A history lesson for President Trump on FBI abuses

"The intent of this is to have the public -- or that slice of it that supports him -- to look only to Mr. Trump for truth and justice."

Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; Black Lives Matter protesters; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; anonymous threat sent by FBI. CREDIT: Getty Images / Diana Ofosu
Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover; Black Lives Matter protesters; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; anonymous threat sent by FBI. CREDIT: Getty Images / Diana Ofosu

As the investigation into possible Russian interference in the 2016 election moves forward, President Donald Trump and his allies have tried recently to recast the FBI as politicized and inherently biased against Trump.

But historians and longtime chroniclers of federal law enforcement agencies say Trump’s narcissistic declaration of an anti-Republican rogue operation working to bring him down overlooks the fact that the FBI has a long history of political entanglements, accusations of bias, and distrust of its activities by groups and individuals targeted for investigation.

What’s different — and alarming — is that Trump is using his executive powers and bullying tweets to cast the bureau as a left-leaning agency that’s unfairly coming after him. The threat posed by Trump’s gambit is that, if successful, he will persuade the public to sympathize with him as a victim of FBI abuse and potentially escape scrutiny for any role he or his campaign may have played in Russia’s interference with the election.

“Its a very dangerous and authoritarian turn when the 45th president denounces and defames other sources of power in our society,” Gerald Horne, a history and African American studies professor at the University of Houston, said in a recent interview. “The intent of this is to have the public — or that slice of it that supports him — to look only to Mr. Trump for truth and justice.”

Buried deep within the president’s paranoid hubris, however, exists a kernel of truth: The FBI has a sordid and well-documented history of engaging in the politically motivated and secretive oppression of American citizens, frequently targeting African Americans and other racial minority groups.

“The FBI and black America have a long and not so pleasant history,” Horne said. “We could go back to 1956 and the COINTELPRO episode in which the [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover sought to destabilize the anti-Jim Crow movement by infiltrating civil rights organizations and undermining its leaders.”

COINTELPRO — short for Counterintelligence Program — was a particularly disreputable FBI program that was started and defended putatively as an anti-Communism operation during the 1950s, but expanded during a 15-year run to ensnare groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Black Panthers.

Horne noted that even after Hoover died, the FBI continued to clandestinely spy on black Americans and other people political leaders deemed a threat to the nation.

In 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attempted to draw attention to the FBI’s use of post-9/11 authority to target immigrants, racial minority members, and political dissenters through secret surveillance and infiltration programs. In a report, “Unleashed and Unaccountable: The FBI’s Unchecked Abuse of Authority,” the ACLU documented the overreach of FBI activities during the previous 12 years.

After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress and successive attorneys general loosened many of the legal and internal controls that a previous generation had placed on the FBI to protect Americans’ constitutional rights. As a result, the FBI is repeating mistakes of the past and is again unfairly targeting immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and political dissidents for surveillance, infiltration, investigation, and “disruption strategies.”

Even more recently, Foreign Policy reported last year on a leaked FBI intelligence assessment that revealed the feds targeted what the agency referred to as “Black Identity Extremists.” The FBI claimed the people it was watching were  “very likely” to perpetrate violence against law enforcement officials in retribution to the recent incidents of police shootings of unarmed black people.

That document came to public attention at the same time the Trump administration was embracing far-right extremists and white nationalists who led a violent protest march in Charlottesville, Virginia, which resulted in a car running into a crowd, killing a young woman. The FBI document didn’t mention any public safety threats posed by white nationalist extremists, who are more likely than black civil rights leaders to espouse or engage in violence.

“That’s the historical context that’s not understood in the present-day situation involving Trump,” Horne said, adding that few political leaders of any stripe are willing to discuss the abuses by the FBI perpetrated against black and racial minorities in the United States.

“The Trump side isn’t going to bring up that history, even though it might bolster their case, because it’s not a part of their narrative of history,” he said. “The anti-Trump faction doesn’t want to talk about it either because to do so undermines the nation’s feelings about the FBI and doesn’t contribute to the sliming of the president.”

But Trump is eager to pick a fight with the FBI by twisting the bureau’s history and image in an effort to divert attention away from his scandal-plagued administration.

For example, Trump said last month during an interview with the Wall Street Journal that agents within the bureau committed “treason” because they were a part of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. “This the FBI we’re talking about,” Trump told the newspaper. “That is a treasonous act.”

Regrettably, Trump’s attacks on the FBI may be working to his political advantage, as recent polls suggest his supporters are increasingly comfortable believing conspiratorial nonsense.

A recent Reuters/IPSOS poll found that an overwhelming majority of Republicans — nearly three out of four — believe that “members of the FBI and Department of Justice are working to delegitimize Trump through politically motivated investigations.” Similarly, a SurveyMonkey poll found that only 38 percent of Republicans have a “favorable” view of the FBI, while 47 percent hold a negative view.

The political polarization of the FBI worries former Attorney General Eric Holder, who told reporters that Trump’s attacks on law enforcement will have repercussions that may outlive his tenure in office. In comments shared at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington, D.C., Holder envisioned potential distrust of the FBI and its evidence-gathering capability at future trials “where a credibility determination has to be made between an FBI agent saying one thing and a defendant who’s a witness saying something else.”

Holder speculated that distrust Trump is sowing may backfire in the future as broader swatches of the public will no longer support or believe in the fairness of the FBI. Of course, with valid reasoning, black Americans have long distrusted the FBI.

No less an authority on the FBI and its history, former FBI Director James Comey recognized that distrust exists among black Americans and admitted the agency played a role creating it. He acknowledged the disgraceful history of the bureau, telling an audience of civil rights activists gathered in 2016 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that the FBI wasn’t always honorable in its relationship with black and other minority Americans.

We in law enforcement have to see ourselves clearly. We need to understand our history, much of which is not pretty. The truth is that the history of law enforcement in the United States was that we were often the enforcers of the status quo, which was mighty rough on a whole lot of folks especially minority communities, immigrant communities, communities without power. We have to remember that history because the people we serve and protect cannot forget it. 

Oh, the irony! Comey, who tried to warn the nation of the troubles of racial distrust in law enforcement, was fired by TrumpThe rest, as they say, is history.