President Trump tweeted on Sunday that he would formally request that the Justice Department investigate whether his campaign was “infiltrated or surveilled” by the FBI during the 2016 campaign, in what could set up a high-stakes, Nixonian clash between Trump’s authoritarian whims and the U.S. government’s institutional resilience.
Trump has been raging for days about the revelation that an FBI informant made contact with some of his campaign advisers, after the story caught fire in right-wing circles over the last few weeks.
Trump has made similar dictatorial-style investigation threats before, and they have come to very little — thanks, in part to his absent mindedness, and in part to the ability of his advisers to steer him away from the worst consequences of his pique. Still, there is no guarantee that the president won’t go further this time around. As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner puts it, “The tweet could set up a constitutional crisis. Or it could set up a now-familiar process of lawyers, essentially, pushing off the request to avoid such a crisis. Or it could be forgotten by the week’s end.”
The New York Times notes that the matter may be referred to the Inspector General of the Justice Department, which would be a concession to Trump, but avoid provoking a full-blown emergency.
The Department of Justice quickly responded, without shedding much light on its course of action:
On Friday, the Washington Post and New York Times published deeply reported accounts of the informant’s work, some of which had previously been reported by the Daily Caller and other right-wing outlets. The man, who has been identified by several news outlets as government veteran Stefan Halper, made contacts with multiple Trump advisers during and after the 2016 campaign as part of the FBI’s nascent investigation into Russian collusion, which evolved into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. There’s no evidence that the investigation or use of the informant was ordered by President Obama.
Halper was not implanted on the campaign, as Trump claims. None of his activities were ever made public, and the existence of the Russia investigation itself was not revealed until after the election — unlike the bureau’s highly publicized investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server. Nevertheless, Trump apparitchiks like Representative Devin Nunes has assimilated the episode into his overarching theory that a nefarious “deep state” has been out to get the president from the beginning. The Justice Department agreed to turn over to Nunes many of its files on the genesis of the investigation into the Trump campaign, but that has hardly mollified the president.
On Sunday afternoon, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani said that Trump shouldn’t agree to sit down for an interview with Mueller without knowing more about the informant.
Earlier in the day, Trump was in a feisty mood, sending several tweets focusing on the injustice of the investigation against him, considering Democrats’ supposedly worse crimes.
But it was his “order” that stood out, presaging a possible showdown between Trump and independent branches of the government that has long seemed in the offing.
In May, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose job has been hanging in the balance for months, publicly said that the Department of Justice would not be “extorted” in the face of presidential and congressional threats to undermine its independence. He may be forced to back up those words very soon.