Trump’s war with the Justice Department
President Trump this week escalated his attack on the Russia investigation, ordering the Justice Department to investigate whether the FBI’s use of an informant to approach three campaign aides during the 2016 election was an improper, partisan-motivated effort to “spy” on his team. The use of the informant was revealed earlier this month by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who subpoenaed the Justice Department for documents relating to the confidential source and other aspects of the Russia investigation. The department forcefully rejected this request, citing fears for the informant’s safety. But when media outlets published further details about the source last week, the president announced on Twitter that “I hereby demand” a Justice Department investigation into whether the FBI “infiltrated or surveilled” his team, and whether Obama administration officials were involved. “SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history,” Trump tweeted, warning the “Criminal Deep State” that “what goes around, comes around.”
In response, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that the Justice Department inspector general’s existing inquiry into the genesis of the Russia investigation would be expanded to address Trump’s concerns. In a subsequent meeting at the White House, Rosenstein and FBI Director Chris Wray agreed to share with Nunes and fellow Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy certain documents Nunes requested, including a Rosenstein memo outlining the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s authority. A White House spokeswoman said Democratic congressional leaders would not be shown the documents.
The informant was identified by several news outlets as Stefan Halper, a retired, U.K.-based American academic who was a foreign policy adviser in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations. In the summer of 2016, Halper reportedly approached three Trump officials—George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, and Sam Clovis—to assess whether the campaign was colluding with Russia. FBI sources said this step was taken only after the bureau received evidence that Page had suspicious Kremlin contacts and that Papadopoulos had bragged that the Russians had stolen a trove of Democratic emails.
What the editorials said
We have long feared Trump would “trigger a constitutional crisis” by shutting down the Mueller investigation, said the Los Angeles Times. His actions this week suggest he is “ready to cross that threshold.” If the president is willing to order the Justice Department to open investigations that serve him “personally and politically,” what’s to stop him from demanding an end to an investigation he considers “a political liability?”
Trump’s claims are completely baseless, said The Washington Post. There is a big difference between “embedding” an FBI “spy” within a campaign and using an outside “informant” to gather information. “Everything we have learned” suggests that a counterintelligence investigation into Russian collusion was “more than warranted,” in view of the numerous, secretive contacts between the campaign and Russians. “If there are any grown-ups left in the leadership of the Republican Party,” they need to stop this “dangerous crisis of trust in law enforcement.”
All the president is asking for is “transparency,” said the New York Post. “Lots of questions need answering.” Why did the FBI and Justice Department insist that identifying Halper would “endanger his life”? If, as Axios.com has reported, Halper later lobbied for a job in the Trump administration, was he “still on the FBI payroll at the time?” Law enforcement officials have done everything they can to avoid these and other questions. “What do they fear?”
What the columnists said
Trump’s claim of a “nefarious Deep State plot” is “unhinged,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. His defenders’ “working theory” is that the FBI used their informant to set in motion an investigation that could serve as a “fatal October surprise” before the election. The “tiny flaw” in this theory? “They never sprang the October surprise.” Worried about tipping the scales, the FBI “kept a tight lid” on their investigation of Trump aides until after the election—while badly damaging Hillary Clinton with repeated public announcements about their investigation of her emails.
Trump’s critics always clamor for a “full accounting of what transpired during 2016,” said David Harsanyi in TheFederalist.com. Surely they should be happy that no stone is being left unturned, and that supposedly maligned, nonpartisan FBI officials will now have a chance to “clear their names.” Liberals cast any effort to look beyond Russian collusion as a distraction, said John Fund in NationalReview.com. But they “used to be appalled at the abuses of power” by the FBI, CIA, and other secretive government agencies, which have a long history of spying on people for illegitimate reasons. Can liberals not even consider that “there might be two stories relating to 2016 campaign skulduggery rather than just one”?
“We still don’t know how far Trump will go” to undermine an investigation into himself and his cronies, said Greg Sargent in WashingtonPost.com. But he has repeatedly said he views law enforcement as “an instrument of his political will,” and insisted he has the “absolute right” to do what he wants with the Justice Department. So he has effectively told us he will do whatever he can get away with to stop this investigation. “We should believe him.”
Trump’s campaign against the FBI and Justice Department has just begun, said Gabriel Sherman in VanityFair.com. The White House and its allies will now try to sell a counternarrative in which the FBI “entrapped his advisers using informants” who were actually Democratic political operatives, and that the bureau is using the resulting investigation to “delegitimize his presidency.” In Trumpworld, the dominant theory is that the intelligence community “concocted this elaborate plot” about Russian collusion as an insurance policy in case Trump won the election. Rudy Giuliani and Sean Hannity have been feeding Trump’s anger by telling him “how corrupt Mueller’s investigation is.” That makes “continued extra-legal conflict with Mueller and Rosenstein inevitable.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
On the cover: Special counsel Robert Mueller
Cover photos from AP, Newscom, AP