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What History Shows About FBI-White House Tenions


We're going to start the program today by taking another look at the tensions between the FBI and the White House. We're focusing on this after President Trump allowed a memo written by Republican staffers of the House Intelligence Committee to be publicly released even though it contained previously classified information. He and the intelligence committee Republicans claim it proves the FBI is biased, and it, therefore, absolves the president of any link to Russia's interference with the 2016 election.

Now, Democrats and others say it's actually a ploy to undermine the Russia investigation. The Democrats have drafted a response and are planning to vote tomorrow to allow it to be made public. But we thought it would be useful to get some history on how the FBI and the White House have related to each other in the past. So we called Douglas Charles for this. He's an associate professor of history at Penn State University, and he has written a number of books about the FBI and the history of the FBI.

Professor Charles, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DOUGLAS CHARLES: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: The allegation on the table here is that the FBI was using private information to influence the political process. I mean, that's the charge. When have we seen that before? Or have we seen that before?

CHARLES: This is something particularly known from the Hoover years where, on the public side of J. Edgar Hoover's directorship, he put forward this public relations campaign where the FBI was upstanding scientific investigators who did everything right and were moral and always caught their targets. And then, behind the scenes, really, Hoover was mostly interested in collecting non-criminal political intelligence, and then he would use it to his own advantage.

But after Hoover's years, that stopped, the abuses of the Hoover era became public, reforms were put into place, and Justice Department guidelines were set up, which defined what the FBI could investigate, how it would communicate with the White House. And so ever since the 1970s, the FBI has been a straight-up law enforcement agency, dealing with information in a mostly non-controversial way. So the fact that this charge is being leveled now is really quite surprising

MARTIN: As a person who looked at the long history of the FBI, what do you make of it?

CHARLES: It's unprecedented. We've never had a president so publicly attacking the FBI for an investigation it was involved in. We've had presidents like Nixon try to silence investigation behind the scenes and quietly, but not in a public way. It's also unprecedented that the president has allies in Congress and a congressional committee publicly attacking the FBI at the same time. That's never happened before.

So there's sort of a dual congressional-presidential attack on the FBI. This is perhaps something to be concerned about because one reason the FBI succeeds so well is that it is so respected and it has a certain stature. And once that stature is reduced, you know, the future of the FBI, I think, and its credibility remains in question.

MARTIN: What is the importance of that stature to doing their work? Why does that matter?

CHARLES: The FBI relies on trust. It relies on people to trust them. It relies on people to believe they're conducting investigations that are on the up and up. And ever since the 1970s, for the most part, that's what they do. And if that trust is violated, then their efficacy as an investigative body in the federal government is damaged and under question. So that's, in many ways, the problem the FBI is facing. And they spent years after Watergate repairing their image, and they've been successful, and now, suddenly they are under attack.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, there are people who are observers - legal analysts in particular - talking about the possibility of a constitutional crisis. What do they mean by that? Why would that be?

CHARLES: Well, this is very reminiscent in some ways with Watergate in that President Nixon worked behind the scenes to try to have the CIA stop the Watergate investigation. He had his own man in as FBI director, L. Patrick Gray, who attempted to maneuver and stop the FBI from conducting its Watergate investigation. And he was willing to share Watergate-related information with the White House. He destroyed Watergate-related information all in an effort to stop the FBI probe.

Now, that became public and he resigned as FBI director. So that effort went nowhere, but that's the one thing we have that we can compare what Trump is trying to do publicly with what Nixon tried to do behind the scenes privately to stop an FBI investigation. And if that would be successful, that was and is obstruction of justice, and if that happens, it will definitely be a major political and constitutional crisis.

MARTIN: But the Republicans on the committee - and we've heard from a number of them in recent days - say that this is entirely appropriate, and this is well within their mandate to provide oversight. What do you say to that?

CHARLES: From my perspective, I don't see anything that the FBI has done wrong. This is mainly partisan. This is mainly political, and it's just not there. The meat of oversight just isn't there for what they're claiming.

MARTIN: That's Douglas Charles. He's an associate professor of history at Penn State University. He has a particular interest in the history of the FBI. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in Pittsburgh. Professor Charles, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHARLES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.