To Save His Own Skin, He Tries Bullying the Justice Department
Trump moved over the weekend to mix into Justice Department operations and order various actions in connection with the all-things-Russia investigation that concerns actions by himself, his associates and Russian contacts. It is a step too far, but, as he says, let’s wait and see.
Essentially, his orders represent a level of personal interference, following a spectacular tweet storm on Sunday, that threatens to rip traditional independence from the Justice Department.
Specifically, Trump called for the Justice Department/FBI to investigate themselves as to whether they inserted investigators into his campaign “for political purposes.” The president seems to be referring to his misinterpretation of news reports that FBI informants had early conversations with people in the Trump campaign about reaching out to Russians.
Indeed, the Justice Department blinked—perhaps to keep the growing gulf with the president from becoming inflammatory. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein agreed the department’s inspector general would look into any situation in which the FBI pursued a path that was “inappropriate.” The Washington Post’s columnist Greg Sargent said it “what can perhaps best be described as an act of appeasement,” a television reporter called it “deft.”
Let’s be clear, what Trump is out to do is to win points with the various aspects of the unfinished investigation by attacking the legitimacy of the investigators. But a lot probably hangs on the words of the actual orders that were exchanged among the parties, with the Justice Department undoubtedly seeking to pare and polish its response to look as obedient as possible without committing to changing its view of what has happened to get to this point.
The situation has a lot of complicated corners:
- Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, will finish the obstruction of justice portion of the investigation by September, said Rudy Giuliani, acting as Trump’s attorney. There was no such word from Mueller’s office, but in any case, there are other aspects of the investigation that will continue beyond September—meaning that they may be suspended before the election until the November voting is complete. One contributing factor will be whether the president does voluntarily sit for an interview with Mueller.
- “I hereby demand, and will do so officially (Monday), that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes—and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” Trump tweeted. The Justice Department asked its inspector general to expand its review of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act application process to include whether there was any impropriety or political motivation in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation of persons suspected of involvement with the Russian agents who interfered in the 2016 presidential election, Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Isgur Flores said in a statement.
- Giuliani meanwhile tried to frame the outcome of the obstruction investigation as pitting the credibility of Trump against that for James B. Comey, the former FBI director, whom the president fired as part of his request to end the investigation into his first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. How this helps either the president or understanding is unclear.
- Trump attacked The New York Times for reporting that Mueller was investigating offers of help to the Trump campaign from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is illegal for foreign governments or individuals to be involved in an American election. “Now that the Witch Hunt has given up on Russia and is looking at the rest of the World, they should easily be able to take it into the Mid-Term Elections where they can put some hurt on the Republican Party,” Trump wrote. “Don’t worry about Dems FISA Abuse, missing Emails or Fraudulent Dossier!” Skipping the tone, isn’t this just the kind of news reporting that will keep Mueller’s team busier than ever? There seems to be no understanding, for example, that it is illegal for foreign powers to be influencing U.S. elections.
- The Justice Dept.’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz and US Attorney John Huber are already investigating whether department protocols were properly followed when the department and FBI applied for surveillance orders on Carter Page pursuant to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Those investigations almost certainly include whether anyone was surveilled for “political purposes.” Whether new investigations should arise is not clear.
- House Republicans have also been pressuring the Justice Department to reveal more information about a source who had access to (not embedded in) the Trump campaign. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said Sunday that he won’t meet with department officials until he obtains more documents related to the source. The Justice Department has argued until now that surrender of the name of the source would put that source at risk. The Post and The New York Times have both confirmed the source is a retired American professor and that he did, in fact, contact several Trump advisers during the campaign. But he was sent to do this after the FBI had obtained evidence that those advisers had questionable contacts involving Russia during the campaign. In other words, this “spying” was actually done in concert with what appears to be a legitimate counterintelligence investigation, said The Post.
Trump is big on what he sees as “fairness” from a biased “witch hunt,” but he seems not at all bothered by the idea that he is bulldozing his way into the live investigation by the special counsel. As I have argued previously, I see that some of the all-things-Russia probes probably overstate concern arising from the last presidential election, but I have argued that has been important—regardless of political partisanship—to allow the investigation to get to its conclusion.
These latest chapters underscore that people who start with the outcome need to be reminded that they, too, must go through the process first.