Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is under fresh fire after launching his presidential campaign and declaring he believes the Federal Bureau of Investigation and even the U.S. Dept. of Justice are not “independent” agencies, and they should be subject to the scrutiny of the President of the United States.
After disgraced GOP President Richard Nixon left office, a virtual wall between the White House and the U.S. Dept. of Justice, including especially the FBI, was created to prevent turning the chief law enforcement agencies of the federal government into political, partisan tools to do the bidding of the nation’s chief executive and Commander-in Chief.
Days after the November, 2016 election, the Los Angeles Times reported on the “revelation that President-elect Donald Trump does not intend to seek a new investigation into Hillary Clinton,” calling it “startling,” but “not only because it seemed to reverse a campaign pledge.”
“It also suggested that Trump thinks that that’s his decision to make, reflecting an apparent lack of regard for the cherished independence of the Justice Department, which is responsible for conducting investigations without the influence or opinion of the White House.”
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“Long-standing protocol dictates that the FBI and Justice Department operate free of political influence or meddling from the White House,” The Times explained. “That’s one reason that the FBI director serves a 10-year term and does not turn over the reins as presidential administrations come and go. It also means that presidents are not supposed to supervise, initiate or stop law enforcement investigations.”
As president, Donald Trump and his attorneys general would immediately obliterate those protocols, with the then-President literally directing his AGs to acquiesce to his demands, and he would do so publicly, via Twitter.
Under President Joe Biden that wall was quickly rebuilt, with Attorney General Merrick Garland issuing a “directive restricting Justice Department contact with the White House as a firewall against potential political interference,” as USA Today reported in July of 2021.
“The order, which reaffirmed some policies of previous administrations, marks a sharp pivot from the Trump era when the former president casually broke with institutional norms, repeatedly calling on the department to launch investigations of his political rivals, including President Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and former FBI Director James Comey.”
And now, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to not just rescind that order, if he wins the White House, he apparently wants to direct the activities of DOJ and FBI.
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In a little-noticed portion of his rare Fox News interview Wednesday, DeSantis told former U.S. Congressman Trey Gowdy (who once was the chairman of the House Oversight Committee and thus should know better), of his apparent plans to remake the DOJ and the FBI.
“I would not keep Chris Wray as director of the FBI. There’d be a new one on Day One. I think that’s very important,” DeSantis declared, as the right-wing National Review reported. DeSantis is ignoring the fact that Congress has mandated FBI Directors be appointed for a full ten-year term, while allowing Presidents to remove them, generally for cause.
“Under the Constitution,” The National Constitution Center wrote in March of 2017, less than two months into Trump’s term, “the FBI Director is an executive branch official and can be removed if needed. But only in one instance since 1908, after the FBI and its predecessor agency were formed, has a President removed an FBI Director from office.”
Less than two months later, on May 9, Trump became the second president to fire an FBI Director. Trump terminated Jim Comey by falsely claiming it was over how he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, by announcing to Congress he was revisiting it after obtaining a laptop that had some of her emails. (Many, including FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, and Comey himself, believe that move likely handed Trump the election.)
Now DeSantis, literally on the first day of his presidential campaign, is vowing to become the third president in history to fire an FBI Director.
“I think the DOJ and FBI have lost their way,” DeSantis continued in his Fox News interview. “I think that they’ve been weaponized against Americans who think like me and you, and I think they’ve become very partisan. Part of the reason that’s happened, Trey, is because Republican presidents have accepted the canard that the DOJ and FBI are independent.”
“They are not independent agencies. They are part of the executive branch. They answer to the elected president of the United States.”
Semafor’s David Weigel, pointing to the nascent GOP presidential candidate’s remarks, writes via Twitter, “DeSantis’s answer to Fox on why he’d fire Chris Wray = great example of how a norm fades away. D[emocratic] presidents grudgingly pick GOP FBI directors. Trump fires Comey, huge scandal, Mueller probe. DeSantis saying outright that the FBI is not ‘independent,’ president can reshape it.”
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Pete Strzok is a former Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. He led the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections and earlier, as chief of the FBI’s Counterespionage Section led the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server.
After being viciously targeted repeatedly by Donald Trump, Strzok was fired. he is suing for wrongful termination.
On Friday he responded to DeSantis’ remarks and Weigel’s tweet.
“ALL presidents pick GOP FBI directors. There has never been a Democrat FBI director. Ever,” Strzok tweeted.
He added he agrees with national security and civil liberties journalist Marcy Wheeler, and says, “this isn’t some norm fading away. This is a sudden assault on a generations-long norm by one man and those who support him, or seek the support of his base.”
In October of 2017, nearly one year after Trump was elected President, NPR published a report: “‘Breaching The ‘Wall’: Is The White House Encroaching On DOJ Independence?”
It includes remarks from several Democrats, weighing in on how Trump had been reshaping the White House’s relationship with DOJ and the FBI.
At the time, despite his extreme actions, Democrats generally pointed to a “perception” problem, not the legal crisis it would become.
Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, however, was more forceful.
“There has to be a wall” between DOJ and the White House, Holder told NPR. “History has shown us that when that wall is too low, that’s when Justice departments get in trouble.”
NPR also quoted Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, then the Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who at a hearing in October of 2017 said: “The attorney general’s master is the people and the law.”
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