Former President Trump’s call for Congress to defund the Department of Justice and the FBI in response to growing legal pressure creates a new headache for Republican leaders on Capitol Hill and may undercut their message that Republicans are tough on crime.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has championed the message this year that the Biden administration and Democrats around the country are weak on crime, but now he’s faced with Trump supporters in the House threatening to cut funding for the nation’s top law enforcement agencies.
One such Trump ally is House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who on Sunday endorsed the idea of cutting money for the Justice Department and FBI.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who relied on Jordan’s support to win the Speaker’s gavel after 15 ballots, is giving his chairman plenty of space to pressure federal prosecutors and investigators to back off Trump.
While McConnell has chastised the Justice Department and FBI for “harassing” conservatives, such as parents who complain at local school board meetings, embracing the idea of cutting federal law enforcement money amid what many Republicans say is a national crime wave is politically dangerous, experts and strategists say.
“Trump is creating problems for Republicans everywhere,” said Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s almost impossible to see anything good from this kind of comment coming for the Republicans.
“The idea that they would get on the opposite side of law enforcement agencies from where they have traditionally been is only going to make them look radical and foolish in the eyes of many of the voters they absolutely need: suburbanites and exurban voters who are already showing disdain for Trump-supporting Republicans,” he added. “Trump’s comments make it more difficult for Republicans who are tying their political future to him.”
Trump on Wednesday declared that, “Republicans in Congress should defund the DOJ and FBI until they come to their senses” in apparent response to the Justice Department’s investigation of whether he incited the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and his handling of classified documents at his personal residence.
He made the comment on his social media platform Truth Social.
A Senate Republican aide later on Wednesday said that idea won’t get any traction in the Senate, where Republicans control 49 seats.
“I understand the former president is frustrated, but that’s not going to happen,” the source said, knocking down the idea that Republican senators would support using the annual appropriations for the Justice Department and FBI as leverage.
This is becoming a point of tension with House Republicans, who say they are ready to use their power of the purse to protect Trump.
“We control the power of the purse, and that’s, we’re gonna have to look at the appropriations process and limit funds going to some of these agencies, particularly the ones who are engaging in the most egregious behavior,” Jordan told Fox News host Maria Bartiromo in an interview Sunday.
When Bartiromo asked if he meant the Justice Department and FBI, Jordan responded: “Yeah.”
McCarthy has already given Jordan a green light to scrutinize federal funding for Bragg and other prosecutors investigating Trump.
“I’m directing relevant committees to immediately investigate if federal funds are being used to subvert our democracy by interfering in elections with politically motivated prosecutions,” he wrote in a March 18 tweet pinned to the top of his Twitter account.
Some Republican strategists say Trump may have an argument to make that the federal prosecutors are treating him unfairly but warn that putting pressure on allies in Congress to defund the Justice Department and FBI is going too far.
“Just because Democrats want to defund police, I don’t think it’s smart politically or as a policy to say, ‘Well, we should defund the FBI,’” said Matt Dole, an Ohio-based Republican strategist.
“If we find that the FBI has acted wrongly, then they should be held to account and we should make sure that can’t happen again. Does that mean defunding? I don’t believe it does,” he added.
Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican strategist, pointed out the Justice Department and FBI had nothing to do with Trump’s arraignment on 34 felony counts in a New York City courthouse Tuesday.
“The Department of Justice had nothing to do with this case, the FBI had nothing to do with this case, but we’re supposed to defund two entities that had nothing to do with the case. Does that really make any sense to anyone?” he said, referring to the case Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) brought against Trump Tuesday.
The former president suffered another legal setback Tuesday when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Trump’s former chief of staff Mark Meadows and other senior Trump White House officials to cooperate with the Justice Department’s Jan. 6 investigation.
The appellate court agreed with a district court decision rejecting Trump’s claims of executive privilege.
“The Democrats have totally weaponized law enforcement in our country and are viciously using this abuse of power to interfere with our already under siege election!” Trump wrote on his social media platform Truth Social.
Republicans last year bombarded Democratic candidates in Senate battlegrounds such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina with ads attacking them for being soft on crime and they regularly accuse Democrats of wanting to defund the police.
Trump’s call to defund the nation’s top federal law enforcement agencies now muddies that message.
“Donald Trump continues to show that everything he does, everything he says turns off middle-of-the-road swing voters and frankly a lot of moderate Republicans. What he does do is gin up his base who are absolutely convinced that every institution in this country is somehow spying on him,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in North Carolina.
He said Trump’s calls to defend the Department of Justice and FBI are “incredibly problematic for Republicans who want to say that they’re strong on crime or accuse Democrats of being weak on crime.”
“I think it creates a real problem for Republicans and Republican candidates,” he said. “We saw this in 2022. It breeds the kind of Republican candidates that run for office that win these primaries and can’t win a general election.
“It puts Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and every swing seat in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House in a position where Trump is the story all day, every day, whatever he says. That’s a bad thing for Republicans and a great thing for Democrats,” he argued.