Director Christopher Wray, a lifelong Republican appointed by Trump.
For most of the post-World War II era, Republicans embraced the national security state and particularly the FBI, a law enforcement agency whose members, by their own accounts, have tended to lean right in their politics.
The Trump presidency changed that. Under FBI investigation for much of his presidency, Trump referred to FBI agents as “scum” who “destroyed the lives of people” and branded as “rats” people who cooperated with law enforcement. His Republican allies followed his lead.
Now, even with Trump gone, his skepticism of intelligence agencies, including the FBI, which collects intelligence on domestic terrorism threats, appears to be holding on in Republican circles.
They express views widely held by the party’s base. In a December Ipsos poll, 39 percent of respondents agreed that a “deep state” was working to undermine Trump. Majorities of both Republicans and Fox News viewers responding to the poll agreed with that assessment, as did nearly half of white men and rural residents, both strong GOP demographics.
House Republicans have sought to continue the fight over what they see as wrongful FBI conduct during the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and they also express concern that the intelligence community’s involvement in President Joe Biden’s approach to fighting domestic extremism equates to targeting conservatives.
The House vs. the Senate
Those themes have been far less prevalent among Republican senators, who are elected statewide and therefore represent more diverse constituencies.
A day before the House session, Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee struck a much different tone at their own worldwide threats hearing.
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“The intelligence community that I have come to know through my now 10½ years on this committee is one that’s made up of patriotic, dedicated professionals, some of the finest men and women who serve in our government and who measure their success and their failure in terms of how many Americans they’ve kept safe,” said Marco Rubio of Florida, the ranking Republican on the committee.
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“Many of those Americans who are kept safe … do not even know they’ve been kept safe and what they’ve been kept safe from because of the nature of the work that you do,” he said. “And I hope we will all remember that. I know everyone in this committee does.”
Rubio’s counterpart in the House, Devin Nunes of California, began the hearing a day later by telling intelligence agency leaders, including Wray, CIA Director William Burns and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines, “I hope you plan on spending a reasonable amount of time in upcoming years on activities other than investigating conservatives and spying on Republican presidential campaigns.”
Nunes told Wray that Americans “need to have confidence that the premier law enforcement agency is honest, politically neutral and quickly fixes mistakes. Unfortunately, we don’t have much confidence that that is being done.”
Nunes said the FBI “resorted to stonewalling, obstruction, half-truths and, in most cases, outright lies” as Republicans on his committee investigated allegations of abuses in the Trump-Russia investigation.
Michael Steel, who was a spokesman for former House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said every president “to a certain extent remakes his or her party in his own image.”
Boehner left Congress in 2015, two years before Trump took office.
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Because most House Republicans are elected in heavily Republican districts, Steel said, their main concerns are primary challenges. And the way to win a GOP primary these days “is to be as pro-Trump as possible,” he said. Trump laudably upended some of the unpopular aspects of the Washington bipartisan foreign policy consensus, Steel said, but “he also abandoned Republicans’ traditional focus on building alliances and engaging with the world in a realistic way.”
“We have to be serious about the threats that we face, a rising China probably most importantly, and it’s hard to do that if you’re focused on conspiracy theories against our own law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Offering a thoughtful and credible critique of President Biden’s foreign policy is critical to winning the House in the midterms.”
The senior Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee focused most of their ire on Wray, the FBI director, accusing the bureau of lying about surveillance abuses, failing to take antifa seriously and going soft on left-wing agitators who attacked police. They also professed deep concern about political spying in the FBI’s new focus on domestic terrorism in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.
“I grew up watching a TV show called ‘FBI’ with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.,” Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, said during the House hearing last week. “I adored the FBI. I trusted the FBI. Mr. Wray, when you were nominated, I was hopeful you would bring about change in the FBI, and I stated publicly that you had the opportunity to clear the FBI’s reputation and establish trust with the American people. Instead, I’m concerned that things have further degraded.”
Image: FBI headquarters in Washington
The J. Edgar Hoover Building, seen in 2013, is the headquarters of the FBI.Brendan Smialowski / AFP – Getty Images, file
Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, also took fire during the hearing — over the issue of Michael Ellis, a Trump aide who tried and failed to become the NSA’s general counsel, a civil service position.
“General Nakasone, should individuals or private citizens be free from discrimination based on their political affiliations?” Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, asked Nakasone after a series of questions that implied that Ellis, who resigned this month after he was placed on administrative leave, had been treated unfairly. Previously, Nakasone had said he never discussed Ellis’ situation with elected Democrats.
Several Republicans also questioned whether the FBI’s new focus on domestic terrorism — and the involvement of the National Counterterrorism Center, a unit of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the various U.S. intelligence agencies — amounted to using the intelligence community to spy on Americans.
“The Democrats see political benefits in characterizing wide swaths of American citizens — particularly Republicans and conservatives — as politically suspect, politically violent and deserving of government surveillance,” Nunes said.
For decades, political arguments on Capitol Hill over national security and intelligence centered on philosophical differences — whether to use harsh interrogation techniques or whether to keep troops in Iraq. Now, a faction of the GOP appears to be arguing that some of the public servants working in national security agencies cannot be trusted.
During the same House Intelligence Committee hearing, in what might be called a notable understatement, Peter Welch, D-Vt., said, “One of the things that has become clear in our country in the last few years is that the intelligence community … has been seen as becoming politicized.”
“In the old days,” Welch said, “policymakers depended on the intelligence community to provide information that was relevant in making policy decisions. Now, there’s a suspicion that reflects the differences that we have here in Congress on a lot of important matters that the intelligence is being used by one side or the other.”