Why you should care
Because old mores are keeping Trump from shuttering the Russia investigation.
The two men with famous initials lived across the street from each other for almost two decades. As they climbed the ladder of Washington, D.C., politics, they bonded — as much over their shared hunger for intelligence as their appetite for backyard barbecues and whiskey. The first worked his way up, from unheralded Texas congressman to Senate majority leader to vice president. The other set his sights on turning a small government agency into a powerful political force with tendrils touching almost every aspect of American life.
So when Lyndon B. Johnson became president in November 1963, he was determined that his longtime neighbor would be at his side for years to come. Which is why, in 1964, Johnson signed an executive order exempting J. Edgar Hoover from the compulsory retirement age of 70 “for an indefinite period of time.”
Dick, you will come to depend on Edgar. He is a pillar of strength in a city of weak men.
President Lyndon B. Johnson to President-elect Richard M. Nixon
It was just one more way the longtime FBI director, through tact, implicit blackmail and questionable ethics, enshrined himself as essential to the executive branch. Eventually, as leader of the county’s domestic intelligence and security arm, he would exert his power on six presidents over nearly five decades. But the aftermath of his successful, if unscrupulous, reign led to a series of legislative and procedural reforms.
Those precedents have direct ramifications on Donald J. Trump, who as president has come under fire for his flirtations with the feds — and his tendency to punish those who reject his overtures. A year ago, Trump dismissed James Comey, after previously asking for a pledge of loyalty from the former FBI chief. A week ago, reports emerged that the current director, Christopher Wray, had threatened to resign when pressured to fire Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. And on Monday, McCabe did step down a month earlier than his planned retirement after months of criticism from the tweeter-in-chief and at least one incident during which Trump reportedly asked whether McCabe had voted for him. While Trump’s actions represent the most significant presidential interference in the agency’s affairs in modern politics, such subterfuge wasn’t always so rare.
It was only in reaction to Hoover’s complicated legacy that the public redefined the relationship between the FBI and the president — one of the major reasons that Trump, despite his bluster, has remained reticent to appoint an ally to lead the agency. “Hoover set the standard,” says Princeton political scientist Julian Zelizer, by which future coziness between presidents and FBI directors would be judged.
Such a future wasn’t assured to Hoover, who was born on New Year’s Day in 1895 to Swiss-German parents. Growing up in the Eastern Market district near Capitol Hill, Hoover stuttered — and overcame the speech impediment by learning to speak at a breakneck speed, so fast that stenographers would later struggle to keep pace. On the Central High School debate team, Hoover was lauded for his “cool, relentless logic” as he argued against abolishing the death penalty and the right for women to vote. After earning a law degree from George Washington University, Hoover worked his way through the Justice Department — from the War Emergency Division to leading the Bureau of Investigation’s anti-racial division, emerging in 1924 as acting director at the tender age of 29.
Over the next decade, Hoover transformed the bureau, which had 650 employees and 441 special agents when he took over. Mainly a gang-busting and anti-prostitution outfit to start, the bureau began to greatly expand its intelligence-gathering efforts shortly after Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933. It was an odd fit: Roosevelt and his left-of-center administration seemed at odds with Hoover’s hard-line-right domestic positions. But as FBI historian Douglas M. Charles writes in J. Edgar Hoover and the Anti-Interventionists, the bureau director expertly played to Roosevelt’s political needs, monitoring critics of Roosevelt’s anti-interventionist foreign policy between 1939 and 1945. In return, Roosevelt supported the expansion of the agency.
The next two presidents, Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, were more skeptical. Truman worried aloud about the FBI becoming a “Gestapo.” John F. Kennedy played ball but required that Hoover go through his brother, Robert, the attorney general. But Hoover enjoyed a renaissance when his buddy Johnson ascended to the presidency following JFK’s assassination.
Hoover kept his job thanks to the executive order; in return, Johnson received special intelligence, such as FBI monitoring of Democrats. The arrangement worked so well that Johnson, when passing the torch to Richard M. Nixon, told the incoming president: “Dick, you will come to depend on Edgar. He is a pillar of strength in a city of weak men.”
That very well could have been true — Nixon had already benefited from the unscrupulous director, receiving secret intelligence on Communist Alger Hiss, which elevated the young California congressman to national prominence. But Hoover died in 1972. Six weeks later, five men were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex. When the White House called the FBI to squash the investigation, they were rebuffed — if Hoover had been alive, he may have seen it as a political opportunity and acquiesced.
The aftermath of Watergate? “There was both more expectation, and more political pressure, for presidents not to just appoint yes men,” says Zelizer. And in 1975, Americans finally learned of Hoover’s ethically nebulous practices, which led to mass reforms: a 10-year cap on the tenures of FBI directors and Justice Department guidelines defining the relationship between a president and the FBI, which were updated in 2009. The term limit was important — it went past any particular president to reduce chances of influence, while also protecting the public from allowing another Hoover, says Michael German, a Brookings Institution fellow and a former FBI agent. Hoover’s ghost is why men like Comey, Wray and McCabe have resisted Trump’s pressure tactics and why Trump hasn’t appointed a loyal sycophant — yet.