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Republican attitudes toward the FBI have radically changed over the years


Republicans in Washington are investigating the investigators. That's why they summoned John Durham to Capitol Hill yesterday. He's the special counsel who determined that the FBI should not have opened a full investigation into possible ties between Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia.


JOHN DURHAM: What is required is accountability, both in terms of the standards to which our law enforcement personnel hold themselves and in the consequences they face for violation of laws and policies of relevance.

ELLIOTT: For decades, conservatives were aligned with the FBI, but no more. Republicans are now attacking the bureau and using Durham's report to do it. Let's bring in Yale University historian Beverly Gage. She wrote a book about the FBI called "G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover And The Making Of The American Century." Good morning.

BEVERLY GAGE: Good morning.

ELLIOTT: So, Professor Gage, exactly how much has the Republican attitude changed toward the FBI?

GAGE: It's been a really dramatic shift. If you go back to the 1960s, 1970s, sort of the end of J. Edgar Hoover's reign at the FBI, Democrats, liberals, leftists are much more critical of the bureau. Republicans and conservatives really like the bureau, and that lasted well into the 21st century. It's in the Trump era that that's changed and changed quite quickly and dramatically.

ELLIOTT: So politics aside, what about the bureau's responsibility here? Did the agency make any specific decisions or mistakes that warrant concerns about its independence?

GAGE: I think there are lots of legitimate questions that can be asked about the FBI, right? Questions about its surveillance practices. Questions about political bias in the Russia probe, you know? Over the long term, questions about its forensic work, right? And all of those have been asked in the public square. And many of them are quite legitimate. I think the problem right now is that they're being driven by partisan politics. And therefore, you know, it's really hard to trust kind of the nature of the inquiry.

ELLIOTT: So what is the risk if the FBI loses the trust, let's say, of either party or even of the American people?

GAGE: J. Edgar Hoover, when he was FBI director for 48 years, did a lot of things wrong. But I think one thing he did understand was that the FBI's legitimacy really depended on its nonpartisan reputation. It's supposed to be the place that we can all turn when you need the facts, and an institution that can conduct really politically sensitive investigations with a lot of public legitimacy, the people that we can trust to tell us what really happened. And so I think this is a moment of real danger for the bureau. It's clear that on both sides, but particularly among Republicans and conservatives on the right, there are real questions about whether to trust the bureau at the moment. And whether those are legitimate or not, they really matter for the FBI's ability to do its work.

ELLIOTT: So let's talk, given your long view of the FBI's history here, how does the agency weather this? How do they recover the confidence of conservatives?

GAGE: Well, I think a lot of it is going to be what it seems Christopher Wray is trying to do, which is to keep his head down, kind of do the work, proceed as best you can, take the criticisms that are legitimate, make reforms on that front and kind of hope that the politics change. But again, not to point to J. Edgar Hoover as the great oracle by any means, but I do think he also understood the power of kind of public relations and the need for the bureau itself to narrate what it's doing, because if you don't narrate what you're doing, other people are going to do it for you.


GAGE: Hoover took it too far, but I think it's an important insight.

ELLIOTT: That's Yale historian Beverly Gage. Thanks so much.

GAGE: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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