Trump turns his fire on the FBI
Donald Trump is turning his fire on the FBI in his growing feud with the intelligence community.
The president took aim at the bureau after reports that officials refused to dispute a New York Times story that said agents had uncovered contact between Russian officials and Trump’s presidential campaign.
Trump blasted the bureau for being “totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time.”
The White House request to the FBI — made by chief of staff Reince Priebus to Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — is the second time in two weeks that the White House has reportedly asked an intelligence agency to publicly deny a press report.
Last week, CIA Director Mike Pompeo issued a statement calling a Wall Street Journal story “dead wrong,” reportedly after the president “yelled” at him for failing to respond to the story initially. The White House and the CIA deny that such a conversation took place.
Former Obama administration officials were quick to denounce the report of contact with the FBI.
“I’ve never heard of anything like it before. It’s unusual and completely inappropriate,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson under former President Obama.
“If the president can order investigations into his opponents or quash investigations into his friends or his staff members, then we quickly become a banana republic.”
The FBI has been staunchly silent, declining to talk to reporters even on background, while White House officials have insisted that McCabe told them The Times story about contact with Russia was “bull—-.”
According to senior officials, following an unrelated meeting last week, McCabe privately told Priebus that the story was inaccurate. Priebus asked, “What can we do about this?”
McCabe said he would look into the matter. Later, he called Priebus back and told him that while the FBI would “love to help … we can’t get into the position of making statements on every story.” He told Priebus that he could cite “senior intelligence officials” as saying there was nothing to the story.
Later, the senior officials said, FBI Director James Comey called Priebus and echoed McCabe — the story was wrong, he said, but the FBI would not put out a statement.
The FBI has a longstanding policy of not commenting on active investigations.
But that stance has come under scrutiny following a series of public disclosures about the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server, which her team has argued cost her the election.
Still, it is unusual for a White House chief of staff to make such a request of the bureau. Normally, former officials say, depending on the subject matter, contact between the White House and the FBI is carefully restricted to flow through the White House counsel’s office.
“We didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth,” press secretary Sean Spicer said.
For former officials, there are two problems with the request.
The first is that the mere fact of the request — coming as it did from the president’s chief of staff — encroached on the independence of the FBI.
The Justice Department in 2007 and 2009 issued memos setting procedures for contact between the department and the White House.
“Initial communications between the [Justice] Department and the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal investigations or cases will involve only the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General, from the side of the Department, and the Counsel to the President, the Principal Deputy Counsel to the President, the President, or the Vice President from the side of the White House,” the 2009 memo states.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called for an inspector general investigation into conversations between White House officials and the FBI concerning any open investigations, calling the request “an outrageous breach of the FBI’s independence.”
Some former officials see the request as part of a pattern of pressure that the White House is putting on intelligence agencies to put forward conclusions that support a political narrative.
CNN also reported Thursday that the White House has asked the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department — under whose auspices the FBI operates — to help build the legal case for its temporary travel ban on individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Critics argue that the administration is cherry-picking intelligence for political gain — starting with a conclusion and working backwards rather than following the facts where they lead.
The second problem with the Priebus-McCabe interaction, critics say, is the content of what was discussed. According to the White House, the conversation in question was limited to the veracity of The New York Times report — not the underlying investigation.
“What exactly they discussed is really important,” Miller noted. “The FBI shouldn’t be talking about this investigation to the White House. The FBI doesn’t go around telling subjects of investigations what’s happening in the investigation and whether news stories are right or wrong.”
Trump later on Friday hammered the “dishonest media,” insisting that they “make up” sources. Spicer later denied CNN and a handful of other outlets access to a press gaggle.
“I called the fake news the enemy of the people. They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources,” Trump said. “They just make them up when there are none.”