It’s easy amid the absolute avalanche of news that the Trump White House creates on a daily basis to lose sight of the forest through the trees. And it’s true that the media coverage of President Donald Trump at times makes everything seems like a Really Big Deal when, sometimes, it’s just a big deal or just a plain old deal.
But what Trump has done – and is doing – in regard to an FBI confidential source who had conversations with several people in his campaign orbit in 2016 is the sort of thing that should make every citizen stop short. This goes well beyond the standard-issue norm-shattering that Trump has made his regular operating procedure since he began running for president. This veers into the sort of line-crossing that has very real – and frightening – consequences for the democratic experiment.
“If they had spies in my campaign that would be a disgrace to this country,” Trump said Tuesday during a photo opportunity with South Korean President Moon Jae-In. “It would be very illegal.” Added Trump: “It would make probably every political event ever look like small potatoes. If they had spies in my campaign, during my campaign for political purposes, that would be unprecedented in the history of our country.”
These allegations are a massive deal.
Let’s go through this step by step.
- The President of the United States is alleging, with zero evidence, that the FBI secretly planted an informant in his 2016 campaign for the express purpose of spying on him. Sources have told CNN that the confidential source was never embedded in the campaign but rather spoke to Trump advisers like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both of whom the Justice Department was concerned could be vulnerable to Russian recruitment efforts.
- The President of the United States, via Twitter, demanded that his own Justice Department conduct an investigation to “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!”
- The Justice Department complied with Trump’s request almost immediately, releasing a statement directing the department’s inspector general to examine the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process to see if there was any wrongdoing or political motivations for its actions.
- Trump met Monday at the White House with the head of the FBI, Christopher Wray, and the deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein. Following that meeting, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders made clear that “based on the meeting with the President, the Department of Justice has asked the Inspector General to expand its current investigation to include any irregularities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s or the Department of Justice’s tactics concerning the Trump Campaign.” (The Justice Department had already announced – prior to Monday’s meeting – that the IG was looking into potential impropriety. So it’s not clear how the Monday meeting was the trigger for that investigation.)
- Justice and the FBI have agreed to allow certain congressional leaders to see classified documents related to the confidential source, a capitulation to longstanding requests by the likes of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-California). Again, Sanders: “It was also agreed that White House Chief of Staff [John] Kelly will immediately set up a meeting with the FBI, DOJ, and [Director of National Intelligence] together with congressional leaders to review highly classified and other information they have requested.”
Here’s the short version: Trump demanded the FBI/DOJ look into an idea he had heard about that an informant may have been placed in his campaign as a spy. Numerous knowledgeable sources made clear that the confidential source was a) never embedded in the campaign and b) was part of a counter-intelligence operation aimed at rooting out Russia’s attempts to meddle in the 2016 election. The FBI/DOJ comply with Trump’s demands – after being told to do so via Twitter and in person by the President.
Put this in some perspective.
Remember back in the summer of 2016 when Bill Clinton and then Attorney General Loretta Lynch met privately on the tarmac of the Phoenix airport amid the FBI’s ongoing investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server? People, rightly, went crazy. It had the look of impropriety – even if both sides repeatedly insisted the conversation was all small talk and had nothing to do with the email investigation.
“It was really a sneak,” Trump said of the meeting at the time. “You see a thing like this and, even in terms of judgment, how bad of judgment is it for him or for her to do this? Who would do this?”
That was a former President of the United States meeting, briefly and without any sort of pre-announced agenda, with the attorney general. What’s transpired over the past 96 hours or so is the sitting President demanding his Justice Department investigate a rumor he heard, then meeting with the two people in charge and announcing that, at his request, they would be doing exactly what he asked.
All of this is chalked up to Trump’s lack of care or concern for traditional boundaries – like the one that has kept the Justice Department largely independent from the White House in the past. That’s just how Trump does things! He shakes it up! People love that about him!
But that’s not a good enough explanation – or excuse – for what’s happening here. The President of the United States is pressuring the nation’s law enforcement bodies to investigate a story with questionable roots and that does not appear to be born out by facts.
What’s worse is that Trump’s motivations for doing so are so transparent: He and his legal team, led by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are heavily invested in finding ways to discredit the FBI and the wider Department of Justice in advance of special counsel Robert Mueller releasing the findings of his probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and any potential collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
Compounding the problem is that the Republican-controlled Congress seems totally uninterested in acting as a check on Trump in this matter or, really, in any matter. Republican leaders in Congress seem content to go along with Trump’s flights of fancy, knowing that crossing him could well provoke a weeks-long outburst from the White House and might dispirit the party’s base in advance of the fast-approaching midterm elections.
There is a reason that most presidents have sought, publicly at least, to make clear that the DOJ is free to pursue investigations without concern of presidential meddling. Because since Richard Nixon used his administration like a personal vendetta-settling machine, there has been a renewed belief in the idea that no one is above the law and that no one can make the wheels of justice move the way they want.
Trump has repeatedly flouted that standard – whether in his pressure campaign on Justice over the “spy” story or Giuliani’s recent insistence that a president cannot be subpoenaed or indicted.
Whether or not the “spy” story is true – or even has strands of truth to it – is immaterial to Trump. What matters is that he has forced the Justice Department to look into it. If they find some evidence of wrongdoing, that’s great for Trump – a dagger to the Mueller probe. If they find nothing, well, that’s OK too, because then he can argue they are just part of the broader “deep state conspiracy” working against Trump.
It’s win-win for Trump. And a lose-lose for our democratic institutions. No one should lose sight of those twin realities or misunderstand what that tells us about a President willing to violate the norms of government for his own purposes.