For almost a year, Donald Trump’s rage about the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia — or, as he calls it, “the greatest Witch Hunt in American History” — has threatened to provoke him to trigger a constitutional crisis by firing the lawyers leading that investigation or by making it impossible for them to do their jobs.
On Sunday, Trump seemed ready to cross that threshold. Pressing a conspiracy theory for which he had no evidence, the president tweeted that “I hereby demand, and will do so officially tomorrow, that the Department of Justice 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!”
This threat of intervention was ominous. If Trump was willing to order the Justice Department, which is supposed to act independently and without political influence, to instead pursue investigations that served him personally and politically, would he be equally willing to demand an end to one he considered a political liability?
The leadership of the Justice Department scrambled to try to placate the president without compromising its integrity any more than necessary. After Trump’s tweet, the department announced that its inspector general would expand an ongoing internal review to determine “whether there was any impropriety or political motivation” in the FBI’s counterintelligence operation connected to the 2016 campaign.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the current Russia investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, issued this statement: “If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action.”
These responses can perhaps be justified as damage control. More concerning is a statement released by the White House on Monday after Trump met with Rosenstein, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. The statement said that Kelly would set up a meeting, now scheduled for Thursday, at which officials of intelligence agencies and members of Congress would “review highly classified and other information they have requested.”
This was apparently a reference to documents the president’s allies in the House have been seeking from the Justice Department, including information about an informant who spoke to Trump campaign personnel known to have dealt with suspected Russian agents. The informant, a retired U.S. academic living in England, seems to have morphed in the imagination of some Trump supporters into a spy planted inside the campaign by his enemies in the Obama White House — an idea Trump floated again on Tuesday.
If the Justice Department judges some information to be too sensitive to release, it shouldn’t change its opinion simply because the president applies pressure. It’s also troubling that only two congressmen, both Republicans, will attend the meeting: Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) and Troy Gowdy (R-S.C.). Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has led the effort to obtain the records.
Trump’s defenders in Congress and in the conservative news media insist that law enforcement and U.S. intelligence services should stay out of partisan politics. But if there is evidence that a presidential campaign is being courted or manipulated by agents of a foreign power, it can’t simply be ignored.
Whether anyone involved in the Trump campaign criminally cooperated with Russian efforts is something Mueller is attempting to establish. The question is whether he will be allowed to complete his investigation unmolested by the president who derides his efforts as a witch hunt. After Trump’s latest outburst — and the Justice Department’s response, however careful and calibrated it may have been — we’re more concerned than ever that the president might take that chance.