Experts explain why the FBI has never — and should never — report to the president

Experts explain why the FBI has never — and should never — report to the president
President Donald Trump Alex Wong/Getty Images
President Donald Trump Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Sanford Ungar heard that President Donald Trump said the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation once reported to the president, he was incredulous.

“It’s bullshit,” the veteran journalist and author of a 1976 history of the FBI said in an interview. “It’s just totally untrue. ... I don’t think there exists, anywhere, a federal organizational chart that would show the FBI director reporting to the president.”

In a wide-reaching Oval Office discussion between Trump and three New York Times reporters on Wednesday, Trump said that it wasn’t until “Richard Nixon came along” that the FBI director stopped reporting to the president. The director began taking direction from the Justice Department, Trump said, “out of courtesy.”

That’s not only another falsehood uttered by the president: It shows Trump has no understanding of, or respect for, the role of the FBI, historians and former agency officials said. The agency’s effectiveness hinges on it remaining apolitical, they said — separate from America’s increasingly hostile partisan political environment. 

“It should be a law enforcement function,” said Ungar, now director of the free speech project at Georgetown University. “Once the president is in the line of authority, it’s a political function.”  

In that same interview, the president told the Times that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should not be able to investigate Trump’s financial history — likely key for understanding the president’s relationships with Russia. 

“Trust in our investigative agency’s ability to ferret out serious misconduct and corruption is fundamental to our trust in our government.”

“Does he actually contemplate firing Mueller or instructing the deputy attorney general to do so?” Ron Hosko wondered aloud in an interview. “If you’re trying to fire the prosecutors ... we’re coming toward a real crisis.” 

We’re not there yet. But Hosko, a former assistant FBI director who oversaw the criminal investigative division and now runs the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said that situation demonstrates why the FBI must be independent of the White House.

“The country needs an independent investigative body that can pursue serious allegations of misconduct wherever they go. ... Because trust in our investigative agency’s ability to ferret out serious misconduct and corruption is fundamental to our trust in our government,” Hosko said.

Nancy Savage, a retired FBI agent who now heads up the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, said that beyond the director, the agency’s leadership is not politically appointed. That’s different than many other federal agencies that have positions nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

“That’s a huge thing,” Savage said. “The FBI is an apolitical organization. ... It’s good for the country to have that degree of independence.”