By Alex Bregman
There’s a lot of talk about why FBI Director James Comey was terminated from his job. President Trump says it was straightforward, telling NBC News, “He’s a showboat. He’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil. You know that. I know that. Everybody knows that.”
Democrats say the firing had nothing to do with what Comey’s done, but what he was about to do: close in on the president’s Russia connection.
Hillary Clinton’s former senior campaign spokesperson Karen Finney told Yahoo News, “Trump clearly wants to put someone in the FBI that he can control.”
Regardless of who runs it, the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s Russia relationship is set to continue.
Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe has called it “a highly significant investigation.”
So why is the FBI so often at the center of the political storm? What is its role — and why does the FBI sometimes seem like a branch of government all its own?
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has two big jobs. First, it serves as the lead federal law enforcement agency, kind of like a national police force. Second, it’s the top domestic intelligence agency — think more along the lines of a domestic CIA.
The bureau’s responsibilities range far and wide, from protecting the country from foreign surveillance and espionage to defending civil rights to combating public corruption to targeting white collar crime and cyberattacks.
More than half of the bureau’s 36,000 employees have joined since 2001, and all of them know that the FBI’s top priority is preventing another 9/11.
Even though it was founded in 1908, the bureau as we know it today was largely shaped by its most famous director, J. Edgar Hoover, who served from 1924 all the way until his death in 1972. In fact, its headquarters bears his name.
On the one hand, Hoover built the FBI into a modern crime-fighting agency, starting the FBI lab and pioneering the use of forensics and science in investigations. On the other hand, he used the bureau to target Communists, politicians he disagreed with, even civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King. He was independent and politically untouchable.
Following Hoover’s tenure, Congress imposed a 10-year term limit on FBI directors, but the tradition of independence has continued.
On paper, FBI directors report to the attorney general, but in practice, they tend to go their own way.
Comey, a longtime Republican, defied the GOP by refusing to recommend that Hillary Clinton be prosecuted, but he defied Democrats by harshly criticizing her at the time, saying, “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
And of course, Clinton is still steaming about Comey’s letter, written 11 days before the election, reopening the email investigation. She said recently, “I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey’s letter on Oct. 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off — and the evidence for that intervening event is, I think, compelling [and] persuasive.”
It remains to be seen whether Trump’s actions, or the new director he appoints, will change the culture of the bureau, but at least when it comes to the role of the FBI, you can say, now I get it.
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