There are two ways for a president to corrupt the vast powers of federal law enforcement. The one that has commanded the greatest attention so far is the defensive corruption of curtailing investigations into the administration and its allies (by, say, firing Robert Mueller). The other is offensive, by directing investigations into the administration’s political critics. And while this form of corruption has attracted less attention, Trump appears to have made far greater headway here.
Republican senators Charles Grassley and Lindsey Graham have made a criminal referral to the Justice Department against Christopher Steele. It is unclear what crime they have in mind. Steele’s underlying offense is having been hired to investigate Donald Trump’s murky connections with Russia, and then having the leads he compiled published without his knowledge. While the FBI had other reasons to investigate Trump besides Steele’s reporting — reportedly the investigation began after Trump aide George Papadopoulos shot off his mouth to an Australian diplomat — Steele’s dossier became a source of humiliation for Trump. The president has been raging for the last year about the “fake” dossier — the veracity of which has been unverified, though many of its elements have been borne out by subsequent reporting. And now two Republican senators, one of whom chairs the Judiciary Committee, have taken up Trump’s demands to treat the dossier’s author, a well-respected British intelligence agent, like a criminal.
In the meantime, the FBI is investigating the Clinton Foundation. It is conceivable they have found evidence of genuine criminality. But years of investigations into the foundation have found nothing more than a typical pattern of fundraising and access. The foundation’s arrangements may have been unwise, or even unethical, for a presidential candidate, but it has survived intense scrutiny without a hint of any criminal behavior.
Meanwhile, the Department of Justice is reportedly probing Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server again. “A former senior DOJ official familiar with department leadership’s thinking said officials there are acutely aware of demands from President Donald Trump that they look into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State—and that they lock up her top aide, Huma Abedin,” reports Betsy Woodruff. It is impossible to imagine any new lead or legitimate reason to reopen an investigation that was completed last year, other than to satisfy Trump’s lust to criminalize his opponents.
At minimum, the effect will be to feed the right-wing news media’s message that Trump’s opponents are the real criminals, in order to supply a distraction for his base. At maximum, the “charges” will allow Trump to have something to trade away — he could fire Mueller while “magnanimously” pardoning his enemies in the alleged spirit of letting old feuds die. In either case, the threat of investigation can be used to make any potential Trump critic think twice.
A year ago, the prospect that law enforcement would be investigating Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, and Christopher Steele would have been unthinkable. At the moment, it seems hard to imagine the Republican Party raising any objection.