Thursday Reads: Open Warfare Between Trump and FBI, DOJPosted: February 1, 2018
On Tuesday morning, I wrote that Monday had to be one of the worst days in the monstrous Trump “presidency.” It was true then, but yesterday was even worse.
Trump is engaging in open warfare with his own Justice Department and the FBI. He reportedly plans to release an inaccurate memo cooked up by his number one toady in Congress Devin Nunes as early as today–even though the Director of the FBI and top officials in the Justice Department have stated publicly that the memo creates a false narrative and will pose a “grave” danger to national security, even endangering lives.
On top of all that, we got breaking news on the Russia investigation yesterday, and more came out today. There’s no way I can cover everything in this post, but here are some important articles to check out.
Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on Nunes’ Intelligence Committee has an op-ed in The Washington Post today: Rep. Nunes’s memo crosses a dangerous line.
On Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) moved to release a memo written by his staff that cherry-picks facts, ignores others and smears the FBI and the Justice Department — all while potentially revealing intelligence sources and methods. He did so even though he had not read the classified documents that the memo characterizes and refused to allow the FBI to brief the committee on the risks of publication and what it has described as “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.” The party-line vote to release the Republican memo but not a Democratic response was a violent break from the committee’s nonpartisan tradition and the latest troubling sign that House Republicans are willing to put the president’s political dictates ahead of the national interest.
The reason for Republicans’ abrupt departure from our nonpartisan tradition is growing alarm over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. In a matter of months, the president’s first national security adviser and a foreign policy adviser have pleaded guilty to felony offenses, while his former campaign chairman and deputy campaign manager have also been indicted. As Mueller and his team move closer to the president and his inner circle, a sense of panic is palpable on the Hill. GOP members recognize that the probe threatens not only the president but also their majorities in Congress.
In response, they have drawn on the stratagem of many criminal defense lawyers — when the evidence against a defendant is strong, put the government on trial. The Nunes memo is designed to do just that by furthering a conspiracy theory that a cabal of senior officials within the FBI and the Justice Department were so tainted by bias against President Trump that they irredeemably poisoned the investigation. If it wasn’t clear enough that this was the goal, Nunes removed all doubt when he declared that the Justice Department and the FBI themselves were under investigation at the hearing in which the memo was ordered released.
This decision to employ an obscure rule to order the release of classified information for partisan political purposes crossed a dangerous line. Doing so without even allowing the Justice Department or the FBI to vet the information for accuracy, the impact of its release on sources and methods, and other concerns was, as the Justice Department attested, “extraordinarily reckless.” But it also increases the risk of a constitutional crisis by setting the stage for subsequent actions by the White House to fire Mueller or, as now seems more likely, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, an act that would echo the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre.
MSNBC reported this morning that if the memo is released, FBI Director Christpher Wray is prepared to publicly debunk the contents point by point.
Politico: Trump’s Saturday Night Massacre Is Happening Right Before Our Eyes, by Norm Eisen, Carolyn Fredrickson, and Noah Bookbinder.
The FBI issued an extraordinary statement on Wednesday, pushing back on the release of a partisan congressional memo alleging the bureau used improper evidence to obtain legal permission to surveil a Trump campaign adviser. We’ve never seen anything like it. “[T]he FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the bureau said. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
The memo, written by Congressman Devin Nunes and barreling toward public circulation at the president’s discretion, has already created a firestorm, and it is not even out yet. Nunes fired back at the FBI hours later, claiming, “It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign.”
Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: This memo is the latest escalation in an eight-month effort to tarnish the Russia investigation that might be the most significant smear campaign against the executive branch since Joe McCarthy—only here, the effort is being led by the head of that branch himself. As the New York Times reported, the Nunes memo seems like a dagger aimed by President Trump at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising the Russia probe for the Justice Department.
Republican huzzahs over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment were still echoing when the opening salvo of this shocking campaign was launched: the claim that Mueller had disqualifying “conflicts.” Never mind that the Justice Department cleared Mueller of conflicts before he was appointed. Or that ethical standards do not remotely support disqualification over issues like Mueller’s professional acquaintance with James Comey, his employment at a firm that represented Trump associates, or even a long-ago dispute over the amount of fees Mueller owed at a Trump golf course. These meritless conflicts claims have continued to resurface like a game of whack-a-mole, popping up elsewhere after they are knocked down.
There’s much more at the link. It does seem that Trump is attempting what a number of commentators have called “a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre.” Nixon attempted to take over the Justice Department in one dramatic night; Trump has been doing the same thing over a period of many months.
After a long day of reports on Trump’s feud with FBI Director Chris Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, CNN broke the news that Trump had made another implied request for loyalty–this time from Rosenstein.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein visited the White House in December seeking President Donald Trump’s help. The top Justice Department official in the Russia investigation wanted Trump’s support in fighting off document demands from House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.
But the President had other priorities ahead of a key appearance by Rosenstein on the Hill, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Trump wanted to know where the special counsel’s Russia investigation was heading. And he wanted to know whether Rosenstein was “on my team.”
The episode is the latest to come to light portraying a President whose inquiries sometimes cross a line that presidents traditionally have tried to avoid when dealing with the Justice Department, for which a measure of independence is key. The exchange could raise further questions about whether Trump was seeking to interfere in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into potential collusion by the Trump campaign with Russia and obstruction of justice by the White House.
At the December meeting, the deputy attorney general appeared surprised by the President’s questions, the sources said. He demurred on the direction of the Russia investigation, which Rosenstein has ultimate authority over now that his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has recused himself. And he responded awkwardly to the President’s “team” request, the sources said.”Of course, we’re all on your team, Mr. President,” Rosenstein told Trump, the sources said.
Also last night The New York Times reported that Trump’s communications director Hope Hicks could be in trouble for possibly planning to obstruct justice. The Daily Beast summarizes: Report: Witness to Tell Mueller He Was Concerned Hope Hicks Obstructed.
Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for President Donald Trump’s legal team, will reportedly tell special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators that White House Communications Director Hope Hicks said Donald Trump Jr.’s emails about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians “will never get out.” According to The New York Times, Corallo was concerned that Hicks “could be contemplating obstructing justice.” Hicks’ lawyer, Robert P. Trout, told the Times that Hicks “never said that.” Those emails, written by Trump Jr., appeared to show that his initial explanation for why he took the meeting with Russians was false. The emails showed that Trump Jr. accepted the meeting after being promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, even though the White House statement said the meeting centered around Russian adoptions. Corallo resigned from the Trump White House last summer.
This morning Charles Pierce has some interesting commentary on yesterday’s news: Getting to the Bottom of the Memo Cesspool.
For a time, the optimists in the president*’s camp were pitching as a worst case scenario that Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Russian ratfcking of the 2016 presidential election would end up at worst delivering obstruction prosecutions with no underlying offenses—essentially, that some underlings, in an effort to help out the president*, were too vigorous in their efforts, and less than vigorous about telling the truth. I mean, hell, it’s an argument. It’s the “third-rate burglary” argument gussied up for our times, but it’s an argument nonetheless. However, that dog no longer chooses to hunt.
Pierce summarizes the Hope Hicks story and the back and forth between Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff. Then he notes:
Is it even necessary any more to point out that, if he so desired, the president* could declassify those parts of the memo that are classified and release the thing in 10 minutes? The only people keeping the memo from being released are the people bellowing the loudest about releasing it at all.
These two stories obscured the revelations late Wednesday afternoon that open conflict had broken out between the White House and FBI director Christopher Wray over the release of the memo. It is Wray’s considered opinion that the memo is a crock. From CNN:
Wray sent a striking signal to the White House, issuing a rare public warning that the memo about the FBI’s surveillance practices omits key information that could impact its veracity. The move set up an ugly confrontation between Wray and Trump, who wants the document released. “With regard to the House Intelligence Committee’s memorandum, the FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the FBI said in a statement. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
All of which, in combination with the complete surrender of the Republican congressional leadership to this fairy tale, leads to the inevitable conclusion that there is more going on here than political damage control. People are breaking too much rock over this matter for that to be the case. People are risking too much to keep the cover story aloft. The original Watergate cover-up was not designed to shield the burglars; it was to keep a lid on five years of crimes and dirty tricks. There is too much energy being expended in too many directions here for there not to be something seriously wrong at the bottom of this affair.
It might be Russian ratfcking. It might be dirty money being cleaned through the First Family’s” business. It might be a complex combination of both. But not even this president* is dumb and/or arrogant enough to risk a massive constitutional crisis simply to save himself a little embarrassment concerning the circumstances of his election. Even I give him the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Pierce is right. Trump and Nunes are risking too much with all this obvious obstruction. Trump has to be afraid of something very serious having to do with cooperating with Russia or about his finances.
One more interesting Russia story from CNN: Special counsel seeks delay in scheduling Flynn sentencing.
Attorneys for former national security adviser Michael Flynn and the special counsel’s office told a federal court on Wednesday evening they are not ready to schedule a sentencing hearing for Flynn.
The government was set to deliver a status report on Flynn’s case to the court Thursday, but both sides have asked to delay the deadline for that report until May 1.
Previously, a status update in the case of George Papadopoulos, President Donald Trump’s former campaign adviser, which the special counsel is also overseeing was delayed from February until mid-April.
This news suggests that Mueller is still getting valuable information from Flynn and Papadopoulos.
I’ll have more links in the comment thread. What’s your take on the current situation?