Political News

Trump Demands Inquiry Into Whether Justice Department ‘Infiltrated or Surveilled’ His Campaign

Posted May 20, 2018 8:11 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Sunday demanded that the Justice Department investigate whether the department or the FBI “infiltrated or surveilled” his campaign at the behest of the Obama administration, following through on his frequent threats to intervene in the special counsel inquiry as he targets those he views as political enemies.

Trump made the order on Twitter during a day of public venting about the special counsel investigation, which he charged had turned up no evidence of collusion with Russia and was now casting a worldwide net so it could harm Republicans’ chances in midterm congressional elections this fall.

But in ordering a new inquiry, Trump went beyond his usual tactics of suggesting wrongdoing and political bias by those investigating him, and crossed over into applying overt presidential pressure on the Justice Department to do his bidding, an extraordinary realm where past presidents have hesitated to tread.

“I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes,” Trump tweeted Sunday afternoon, “and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

Legal experts said such a presidential intervention had little precedent, and could force a clash between the sitting president and his Justice Department that would be reminiscent of the one surrounding Richard M. Nixon during Watergate, when a string of top officials resigned rather than carry out his order to fire a special prosecutor investigating him.

In response to Trump’s post, the Justice Department asked its internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, to expand its current inquiry into the surveillance of a former Trump campaign official to include the questions raised by the president.

“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who is overseeing the Russia inquiry, said in a statement.

By handing the question to the inspector general, Rosenstein appeared to be trying to thread the needle, giving the president what he said he wanted without fully bowing to his demands.

But it was not clear whether that would satisfy Trump, who in February complained that it was “disgraceful” for the Justice Department to hand over the surveillance investigation to an inspector general who lacks prosecutorial power, saying it would “take forever” and suggesting that he was “an Obama guy.”

The president’s call came two weeks after he publicly expressed frustration with the Justice Department for failing to give Republican lawmakers documents they are seeking about the basis and findings of the special counsel investigation into whether the Trump campaign worked with the Russians to sway the 2016 election. The president said then that “at some point, I will have no choice but to use the powers granted to the Presidency and get involved!”

That point appeared to be Sunday, close to the anniversary of the opening of the special counsel investigation, at a time when the president’s frustration about it has reached a fever pitch and he and his allies have ratcheted up their efforts to undercut its credibility. It came as Rudy Giuliani, his private lawyer, said that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, planned to complete by Sept. 1 his inquiry into whether the president had obstructed justice — an apparent attempt by Giuliani to publicly pressure the special counsel amid negotiations over whether Trump will be interviewed in the case.

While most presidents who have faced investigations have responded with increased discretion to avoid being seen as trying to influence the outcome, Trump has dispensed with any notion that he is not trying to do so. He and his aides have branded the investigation a witch hunt and a hoax, called for an end to it, and tried to set its boundaries, and now the president has ordered a review of how it was handled.

“I can’t think of a prior example of a sitting president ordering the Justice Department to conduct an investigation like this one,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “That’s little more than a transparent effort to undermine an ongoing investigation.”

If Trump were to follow through with the demand, Vladeck added, “it seems to me that the recipients of such an order should resign — and that we’re heading for another Saturday Night Massacre.”

Trump’s directive prompted speculation that he might be trying to push Rosenstein out of his job without explicitly firing him, a move the president has frequently considered. Rosenstein pushed back this month against Republican demands for more visibility into the special counsel’s inquiry, saying his department “is not going to be extorted.”

“This demand puts DAG Rod Rosenstein in a difficult position,” Barbara L. McQuade, a former U.S. attorney in Michigan, said in a post on Twitter. “He can’t open an investigation based on a political demand, but if he refuses and is fired or resigns, he loses control of the Mueller investigation. Maybe just what Trump wants.”

Among the material Trump and congressional Republicans are demanding are documents related to an FBI informant who was sent to talk to three Trump campaign aides.

The president alleged Friday that the informant had been a spy dispatched to infiltrate his campaign for political purposes. In fact, FBI agents sent the informant to contact Trump’s campaign advisers only after receiving evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia. Trump began the day railing about the scope of Mueller’s investigation. In a series of morning tweets that has become a weekend ritual for the president, Trump pointed to a New York Times report that detailed how the special counsel is examining whether Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered help to the Trump campaign, and whether they coordinated with Russia in doing so.

“Things are really getting ridiculous,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “The Failing and Crooked (but not as Crooked as Hillary Clinton) @nytimes has done a long & boring story indicating that the World’s most expensive Witch Hunt has found nothing on Russia & me so now they are looking at the rest of the World!”

The president did not challenge the accuracy of The Times’ account, which was the first indication that countries other than Russia may have offered assistance to his campaign in the months before the presidential election. But he suggested that the breadth of the inquiry was proof that Mueller’s investigation was a partisan exercise geared toward harming Republican congressional candidates.

“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 said. “Don’t worry about Dems FISA Abuse, missing Emails or Fraudulent Dossier!”

Trump was alluding to his contention that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant that was granted to look at Carter Page, one of his campaign associates, was improperly obtained and based on false information provided by his political opponents, including a dossier that included salacious information about him.

Under pressure from Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, the Justice Department said in March that it would begin an investigation into the surveillance of Page. Law enforcement officials had long had concerns that Page, a former investment banker based in Moscow, was acting as a Russian agent.

But the president has continued to make the allegation that the court-ordered surveillance of Page was unjustified. Trump has also continued to claim that the special counsel should be looking not at his campaign, but instead at his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton.

“At what point does this soon to be $20,000,000 Witch Hunt, composed of 13 Angry and Heavily Conflicted Democrats and two people who have worked for Obama for 8 years, STOP!” Trump wrote in a pair of tweets. “They have found no Collussion with Russia, No Obstruction, but they aren’t looking at the corruption in the Hillary Clinton Campaign where she deleted 33,000 Emails, got $145,000,000 while Secretary of State, paid McCabes wife $700,000 (and got off the FBI hook along with Terry M) and so much more.”

It was not clear where Trump’s estimate of the cost of Mueller’s inquiry came from. The Justice Department reported at the end of last year that the special counsel’s investigation had incurred at least $6.7 million in expenses in its first 4 1/2 months, and Trump’s own budget allocated $10 million for his office for 2019.

The president has often charged that Mueller is leading a team of Democratic activists who are out to get him, citing reports that some of his investigators are Democrats who supported Clinton. He has also sought to discredit Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy FBI director, by noting that his wife ran as a Democrat for political office in Virginia with support and campaign donations from Terry McAuliffe, a close Clinton ally.

But Mueller himself is a Republican, as are several members of his staff, and the investigation is being overseen by Rosenstein, another Republican, who was Trump’s own choice to be deputy attorney general.

That did not stop the president from suggesting that the investigation was politically driven and should end.

“Republicans and real Americans should start getting tough on this Scam,” he tweeted Sunday.