Asked about the House GOP’s relationship with the FBI, Rep. Matt Gaetz — the pro-Trump Florida conservative poised to avoid charges in a federal sex trafficking probe — summed it up in only two words: “It’s complicated.”
As Gaetz’s House colleagues acknowledge, they don’t plan to make good on conservatives’ pro-Trump calls to “defund the FBI” after its Mar-a-Lago search. Some, however, are planning to make the agency’s life as difficult as possible next year if they win back the majority.
GOP lawmakers are preparing a buffet of investigations aimed at touching every aspect of the agency’s decision-making, even floating a select committee to probe how the bureau handled the recovery of classified documents kept at Donald Trump’s Florida estate. That’s on top of talk of likely doomed-to-fail efforts by conservatives to dramatically curb the FBI’s reach and funding while other baked-in fights, like renewing the bureau’s surveillance permissions, wait in the wings.
The entire affair is likely to spotlight divisions between more traditional national security hawks and House Republicans who skew more libertarian-minded or Trump-centric.
“I think the FBI has gotten heavily, severely off track since 9/11. And we ought to do a deep dive into ensuring that the FBI is focused on organized crime, combating crime, and not witch-hunting Americans,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), a member of the Judiciary Committee that will take the lead in FBI oversight, said in a brief interview.
The burgeoning one-sided feud is the latest sign of decay in a long-fraught relationship between the FBI and congressional Republicans, despite their claimed mantle of backing law enforcement and continued efforts to broadly paint Democrats as anti-police. Trump and his allies already spent years using the FBI and the Justice Department as go-to villains, with the August search of Mar-a-Lago and subsequent leaks only deepening distrust of the bureau among conservative lawmakers and their base voters.
Even so, the calls to “defund the FBI” still go too far for many House Republicans.
“Do I think we’re going to defund the FBI? No. Do I think that’s smart? No. If you’ve got concerns about the directions of the FBI, that’s what oversight hearings are for,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
Democrats are already eager to turn the anti-police moniker on their adversaries. Moderates on their side of the aisle have publicly and privately vented for years about getting stuck with the “defund the police” label, which some thought were to blame for the party’s unexpected 2020 losses.
“We support good policing. The other side is calling to defund the FBI,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs House Democrats’ campaign arm.
The House recently passed a package of community safety and policing bills with many Republicans opposing most of it, giving Democrats a new hook for their attempt to turn the “defund” label on its head. Asked about calls to defund the FBI by some conservatives, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) — who supported diverting some money from police departments — said that it’s “really important to look at who is not supportive of law enforcement, who is calling for the FBI agents to be targeted simply for doing their job at Mar-a-Lago.”
“Republicans just want to fund law enforcement if they are propping up the Big Lie,” Jayapal added, referring to the former president’s false claims of widespread voter fraud affecting the 2020 election.
And even fellow conservative lawmakers are pivoting away from the phrase, which divides Republicans and is easily turned into a campaign slogan against their party as they talk up their plans for next year.
“Somebody said … you want to defund the FBI. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it needs to be organized so that it returns to its robust strength and fortitude as a law enforcement agency,” said Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.).
And Republicans’ oversight plans go further than Mar-a-Lago. They also include efforts to track threats against school officials, which ramped up amid the pandemic and controversies over how teachers talked about systemic racism in classrooms, that the GOP sees as an effort to target parents — an allegation the bureau has strongly denied.
Many of their investigative theories have thrived in conservative circles for the past two years, but a majority would provide new high-profile perches to try to inject them into the mainstream. It would also give GOP lawmakers more power to try to force the administration to comply with their investigative requests.
“We’ve got some oversight to catch up on,” said Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, who accused the FBI of having “strained” its relationship with House Republicans “by politicizing everything.”
Conservatives’ focus on potential GOP points of investigation next year is already causing tension on the Judiciary Committee, where members went down a rabbit hole during a recent hearing. Republicans wanted, and failed, to require the Biden administration to hand over information related to an unsupported conspiracy theory that the FBI had helped stage the Capitol attack. And those conservatives later indicated they could pick that thread back up after winning the majority.
Beyond investigations, Republicans have at least one legislative clash with the FBI looming with an end-of-2023 deadline for renewing a surveillance program, known as Section 702, that’s meant to gather electronic communications of foreign targets. It’s caused controversy given its ability to also inadvertently sweep up the communications of Americans.
Meanwhile, some Republicans are seeking to clarify that their party’s concerns lie with FBI leadership, not the bureau’s agents writ large.
“The FBI is composed of amazing human beings. The issues that have occurred in the past have been on the 7th floor,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI agent and a member of the Intelligence Committee, referring to where senior bureau leaders sit.
Fitzpatrick added that reauthorizing the surveillance powers — an effort Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) is leading among Intelligence Committee Republicans, with Fitzpatrick’s help — will be a “heavy lift” but one that is “incredibly important.” The fight next year could put a spotlight on ideological differences between Republicans on the Intelligence Committee and those on the Judiciary panel, since both share oversight of the issue.
Conservatives are also pushing to use a new majority in 2023 to reorient the FBI away from intelligence-gathering and toward a strictly law enforcement focus. That could end up sparking fights over restrictions in government funding bills or even a debate over splitting up and decentralizing the FBI.
Bishop, for example, has floated putting the FBI under the supervision of the 94 U.S. attorneys’ districts across the country.
“I think we ought to de-emphasize the sort of collection of power on the 7th floor of the FBI in the Washington field office and at Main Justice,” Bishop said.
Getting any such bill to Biden’s desk is likely impossible given the 60-vote requirement for most bills in the Senate. And even getting legislation that dramatically changes the scope of the FBI through a GOP-controlled House would be a herculean lift.
That’s not stopping conservatives from putting public pressure on their fellow Republicans.
“Over the next two years, very few things are going to happen legislatively. It’s just simple math,” Roy said. “Unless Republicans grow a spine and use the power of the purse … to demand change, right?”
“That’s it,” he added. That’s the whole game.”
Sarah Ferris and Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.