White House

Trump Takes on the Justice Department

The president is undermining the FBI, as well as his own Justice Department. Why?

Where it all began.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The president of the United States will stand in the chamber of the House of Representatives this evening and read a speech that one of his aides, Stephen Miller, has prepared for him. If Donald Trump follows an annual tradition, he'll assure the legislators, justices, military leaders and cabinet members gathered to hear him that "the state of our union is strong."

Trump is a businessman, of course, so he’s likely first to take note of the U.S. stock market’s record highs, the economy’s sturdy growth numbers and its tightening labor market, new tax cuts for corporations and individuals, a feistier approach to global trade, and various deregulatory pushes as evidence of the animal spirits he’s unleashed. Trump will say that all of this amounts to strength, and in some important ways he will be right. A strong economy makes for a strong union.

The problem for the president is that he'll be delivering his State of the Union address a day after his designs on the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation grew ever more apparent, and his desire to sap the strengths the union derives from the rule of law grew ever more worrisome.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Trump and his associates colluded with the Kremlin to tilt the 2016 election is housed at the Justice Department. Some of the agents who have participated in the probe roam the FBI's halls. As anyone who has covered the bureau knows, it leans Republican and attracts hardcore law-and-order types. Many of them regard their work as a public service.

That's one reason why the retirement yesterday of Andrew McCabe, the FBI's deputy director and someone who had been with the bureau for 22 years, is so troubling. By all accounts, McCabe was a committed and capable man who was hounded out of his job, which had come to include a senior role in the Russia investigation.

"Andy McCabe dedicated his life to serving his country, leading countless investigations protecting American lives," said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent, on Twitter yesterday. "In return he's been bullied by politicians & battered by parts of the American public -- a travesty."

It's not just any politician who has bullied McCabe, though. It's the president himself. Since last July, Trump has tweeted at McCabe at least five times. It must have been super-fun to be on the receiving end of hostile, leave-your-FBI-job-now tweets from someone who seems to be obstructing justice to evade an obstruction of justice investigation -- and have that guy also be the president. Super-fun.

McCabe is prominent roadkill No. 2 at the FBI. Trump famously fired one of McCabe's mentors at the bureau, James Comey, who at the time was spearheading the Russia investigation. The FBI's inspector general is now conducting an internal probe -- requested by Republicans -- of how Comey handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton's email servers. The IG is also examining the circumstances surrounding $500,000 in contributions that a Clinton ally gave to McCabe's wife when she ran for state political office in 2015. (McCabe didn't become the FBI's deputy director until early 2016, months after his wife lost her race.)

Trump and his supporters say that those donations exposed a pro-Clinton bias at the bureau, and that the Russia investigation is thus hopelessly tainted. The inspector general's report is landing soon, and McCabe was reportedly eager to retire before it did -- giving ammunition to critics who say he was part of a sneaky liberal conspiracy to use the FBI to bring Trump down. But it's far more likely that McCabe was a conscientious, career law-enforcement official with a working spouse who just got worn down when the president did things like publicly encourage the attorney general to fire him.

"Mr. McCabe's departure certainly does not mean that we are done rooting out problems at the FBI,” said Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, yesterday.

Well, of course they're not. The president and his proxies in Congress have lots of rooting out left to do. Which brings us to the rooter-in-chief of this farce, Devin Nunes.

The House intelligence committee voted yesterday to ask the White House if it would allow the committee (which Nunes heads) to publicly release a memo (which Nunes's staff produced) claiming that law-enforcement officials used dubious sources to obtain a court's go-ahead to surveil one of Trump's advisers.

The committee also plans "to open an investigation of the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation," according to my Bloomberg News colleagues. And where did Team Nunes get the classified information that is allegedly the basis of its memo? From the Justice Department and the FBI, of course.

Now the White House has five days to review the document for national-security concerns. How long do you think it will really take for the White House to release the memo? Probably only five minutes? Oh, right, right. Five seconds.

One senior Justice Department official said it would be “extraordinarily reckless” to release the memo publicly. But when have extraordinarily reckless things stopped Nunes from protecting the president's interests? 

You may remember Nunes: He had to recuse himself from his committee's Russia investigation last year to allow for an ethics probe into whether he had improperly leaked classified information in coordination with the White House. He was exonerated in December, which apparently cleared the way for him to get his hands on classified information (again) that he's seeking to disclose (again) in coordination with the White House (again).

It's clear that the president, for one, cares deeply about the Russia investigation and is going to great lengths to control its outcome. When he addresses the nation tonight, he should remember that the union is more than just a cash register, and that it is only as strong as the laws and institutions that support it. If he won't recognize and respect that, then perhaps the legislators, justices and voters watching him will.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Timothy L. O'Brien at tobrien46@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net

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