President Trump is weighing allowing the release of the second of two memos addressing allegations of improper conduct by the FBI. The latest classified memo, drafted by Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, allegedly defends the agency in a rebuttal to a memo that was released last week. The earlier memo was written at the direction of the committee chairman, California Republican Devin Nunes, and criticized the FBI’s surveillance methods in the early part of the Russia investigation.
The tussle over the two memos is leaving many observers with a sense of political whiplash. Democrats who were once quick to castigate the FBI and other intelligence agencies for overreaching on surveillance are now defending the agency’s need for secrecy. Meanwhile, Republicans like Nunes — who led the charge just a few months ago to pass legislation extending the government’s surveillance powers — are arguing that agents abused their authority.
The FBI certainly isn’t new to political controversy, but historians say that the current discord reflects an unprecedented willingness of legislators in both parties to use a crucial piece of the nation’s law-enforcement apparatus as a political football. And even if Democrats and Republicans return to their previous positions after the Russia investigation is over, these historians warn that the strife could permanently harm Congress’s relationship with the FBI.
Partisan opinion on the FBI has shifted dramatically
The swing in opinion on the FBI isn’t confined to Capitol Hill. Over the past 15 years, Democratic and Republican voters’ views of the agency have veered in opposite directions. In 2003, Gallup asked respondents to rate the job being done by the FBI and found that 63 percent of Republicans said the agency was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, while only 44 percent of Democrats agreed. Last year, however, Gallup asked the same question and found that the tables had turned: Only 49 percent of Republicans said that the FBI was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, compared to 69 percent of Democrats.
The polling data suggests that these changes were driven by different factors for each party, at least initially. Democratic approval of the FBI was considerably higher in 2009 than in 2003 — suggesting that the election of Barack Obama as president may have increased liberals’ confidence in the agency — while Republicans’ support for the agency held steady through 2014, then abruptly fell when the question was asked again in 2017.
Separate polling conducted by Pew, which tracks whether Americans have favorable or unfavorable opinions of an array of government institutions, found that Democrats’ outlook on the FBI grew considerably rosier over the course of the Obama administration. Pew’s findings for Republicans show a more muted decline in support for the FBI than Gallup’s: The percentage of Republicans who said they had a favorable view of the FBI dropped from 71 percent in 1997 to 65 percent in 2017.
Douglas Charles, a Pennsylvania State University history professor who studies the FBI, said that the Gallup results are evidence that Americans’ views of the law-enforcement agency are another casualty of today’s hyper-partisan rhetoric. “This isn’t about substance — the Republicans have decided that it’s politically expedient to attack the FBI,” he said. “And the Democrats have made a similar calculation that it’s politically expedient to support it.”
The FBI wasn’t always a political lightning rod
Although J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI