Philip Wegmann: The DeSantis Plan To Wage War On ‘Weaponized’ DOJ
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been working for months on plans to tear down and rebuild both the Department of Justice and the FBI, consulting with experts and members of Congress to develop a “Day One” strategy to end what conservatives see as the weaponization of the justice system.
The governor has privately told advisors that he will hire and fire plenty of federal personnel, reorganize entire agencies, and execute a “disciplined” and “relentless” strategy to restore the Justice Department to a mission more in line with what the “Founding Fathers envisioned.”
But his ambitions go beyond bureaucratic restructuring. He wants to physically remove large swathes of the DOJ from the District of Columbia, including FBI headquarters, RealClearPolitics is first to report.
“We’re not going to let all this power accumulate in Washington, we’re going to break up these agencies,” DeSantis said during a private strategy session over the weekend, excerpts of which were obtained exclusively by RCP. He vowed in that call to order “some of the problematic components of the DOJ” be uprooted, reorganized, and then promptly “shipped to other parts of the country.”
This fits with one of the central themes of the DeSantis campaign, namely that he’d be “an energetic executive,” a president with the focus and attention to detail necessary to make the most of his Article II powers. On the stump, the governor regularly wins applause from primary voters for promising not just to wage war on the so-called deep state, but to end it.
The goal, according to senior outside advisors, ought to be returning the DOJ and FBI to a more limited “pre-9/11” mission. Republicans were outraged last Friday when former President Trump was indicted for mishandling classified documents. DeSantis has condemned that move, and his campaign scheduled the Saturday conference call “not knowing,” he told advisors, that there would be “news last night.” But the governor is also intimately familiar with conservative gripes about political bias inside President Biden’s Department of Justice. They have been central to his campaign.
“We’ve seen throughout this country that the DOJ and the FBI are controlled by one faction of our society,” DeSantis said on the call, pointing to how those agencies were “going after pro-life activists,” wrongfully investigating parents at school board meetings “who are concerned about things like critical race theory, and forcing kids to wear masks,” and “colluding with tech companies to censor information such as what they did with the 2020 election.”
DeSantis has assembled a brain trust of academics, members of Congress, and former administration officials to draw up step-by-step blueprints for tearing the DOJ and FBI down to the studs for a rebuild.
He consults frequently with Reps. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Chip Roy of Texas, conservatives always at war with government bureaucracy and openly hostile to federal power. Steven Bradbury of the Heritage Foundation and Victor Davis Hanson of the Hoover Institution have also joined the working group to offer technical expertise and historical perspective.
There have been regular conference calls, detailed memos, and at least one policy retreat in Tallahassee earlier this year. The work is ongoing because their enemy, the so-called “deep state,” is vast. Their aim is nothing short of crippling it once and for all.
A key feature of the emerging plan: Move fast. Don’t wait on Congress.
Bradbury has placed particular emphasis on that point during discussions with the candidate. An alum of both the Bush and Trump administrations, the former assistant attorney general told DeSantis that not only could he “relocate the FBI headquarters” without legislation from Congress, but he could also eliminate and then consolidate the bureau’s general counsel, public affairs, and government relations offices with existing divisions in the DOJ.
Bradbury has suggested that such a move would both limit opportunities for the FBI to meddle in political affairs and also “beef up and emphasize the field offices.”
This kind of innovation suits DeSantis, who takes a broader view of executive authority than is typical of constitutional conservatives and who has told advisors he “doesn’t buy” the idea that presidents can’t fire anyone on the federal payroll. He makes little distinction between political appointees, such as FBI Director Christopher Wray, and the federal government’s career employees, a workforce numbering 35,000 at the FBI alone. “If you’re performing poorly, you should be fired,” he said, referring to special protections for a legion of federal civil servants. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a bureaucrat, or if you’re a political appointee.”
While the current Republican frontrunner was famous for telling celebrities, “You’re Fired” on television, the DeSantis campaign insists the governor would follow through in the Oval Office. DeSantis promised that as president, there’d be a “new sheriff in town,” one who doesn’t mind sending federal employees into early retirement. He isn’t the only one making these kinds of arguments.
Trump said in Iowa earlier this month that he could tame the bureaucrats who tormented his tenure “in six months.” DeSantis countered in New Hampshire that anyone making that kind of claim should be asked, “Why didn’t you do that when you had four years to try?” Only a two-term president can finish that job, he added, because otherwise, “bureaucrats will wait you out if you’re a lame duck president.”
DeSantis now promises to give them no such quarter. He has already drawn up plans that, if successful, would amount to the most significant reform of the Justice Department in decades.
This is something of a theme for DeSantis. He fired a state attorney for failing to enforce Florida election law last year. He has already told voters he would fire Wray, the FBI director appointed by Trump and retained by Biden. He identified a new target Saturday: any DOJ employee working on a grand jury investigation caught talking to the press to undermine political opponents.
“If they’re leaking,” DeSantis said with a broad directive that could very well foreshadow his tenure if elected, “we’re going to fire people.”
There are some functions DeSantis would not allow law enforcement to do at all. For instance, he told advisors that as president, he would “completely put the kibosh on the FBI and DOJ’s nonsense with respect to so-called misinformation.”
There are other things DeSantis would have the Justice Department do much differently. He described the mission of the Civil Rights Division during his presidency as one where the agency “is actually policing discrimination.” That division would be truly colorblind, the governor said, because “discrimination is discrimination,” adding that he didn’t think it was acceptable to discriminate against individuals who “happen to be white or Asian.”
And while much of the DeSantis plan to end “weaponization of federal agencies” involves limiting and focusing the role of the Justice Department, the governor pointed to one area of federal expansion. Pointing to Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, he promised to direct the DOJ to go after and hold “accountable” progressive local prosecutors who “are not prosecuting cases against violent criminals.”
Lawmakers have often been wary of confronting the intelligence community out of self-preservation. As Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer once observed, “You take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you.” As of now, those around DeSantis express no such qualms.
Victor Davis Hanson has urged DeSantis to crack down on officials who deceive the public and lawmakers about their activities – so that if any high-ranking official from not only the DOJ or FBI, but also the CIA “goes before Congress and lies that they’re going to face a certain perjury charge.” The governor seems amenable.
DeSantis has also expressed an appetite for revoking security clearances of former intelligence officials, members of what he calls “the intelligence and national security class” often employed, after their public service, as paid cable news contributors. He already has a list: the more than 50 former senior intelligence officials who signed a public letter saying the Hunter Biden laptop story amounted to Russian disinformation.
He has told advisors that gambit was “a lie” and a clear example of how federal privileges can be weaponized for partisan ends, and he plans to withhold security clearances “as appropriate.”
DeSantis has been urging voters to give him an opportunity to confront the administrative state that he has recently taken to calling “the Leviathan” as he crisscrosses the country campaigning for the Republican nomination. Those close to the governor say he is prepared for the work.
A graduate of Harvard Law and JAG officer before Congress, it was DeSantis who, along with Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan and former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, led the charge to impeach then-IRS Commissioner John Koskinen for his alleged role in covering up that agency’s systematic targeting of Tea Party groups.
The effort was scuttled in 2016 by Republican brass who did not have an appetite for a protracted battle with an administrative agency during an election year. “Obviously we haven’t had the success that we hoped for getting leadership to move forward with this,” DeSantis said at the time of the House GOP Conference led by then-Speaker Paul Ryan. “Anytime we flex our muscle, I think that they feel we’ll get criticized by the press and it’ll backfire on us somehow and they’re very hesitant to make any waves.”
DeSantis now campaigns for the GOP nomination on a similar mission. Primary voters likely couldn’t care less about what the press writes almost eight years later, and if elected, the Florida Republican promises to have very specific plans ready to go and to make very real waves as he confronts his “leviathan.”