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James Comey Is Democrats’ Best Hope for Stopping Trump

The president-elect could use law enforcement to abuse civil rights.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY / Getty Images

President-elect Donald Trump’s feud with the intelligence community is already costing him valuable allies. Ex-CIA Director James Woolsey, dismayed by Trump’s refusal to accept the intelligence community’s assessment that the Russian government meddled in the election, has resigned as senior advisor to the Trump administration. Retired General James Mattis, Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, reportedly has chafed at the fact that General Mike Flynn, the national security adviser-designate, has Trump’s ears on intelligence matters. In response, Mattis “has rejected all of the names the Trump team has offered to be the top intelligence official in the department,” according to The Washington Post. And last Thursday, retired General Marty Dempsey, who had served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011 to 2015, tweeted a comment that can only be seen as a jab at Trump: “Intelligence is hard, thankless work. Fortunately, we have dedicated, patriotic, and courageous men and women on the job. Thanks.”

Trump’s willingness to alienate the intelligence community and its allies in the military might seem strange, but it points to something important about his worldview. For all his bluster about making other nations respect America again and fighting terrorism, Trump cares more about domestic security. Here, as elsewhere, he has an “American First” approach—and that’s why he’s been solicitous to police and the FBI, and hostile to the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Trump has a decided predilection for domestic law enforcement. Despite having Secret Service protection, he continues to maintain a security service made up of ex-FBI agents and ex-cops. During the campaign, Trump worked hard to successfully win the support of the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union. Among other promises, Trump offered to overturn President Barack Obama’s executive order forbidding the transferring of military equipment to police departments. A promise to restore “law and order” was a major theme in Trump’s campaign, including a call to restore “stop-and-frisk” in New York. Trump also falsely accused Black Lives Matter of inspiring police killings. This gained Trump many fans in law enforcement, so much so that by some reports parts of the FBI became “Trumpland” in the weeks leading up to the election, eager to leak information discrediting Hillary Clinton.

All of which makes FBI Director James Comey, the man who many Democrats believe cost Hillary Clinton the presidency, an even more powerful figure in Washington than he already is. Ironically, though, he may be the left’s best hope as a bulwark against Trump’s potential abuses.

Less than two weeks before the presidential election, Comey announced that the FBI had discovered more emails related to its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private server, though admitted that “the FBI cannot yet assess” whether the emails were “significant.” That intervention, by reviving the concerns many voters had about Clinton’s honesty, may have swung an election that was decided by 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan combined. (It was beside the point, and certainly not as well publicized, that Comey announced two days before the election that the newly discovered emails didn’t change the FBI’s original conclusion in July that Clinton shouldn’t be charged for any crime.)

But even though liberals have every reason to distrust Comey, they should want him to stay on as director until the expiration of his term in 2020. Whatever his handling of the Clinton matter, he has a record of standing up to presidential pressure. In 2004, while acting attorney general (because his boss, John Ashcroft, was in the hospital), members of the Bush administration tried to pressure him to sign off on a renewal of the warrantless wiretapping program. He refused.

Such resolve will be vital under Trump, a vindictive and paranoid man who might be inclined to harness the power of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to seek revenge on his enemies, real or imagined.

In loving the FBI and disdaining the CIA, Trump follows an old right-wing pattern. Like the State Department, the CIA is a government agency tasked with dealing with foreigners, and so is suspect to nationalists. Conversely, the FBI’s job, historically if not in its mandate, has been to police radicals and “un-American” groups, making it beloved on the right. Richard Nixon, whose paranoia now looks tame compared to Trump’s, distrusted the “Ivy League liberals” in the CIA and carefully cultivated his relationship with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who became an ally for many decades.

Hoover, of course, offers an object lesson in the dangers of abuse of power in American democracy. As head of the FBI for nearly five decades, from 1935 to 1972, Hoover collected incriminating details on politicians that allowed him to blackmail them so that they couldn’t challenge his power. President John F. Kennedy had to backtrack on his goal to remove Hoover from office once Hoover made it clear that he had detailed information on Kennedy’s extramarital sex life. Hoover used the FBI to spy on and harass countless liberal and radical groups, ranging from the ACLU to the Black Panthers. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a particular target for Hoover’s FBI. In 1964, one of Hoover’s agents sent King a letter urging the civil rights leader to kill himself or be embarrassed by the release of information about his sex life.  

Such abuses of power are far from ancient history. Using the cover of anti-terrorism after 9/11, the Bush administration revived many of the worst excess of the Hoover era, although this time under bureaucratic control rather than the fiat of one man. The FBI resumed monitoring peaceful groups, including the Arab American Anti-Defamation Committee. A registry was built that largely targeted Arab and Muslim non-citizens. The government assumed the power to hold anyone, including American citizens, as “enemy combatants.” The National Security Agency tapped phones without a warrant. The Obama administration only rolled back a few of these abuses and normalized others.

These abuses could increase manyfold under Trump. There are few people who can stop him from using the powers of the state to punish his enemies, but a strong-willed FBI director is one of them. 

Liberals will have to hope that Comey, as in 2004, is willing to disobey the Trump White House on matters of principle. But Democrats, who have spent most of their energy railing against Trump’s heterodox foreign policy and contretemps with the intelligence community, must also intensify their opposition to Trump’s domestic policing agenda. 

Riding to power on a “law and order” platform and likely to receive effectively no check from Republicans in Congress, Trump is in a position to revive the worst excesses of Hoover and Bush. Groups like Black Lives Matter could be targeted for FBI harassment, and monitored with warrantless wiretapping. The decline of mass incarceration which started under Obama could be reversed. A database on Muslim Americans could be built. The militarization of policing would once again receive White House sanction, with an executive order allowing local police to acquire military weapons. More broadly, a Trump administration would set the tone for police departments everywhere, so that racial profiling would be encouraged.

When evaluating the many dangers of the Trump presidency, it’s worth taking his “America First” rhetoric seriously. Yes, he will control the nuclear codes, and his reckless tweets could start conflicts. But he’s also inheriting a post-9/11 domestic security state that’s responsible for massive, countless violations of Americans’ civil and constitutional rights. As the head of that state, Trump will show far less deference to those rights than Obama or even Bush did.