WASHINGTON (AP) — When President Kevin McCarthy recently suggested he might stop the FBI from moving its downtown headquarters to a new facility planned for suburban Washington, there was little point in thinking about the office renovation.
The Republican president’s nod raises a once fringe proposal to overthrow the FBI following Donald Trump’s federal indictment over classified documents and the Justice Department’s pursuit of its allies, including some of the nearly 1,000 people charged in the June 6, 2021 Jan Attack on the Capitol.
Moving from far-right corners to the mainstream, the emerging effort to overhaul the nation’s premier law enforcement agency is rooted in increasingly vocal conservative complaints about an overly biased FBI they say is armed against them.
“It’s a pretty dramatic reversal of what politics would have been 50 years ago,” said Beverly Gage, a Yale historian who won a 2023 Pulitzer Prize for her biography of the legendary FBI director, “G- Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century.
The shifting attitudes of Republican members of Congress toward the FBI underscore how Trump’s personal grievances have become legislative policy. Once the party of law and order, Republicans are now antagonists of federal law enforcement, undermining a legendary institution and attacking Justice Department officials whose work is fundamental to American democracy.
While political criticism of the FBI has followed the bureau since its founding with Hoover bugging civil rights leaders and orchestrating the infiltration of leftist political organizations, the right flank campaign against law enforcement federalism had mostly simmered on the fringes of the party. policy.
But the Justice Department’s indictment of Trump, who pleaded not guilty to 37 counts of storing and refusing to return classified documents at his Mar-a-Lago club, and the ongoing lawsuits against Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol fueled conservative anger. . The Justice Department is also investigating Trump and his allies over efforts to challenge President Joe Biden’s election in the run-up to the 2021 Capitol attack.
Conservatives criticize federal law enforcement on several fronts; among them, his work with social media companies to flag potentially dangerous posts, and a COVID-era memo from Attorney General Merrick Garland directing resources to address violence against school officials. They compare Trump’s investigations with what they say is a sweetheart deal for Hunter Biden, the president’s son, who pleads guilty to misdemeanor tax evasion after a lengthy investigation.
“Looking at the actions of the FBI, I think the whole leadership needs to change,” McCarthy told reporters on Capitol Hill last month.
Fresh from a visit with law enforcement in California, McCarthy said he plans to decentralize the FBI by expanding operations to the states.
“This idea that we’re going to build a new, big Pentagon and put the whole FBI mostly in one place, I don’t think that’s a good structure,” McCarthy said Friday, referring to a conservative-led proposal to move the FBI . in Alabama.
“I would like to see the structure of a much smaller FBI administration building, and more FBI agents across the country, helping to keep the country safe,” he said. “For me, it’s better.”
In many ways, the resistance to a robust federal law enforcement agency continues a thread that has run through American history – from the aftermath of the Civil War, when Southern states rejected federal troops for reconstruction, at Trump’s 2024 campaign announcement in Waco, Texas, an area known for the federal headquarters of a separatist complex in 1993.
“The Washington siege is symbolic,” said Steven G. Bradbury, a former Trump administration general counsel who is now a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Heritage is among the outside entities and advocacy organizations pushing Congress to reinvent the FBI.
Bradbury’s “How to Fix the FBI” report outlines nearly a dozen options. One is to reduce its jurisdiction. Another is to revise Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, which was part of the Trump-Russia investigation into election interference in 2016 and is a program that some Democrats also wish to limit.
“We have our finger on the pulse of what conservatives are reacting to,” Bradbury said. “The FBI needs to be rebuilt.”
Last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray appeared before the House Judiciary Committee for the first time since Republicans took control in January, facing a long list of criticisms, complaints and accusations bias in the office.
“Are you protecting the Bidens? asked Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla.
“Absolutely not,” Wray said.
At another point, Wray said, “The idea that I’m biased against conservatives seems somewhat insane to me, given my personal background.”
He is a longtime Republican who was nominated by Trump to fill the post after director James Comey was fired in 2017.
Wray told lawmakers that dismantling or defunding the FBI would be disastrous for the bureau’s 38,000 employees and “would hurt our great local law enforcement partners who depend on us every day to work with them on all a series of difficult threats”.
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the hearing “bizarre.”
“I never thought I would ever see Republicans attack a Republican appointed by Donald Trump to run the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, basically saying they want to defund the FBI,” she said. declared.
The lawmaker said it was also strange to find herself defending the federal law enforcement agency, which she too says needs strong congressional oversight. But she felt Democrats needed to step in to counter Republican attacks on the FBI.
“That’s their message: They want to shut down the FBI because the FBI continues to investigate Donald Trump,” Jayapal said. “And that’s really what it’s all about.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, submitted a proposal ahead of the hearing that calls for “the elimination of taxpayer funding for any new FBI headquarters.”
Jordan said in a letter to the Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee that he also wanted a plan to move FBI headquarters out of Washington, noting an existing facility in Huntsville, Alabama — a recommendation Heritage also made. .
“One of the goals we’ve set for ourselves in this Congress as Republicans is to do oversight so we can impact the appropriations process,” Jordan said in a brief interview on Capitol Hill, and “impose limits on how taxpayer dollars are spent to stop the weaponization of these agencies against the American people.
Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, which is competing with neighboring Maryland to host the new FBI headquarters, called the Republican ideas “a solution in search of a problem.”
“I think they just had a political bug against federal law enforcement agencies,” he said.