The Memo: Trump flirts with constitutional crisis
The Trump administration flirted with a constitutional crisis Monday before stepping back from the brink.
President Trump summoned three top law enforcement officials, including Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, to the White House the day after tweeting that he would “demand” the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate whether the FBI improperly targeted his 2016 presidential campaign for political reasons.
A president instructing the DOJ to open a criminal probe at his behest would be a startling break with precedent, calling into question the independence of law enforcement from partisan politics.
“It is, in fact, one of his moves that are kind of characteristic of banana republic regimes, where he just sees the apparatus of the DOJ as something to use in a tit-for-tat way to get back at enemies,” said Harry Litman, who served as a deputy assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration.
Similar concerns were voiced by other leading critics. Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, first appointed by former President Obama, told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that Trump was taking his “all-out assault on the rule of law to a new level.”
The temperature was lowered a notch after the meeting, however.
A statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “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.”
Rosenstein had already indicated following the president’s Sunday tweet that he would have the department’s inspector general look into Trump’s allegations. Such a move is some distance short of a full-on criminal investigation.
Rosenstein’s actions drew praise, and not only from Democrats.
“I thought Rod Rosenstein handled this pretty well,” said Mac Stipanovich, a Florida-based GOP strategist who is a vigorous Trump critic. “Trump was over the line. But Trump is always over the line.”
There is another crucial component to the pressure Trump and his allies are putting on the Department of Justice, however. They want more information released about an FBI informant who apparently interacted with the 2016 Trump campaign.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, told Politico on Monday that Trump wanted Rosenstein and the other attendees at Monday’s meeting — FBI Director Christopher Wray and Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats — “to turn over the information that exists about the informant to the House and Senate committees — all the memos they have.”
Giuliani told The Hill late Monday afternoon that he was not present in the meeting and that he had not spoken to Trump in its wake but that he “assumed” this was the subject matter and that “nothing went wrong because if it had we would have heard about it by now.”
The intelligence community has so far refused to reveal the identity of an FBI informant who met with at least two, and possibly three, Trump campaign aides in 2016. They cite concerns that identifying this person could endanger him and other people with whom he has interacted as well as hindering national security more broadly.
In Sanders’s statement after Monday afternoon’s White House meeting, she said “White House Chief of Staff [John] Kelly will immediately set up a meeting with the FBI, DOJ, and DNI together with Congressional Leaders to review highly classified and other information they have requested.”
The president’s allies are insistent that there is genuine malfeasance that needs to be investigated, but some favor a more dramatic move than a DOJ probe.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a Trump loyalist, told The Hill that he did not want the Justice Department “investigating itself.” Instead, Gaetz asserted that the situation required the appointment of a second special counsel.
Asked whether any such investigation would be seen as Trump politicizing the role of law enforcement, Gaetz responded, “It’d be nice if they weren’t spying on his campaign. The president is understandably frustrated that his own campaign was having intelligence collected against it.”
There is, as yet, no evidence to support the contention that Trump has made that the FBI had a spy actually embedded in his campaign. However, the activities of the FBI informant are under scrutiny as they never have been before.
Some people in the wide Trump orbit predicted serious consequences. Michael Flynn Jr., who worked on the Trump transition team and is the son of former national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, tweeted on Monday afternoon, “You’re all going down. You know who you are. Mark my word.”
The elder Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Monday had begun with speculation in some quarters that Rosenstein could resign if Trump insisted that a criminal investigation had to be opened.
But the dynamics around a Rosenstein resignation are complicated. If Rosenstein were to leave his post, voluntarily or otherwise, it could leave Trump with more control over special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe.
Meanwhile DOJ veterans such as Litman expressed concern at the message any such resignation from Rosenstein or his colleagues would send.
Referring to the Monday meeting, Litman told The Hill: “The mere fact of [Trump] calling for the meeting is ominous. Wray and Rosenstein will be shoulder to shoulder. Their ‘weapon’ is that they could also walk out the door shoulder to shoulder. But that would be terrible for the country.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.