Political News

Trump Blames Justice Department and FBI for Conduct He Says Was ‘a Disgrace’

Posted February 2, 2018 7:54 p.m. EST
Updated February 2, 2018 8:09 p.m. EST

President Donald Trump on Friday intensified his attacks on his own Justice Department and FBI for their handling of the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, hinting that senior leaders there should face consequences for conduct he called “a disgrace.”

Trump, who has become increasingly outspoken in his suggestions of wrongdoing by law enforcement officials as the inquiry has reached deeper inside the White House, made his comments as he announced he had declassified a secret memo prepared by House Republicans that insinuates that the Russia investigation has been tainted by Democratic bias.

“I think it’s terrible,” Trump said of the actions described by the document, which accuses federal law enforcement officials of abusing their authority when they sought permission to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.

“It’s a disgrace what’s happening in our country,” Trump added. “A lot of people should be ashamed of themselves, and much worse than that.”

The release of the memo raised fresh questions about whether Trump — who last year fired James B. Comey, the FBI director overseeing the Russia inquiry, and then sought to remove Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel named to take it over — might seek next to oust Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who named Mueller.

The president, who first considered getting rid of Rosenstein last summer, pointedly refused to say on Friday whether he was more likely to do so now, cocking his head and telling reporters who pressed him on the matter: “You figure that out.”

But the release of the memo underscored how Trump has transformed his own suspicions and unsubstantiated theories about an inquiry he has repeatedly called a “hoax” and a “witch hunt” into a set of official accusations of corruption against the very people investigating him. The president has called for months for the compilation of such evidence, often taking to Twitter to demand that the Justice Department and the FBI release information that could show political bias on the part of those investigating whether his campaign colluded with Russia.

Last month, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., who leads the Intelligence Committee and is a loyal ally of Trump, obliged by dispatching his staff to compile a classified document that seeks to illustrate just that. Trump was eager to release it.

The memo described Rosenstein as one of the senior Justice Department officials who approved an application to extend surveillance of Page, and suggested that those applications deliberately avoided mentioning that they were based in part on information in a dossier paid for by Democrats.

A senior White House official, insisting on anonymity to discuss the president’s thinking, said there had been no consideration or discussion of dismissing Rosenstein, and that the material in the memo had not altered Trump’s view of him.

Still, the prospect of Rosenstein’s ouster set off alarms among Democrats, who said it would be an unacceptable move by the president to thwart a federal investigation.

“We write to inform you that we would consider such an unwarranted action as an attempt to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation,” Democratic leaders said in a letter to Trump shortly after he made his comments at the White House on Friday morning.

“Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre,” they wrote. They were referring to President Nixon’s order at the height of the Watergate scandal to fire Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor. Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, and William Ruckelshaus, the deputy attorney general, resigned rather than carry out the order.

In a morning tweet before the release of the memo, Trump said senior officials had corrupted the Russia inquiry with partisan bias.

“The top Leadership and Investigators of the FBI and the Justice Department have politicized the sacred investigative process in favor of Democrats and against Republicans — something which would have been unthinkable just a short time ago,” Trump said on Twitter.

He also circulated a quotation from Tom Fitton, the president of the conservative-aligned group Judicial Watch, who last year said the Obama administration had turned the FBI into a “KGB-type operation.” On Friday, in a statement retweeted by the president, Fitton accused Hillary Clinton and Democrats of trying to hide the fact that they had funded the dossier, which, he said, “was used by their allies in the Obama Administration to convince a Court misleadingly, by all accounts, to spy on the Trump Team.”

In an afternoon statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said the memo “raises serious concerns about the integrity of decisions made at the highest levels of the Department of Justice and the FBI to use the government’s most intrusive surveillance tools against American citizens.” Later on Friday, Trump visited a Customs and Border Protection training center to urge passage of an immigration overhaul before flying to Florida for a weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort.

Senior officials at the Justice Department and FBI had strenuously objected to the Republican memo, arguing that it omitted key facts, a case that Rosenstein and Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, made to Trump at the White House on Monday. But on Friday, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, appeared to side with critics of the Justice Department.

“Congress has made inquiries concerning an issue of great importance for the country, and concerns have been raised about the department’s performance,” Sessions said in a statement. “I have great confidence in the men and women of this department. But no department is perfect.” Earlier, during an event at the Justice Department on Friday morning, Sessions veered off script to praise Rosenstein, a 27-year veteran of the agency, whom he said represents “the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.”

But some conservatives quickly seized on the declassified memo as grounds to dismiss Rosenstein. The Tea Party Patriots, a political group, produced a dramatic television ad calling him “a weak careerist at the Justice Department, protecting liberal Obama holdovers and the deep state instead of following the rule of law.” It said he should do his job or resign.

Should Trump opt to act on the allegations in the memo, Rosenstein might not be the only senior official affected. Among the other officials mentioned as having approved the applications to extend the surveillance warrant was Dana Boente, who briefly acted as assistant attorney general in the National Security Division before being named as the general counsel at the FBI.

Earlier this week, Andrew G. McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, abruptly left after Wray confronted him about an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general into the events of 2016, when the bureau was investigating both Clinton’s email use and the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia.