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The FBI: An American tragedy under Trump

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Acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin provided updates on the FBI investigation into the Capitol siege (Screenshot via YouTube)

A press conference has highlighted how much the morale of the FBI has diminished under the Trump Administration, writes Paul Begley.

SIX DAYS AFTER an act of insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a feverish mob of White supremacists, neo-nazis and assorted conspiracy theorists, acting U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin appeared at a press conference in Washington DC with an acting FBI Field Officer under the banner of the U.S. Department of Justice. The matter about which they spoke was the raid on the Capitol on 6 January.

Although signs such as 'Q sent me' were prominent among those assembled at the Capitol that day, it was apparent to anyone who had been watching television that it was the 45th President of the United States who sent them. He told his supporters that Vice President Mike Pence had disappointed him, that the members of Congress were about to allow the Vice President to participate in proceedings to take away their country and if they didn't go with him to the Capitol to fight, their country would be taken away from them and they wouldn't get it back.

Of the thousands of MAGAs who responded to the President's bidding, it was clear that many took him at his word and were more than happy to literally fight for their country. Many others were simply there to show support by making up the numbers, though the President was not among them, despite saying he would be there. It's safe to say the vast majority saw themselves as patriots who were doing their duty. Patheos reported a man yelling “shout if you love Jesus", to which the mob cheered wildly. He followed with “shout if you love Trump”, to which they cheered more wildly.

It was against this backdrop that the DOJ press conference took place. It was also against a background that exposed multiple failures of preparedness by police and security services. The mob was easily able to penetrate the police lines despite the bravery of many police officers, one of whom died from injuries sustained at the riot. The man responsible for the murder could not have known the uniformed officer was a man by the name of Brian Sicknick. Like a number of others among police ranks, officer Sicknick had been an open supporter of Trump before being killed on duty.  

The intention behind the DOJ press conference became apparent fairly quickly. The participants were there to assure American citizens of two things.

The first was that the FBI had called for public assistance after the insurrection, which had been forthcoming. Thousands of people had responded to the calls and hundreds of offenders had been identified and charged, with many more serious charges of individuals to follow in the coming days, weeks and months.

The second was a public relations exercise, pure and simple. It was to inform Americans that the FBI had been aware in advance of the likelihood of serious trouble on 6 January and had shared their information with appropriate police forces in the states and in DC. 

While that might be true, the feeling that prevailed as the press conference unfolded was essentially one of pathos. Anyone who has seen The Comey Rule on Stan would be aware that a fundamental protocol observed by members of the FBI is that the agency does not comment on contemporaneous cases. The world saw Robert Mueller observe that protocol to a fault during his time as special prosecutor, when he had everyone guessing about what he knew but kept mum.

Former FBI Director James Comey departed from that rule on the matter of the Clinton emails, to his great cost, though Comey at least brought a degree of gravitas to the matter. What became apparent during the DOJ press conference on Tuesday was that the participants were desperate to reveal that they had been working hard in the field and in the Attorney's department, revealing chapter and verse about how the case was progressing in their statements and in responding to journalist questions.

Without suggesting that the DOJ officers were actually behaving like Maxwell Smart, there was a touch of Get Smart about the press conference, though it sorely needed a Cone of Silence. As a PR exercise, the officers protested too much, to the point of pathos. The pathos was accentuated in the knowledge that the intelligence services had actually been doing their job, but their morale has been so damaged over the past four years that they clearly believe they needed to insist on that fact.

Among others, the former Chief of Staff in the Department of Homeland Security, Miles Taylor, had revealed some months ago that the likes of domestic White supremacists and QAnon had been identified as primary domestic terrorist threats by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, but that the President did not want to know that and instead kept demanding to be told that the like of Antifa, Leftists and ISIL were the main threats.

The present head of DHS is Trump loyalist Chad Wolf, who has no answer for the large-scale security breaches at the Capitol on 6 January and has now joined his predecessors Kirstjen Nielsen and John Kelly on the other side of the Trump circle by tendering his resignation.

President-elect Joe Biden made the right sounds last week by announcing his intention to appoint Merrick Garland as Attorney General and placing on the record that Garland will not be working for the President as his predecessor William Barr had been. Among the Herculean tasks ahead of it, the Biden Administration has the job of restoring morale to the DOJ, the FBI, the CIA, DHS and the Department of Defense, most of which have suffered loss of self-belief and prestige by being run by unqualified acting Trump loyalists who do not see themselves as working for the American people but for the President in his personal capacity.

The FBI has an uneven past but it has usually commanded a residue of respect on the world stage. The DOJ press conference on Tuesday displayed to the world a glimpse of the tragedy of America under Trump, where the FBI now earns widespread pity rather than respect as an agency that collects useful and reliable intelligence. And it reminded anyone who needed reminding that, despite the best intentions of a great many dedicated public servants, Mike Pence was kidding when he said that the U.S. Government is fully functional.

Paul Begley lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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