On his way to Quantico, Va., to speak at the FBI’s National Academy, President Trump stopped to tell reporters, “It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI,” and “you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it.”
Trump asserted that “we’re going to rebuild the FBI” after what he described as “really, really disgraceful” documents, presumably the text messages that the Justice Department provided Congress this week in which a senior agent described candidate Trump as an “idiot” and made other political remarks in the course of the presidential campaign.
Trump also opened the door to pardoning Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI last month.
“I don’t want to talk about pardons with Michael Flynn — yet,” Trump said. “We’ll see what happens. Let’s see.”
Flynn has not been sentenced and appears to be a cooperating witness as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Trump called the investigation a “Democrat hoax,” “an excuse for losing the election” and claimed again “there is absolutely no collusion.”
The remarks carried new potency given Trump’s audience Friday morning: the latest graduating class at the FBI’s National Academy for law enforcement managers.
Yet, the president made only passing references to the FBI in his remarks before law-enforcement officers from around the country and internationally, who graduated from a program at the FBI’s prestigious training center.
“Thank you to the FBI, and thank you to our law-enforcement families,” Trump said at the end of what was a speech that was full of hard-line, pro-police talk, much of which was heard during Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. It avoided his controversial criticisms of the agency.
It’s unusual for a president to blast the FBI. In fact, over the past 15 years, it’s been the other way around. President Barack Obama famously visited bureau headquarters a few months after he took office in 2009, donning an FBI baseball cap and sharing “the thanks of a grateful nation.” A year earlier, President George W. Bush praised “the character and courage of those who carry the badge.”
The appearance at the FBI had already promised to be complicated for Trump, given his record of derogatory public statements and negative tweets about the FBI this year.
Recently, Trump tweeted that the FBI’s reputation was in “Tatters – worst in History!” He called popular former FBI Director James Comey, whom he fired in May, “a liar” and “a leaker.” Trump also accused the FBI, without providing any evidence, of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower in 2016. And he continues to cast doubt on a conclusion by the bureau and other intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in last year’s presidential election.
On Friday morning, Trump reaffirmed to reporters, “there is absolutely no collusion. I didn’t make a phone call to Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia. Everybody knows it. That was a Democrat hoax. It was an excuse for losing the election.”
Another source of awkwardness: the FBI’s longtime former leader, Mueller, is the man running the ongoing special counsel probe into election interference — and into whether anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign took part. So far, Mueller’s team has secured indictments against Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, and won guilty pleas from a campaign foreign policy official and Flynn.
That last development, on Dec. 1, prompted a new wave of attacks from Trump and his supporters on the integrity of the FBI and the Justice Department, fueled by the disclosure that the Justice Department Inspector General had uncovered text messages in which a senior agent working on the Russia probe had called Trump an “idiot” during the campaign.
While Mueller removed the agent from the investigation months ago, one of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, has cited the matter to call for a second special counsel to investigate conflicts of interest at the bureau.
In response to a stream of harsh criticism this month, the FBI Agents Association mounted a rare public defense.
“Every day, FBI special agents put their lives on the line to protect the American public from national security and criminal threats,” President Tom O’Connor tweeted. “Agents perform their duties with unwavering integrity and professionalism and a focus on complying with the law and the Constitution. This is why the FBI continues to be the premier law enforcement agency in the world.”
Trump’s pick to lead the FBI, former Justice Department official Christopher Wray, also raised his voice to defend the workforce in congressional testimony last week.
“Let me start by saying that it is for me the honor of a lifetime to be here representing the men and women of the FBI,” Wray said. “There is no finer institution than the FBI and no finer people than the men and women who work there and are its very beating heart.”
Trump appeared on stage with Wray to welcome the new class of National Academy graduates at what is known as the agency’s “police training center.”
The program puts attendees through a series of academic and physical challenges, building partnerships between police and the FBI. Nearly 10 years ago, Mueller told an FBI graduating class at Quantico, “For the past 100 years, the FBI has stood for the best of America.”
It remains to be seen whether the new president agrees.