“Short of sending tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue and blowing the J. Edgar Hoover Building to smithereens, Trump cannot stop the FBI. No commander in chief ever has.”
President Trump can’t fire the FBI.
Minutes before ridding himself of Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Wednesday, Trump answered a question about the Russia investigation at a White House news conference: “I could end it right now. I could say, ‘That investigation is over.’ ”
He could try.
He could order Sessions’s acting replacement, Matthew G. Whitaker, who has mused wistfully about stifling the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, to play the role of political assassin. He could direct Whitaker to cut the special counsel’s budget to zero. He could tell him to limit the inquiry’s scope. He could try to oust Mueller and to make sure his investigative report never sees the light of day. He could fire the FBI director, Christopher Wray — just as he fired the previous director, James Comey, last year — and put a political puppet in his place.
He could do any or all of these things, as politically foolhardy and constitutionally perilous as they might seem, while the Republicans who control the Senate look on and do nothing.
But short of sending tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue and blowing the J. Edgar Hoover Building to smithereens, Trump cannot stop the FBI. No commander in chief ever has, not before Hoover died 46 years ago, and certainly not since.
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The 21st-century FBI, for all its flaws, has escaped the darkness of Hoover’s shadow, a legacy of warrantless wiretapping and vengeful attacks against the director’s enemies. It is in great part the creation of Mueller, who ran it from 2001 to 2013. It is decidedly not a political tool to be manipulated by presidents. It is as independent as a hog on ice — once launched, it has a mind of its own. I’ve been convinced of this while working on a five-hour documentary about how the FBI has confronted presidents who violated their oath of office. (“Enemies ” debuts Nov. 18 on Showtime.) The FBI has faced down five commanders in chief who threatened to run the ship of state aground: in the Watergate scandal, in the Iran-contra imbroglio, in the Monica Lewinsky affair, in the matter of post-9/11 spying on Americans and in its criminal investigation of the Trump team. Its record isn’t perfect, but it has by and large upheld the rule of law.
In no case was a president able to disrupt or derail an FBI investigation. In every case, the bureau preserved evidence, pursued facts and persevered. The truth is that the FBI has the power to say no to presidents, but presidents can’t easily say no to the FBI.
How did the FBI shut down and occupy the White House?
Get your copy of In Pursuit: from the streets of San Francisco to Watergate today and get the inside story on the investigation that brought down the Nixon administration.