Donald Trump wants to control the justice department and FBI ... his allies have a plan

17 May 2024 - 13:22
By Gram Slattery and Sarah N. Lynch and Andrew Goudsward
FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Image: Reuters/Kaylee Greenlee Beal FBI Director Christopher Wray.

Some of Donald Trump's allies are assembling proposals to curtail the justice department's independence and turn the nation's top law enforcement body into an attack dog for conservative causes, nine people involved in the effort told Reuters.

If successful, the overhaul could represent one of the most consequential actions of a second Trump presidency, given the department's role in protecting democratic institutions and upholding the rule of law.

It would also mark a dramatic departure from the department's mission statement, which identifies “independence and impartiality” as core values.

Trump, who has been indicted on dozens of criminal charges by the department, has vowed on the campaign trail to overhaul the agency if he wins the presidential election on November 5 and pledged to use it to pursue his own opponents, including Democratic President Joe Biden.

The plan is twofold, according to the nine people interviewed by Reuters, some of whom requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

First: flood the department with stalwart conservatives unlikely to say “no” to controversial orders from the White House. Second: restructure the department so key decisions are concentrated in the hands of administration loyalists rather than career bureaucrats.

The FBI — which many Republicans see as biased against them — would have new constraints on its authority, with many of its responsibilities shifted to other law enforcement agencies, those people said.

“Trump feels the department has institutional problems,” said Steve Bannon, a prominent Trump ally who was prosecuted by the department and convicted for contempt of Congress. “It's not just personnel: you do need to purge the department, but you also need to reform it.”

Overhauling the department would allow the Trump administration to pursue conservative policy initiatives such as dismantling hiring programmes meant to boost diversity in the workplace and ending federal oversight of police departments accused of racist practices.

In response to questions from Reuters, the Trump campaign pointed to a December statement from co-campaign managers Susie Wiles and Chris LaCivita.

“Unless a message is coming directly from Trump or an authorised member of his campaign team, no aspect of future presidential staffing or policy announcements should be deemed official,” they said.

The campaign itself has few full-time policy staffers. Trump and his team are in frequent contact with outside groups, such as those formulating recommendations on the department.

With Trump holding a lead in most swing states likely to decide November's election, the former president's advisers may have a shot at putting their ideas into practice.

Trump's promises to remodel the department have been well documented, but less attention has been given to identifying the specific measures his allies and advisers are advocating.

Two prominent Trump allies said they support eliminating the FBI's general counsel, an office that enraged Republicans during Trump's 2017-2021 term for its role in approving an inquiry into contacts between his 2016 campaign and Russian officials.

The general counsel provides legal advice to FBI employees regarding ongoing probes and other matters. Closing it would force the bureau to receive legal guidance from people closer to Trump's attorney-general in the chain of command and limit the FBI's ability to conduct investigations without close political oversight, according to several Trump supporters and legal professionals with knowledge of the department's workings.

Biden campaign spokesperson Ammar Mousa said Trump and his allies “were putting Trump's own revenge and retribution before what is best for America”. The FBI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump's allies argue that, as head of the executive branch, the president should have broad powers to command and oversee the department as he or she sees fit.

Most Democrats and even some Republicans reject that view. They say the department requires an unusual amount of independence because it's responsible for administering justice in a non-partisan fashion. At times, that mandate includes investigating a president's close political allies.

“There are always enforcement disputes. That is standard politics,” said Kristy Parker, a former federal prosecutor who is now at Protect Democracy, a nonprofit legal advocacy organisation.

“What is not standard politics is somebody basically coming in and saying we are going to jettison the idea that the department should have a wall of separation between it and the personal political agenda of the president.”

Many Trump allies making these proposals are affiliated with a consortium of conservative think-tanks known as “Project 2025”, which has been making detailed plans for a second Trump presidency. In a statement, Project 2025 said it could not speak for the Trump campaign.

These allies are also combing through federal regulations for novel ways to bring stalwart conservatives into the department at the start of a potential Trump term, according to two people with knowledge of those deliberations.

These detailed preparations contrast with Trump's chaotic 2016 transition, which involved relatively little policy planning, several people involved have acknowledged.

The former president spent the opening months of his first administration butting heads with his attorney-general and FBI director, both of whom angered the president by failing to halt inquiries into his 2016 campaign.

It's an experience, according to several associates who speak to Trump, he's determined not to repeat.

Trump faces a total of 88 charges in four criminal cases — two of which have been brought by the department — over efforts to subvert the 2020 election, retaining classified documents after leaving office and alleged efforts to cover up a hush money payment to a porn star.

The 77-year-old denies wrongdoing in all the cases and points to the charges as proof the department is biased against him. The department denies this and says it conducts its probes impartially.

Attorney-general Merrick Garland on Thursday deplored what he called “a series of unprecedented and frankly unfounded attacks on the department”.

While promising to establish a non-partisan justice system, Trump has called for many of his political opponents to be arrested. Last June, he pledged in a post on Truth Social to have a “special prosecutor” probe 81-year-old Biden.

Some allies stop short of embracing Trump's rhetoric of revenge, but they agree Trump should have greater control over the department and FBI.

“Whenever you have power centres, that have enormous resources, coercive power and investigative tools at their disposal, and they are presumed to be independent of any control down the chain of command from the president, that is a recipe for abuse of power,” said Steve Bradbury, a former justice official who briefly served as Trump's acting transportation secretary.

In interviews with Reuters, Bradbury and Gene Hamilton, a senior department official under Trump, both endorsed the measure to eliminate the FBI's general counsel.

They said they do not speak for Trump but are contributing ideas to Project 2025. Hamilton is a trusted lieutenant of Stephen Miller, one of Trump's closest policy advisers. Miller did not respond to requests for comment.

Bradbury and Hamilton also endorsed changing the department's chain of command so the FBI director reports to a pair of politically appointed assistant attorneys general.

The director reports to the deputy attorney-general, a more senior official who in practice is too busy and has too large a portfolio to oversee and guide FBI probes, Bradbury said.

Bradbury and other legal experts said that change could be done without congressional authorisation. These steps are necessary to ensure the bureau's enforcement priorities align with the White House's policy preferences. Detractors say these measures will undermine the independence of the department and the FBI.

Some Trump allies and advisers also want to narrow dramatically the types of crimes the FBI can investigate, arguing the bureau's focus is too sprawling for political appointees to oversee effectively.

In a publicly available policy memo, which was published last July but received little attention, Bradbury said other law enforcement agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration, could take the lead where their jurisdiction overlaps with the bureau.

The remnants of the bureau, Bradbury wrote, could focus exclusively on “large-scale crimes and threats to national security” that require a federal response.

As important as restructuring the department, Trump allies argue, is ensuring it is stacked with allies unlikely to slow-walk Trump's demands.

Trump has publicly embraced a potential executive order known as “Schedule F” that would give him the power to replace thousands of civil servants with conservative allies.

That would allow his administration to expand the number of political appointments in the department, which sits in the low hundreds, though allies have not settled on precisely how many positions could be created.

Some Trump allies at Project 2025 also want to expand the use of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act, an obscure statute that allows departments to bring in outside experts with the help of non-profits, several people with knowledge of those deliberations said.

AFSCME Local 2830, a union representing some department employees, said in a statement to Reuters it is “concerned that Trump officials will fill positions to further their partisan agenda instead of impartially carrying out federal laws and regulations and upholding the constitution”.

With the right structure and personnel in place, Trump will be better prepared to pursue conservative policy goals, his supporters say. While his allies have floated dozens of ideas, many relate broadly to how the federal government polices civil rights.

For example, Hamilton argued the department should examine whether corporations are discriminating against whites by instituting programmes designed to boost the number of people of colour in the workplace.

The department could derive its authority, he said, from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars hiring or compensation decisions based on “race” or “sex”.

Hamilton also called for radically curtailing court-monitored settlements known as “consent decrees” between the department and local police departments, which are used to help curb civil rights abuses against people of colour, the disabled and the mentally ill.

Conservatives portray these agreements as heavy-handed federal actions that interfere with local agencies trying to fight crime. Rights advocates say such arguments ignore centuries of documented inequities.

Christy Lopez, a Georgetown professor who formerly served as a department civil rights division official, said the department reduced its police accountability work during Trump's first term.

“There's no reason to believe his administration won't double down,” she said.