On Monday, President Trump met with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray regarding his “demand” that the Department of Justice look into the use of a confidential informant by the FBI against members of the Trump campaign in 2016. This has led to an enormous amount of hand-wringing on the Left, and triumphalism on the Right. According to the Left, Trump is utilizing the Department of Justice to cover for his supposed crimes, or to investigate the investigators; according to those on the Right, Trump is finally about to bring the Obama FBI to heel.
Here are some basic realities.
1. It’s Not Obstruction For Trump To Meet With His Own Department of Justice. The Department of Justice is not an independent branch. It works for the president. That means that the president has every right to meet with members of his DOJ to discuss ongoing matters. Obstruction only becomes an issue if Trump were to inform the DOJ to come to a particular conclusion in a case. It arguably would not even be obstruction for Trump to order the DOJ to shut down a particular investigation, though obstruction of justice charges were part of the impeachment proceedings against President Nixon.
2. It’s Not Obstruction For Trump To Order The DOJ To Investigate The FBI’s 2016 Conduct. This is a separate investigation from the Mueller investigation; it’s a separate investigation from the SDNY investigation into Michael Cohen. These investigations have nothing to do with Trump’s call for an investigation into the use of the FBI by the Obama administration to supposedly target the Trump campaign in 2016. At best, information gathered by any such investigation could be utilized as a public relations piece in a potential attempt to end the Mueller investigation.
3. Trump Is Making Some Pretty Hefty Charges. Trump is charging that the FBI, under the auspices of the Obama DOJ, planted informants inside his campaign unjustifiably – that is, they had no real reason to suspect that any collusion was taking place between members of the Trump campaign and Russia, and thus had no grounds, either counterintelligence or criminal, to begin any investigation utilizing an informant. This seems like a stretch, given that we know that George Papadopoulos met with an alleged agent of the Kremlin in London, then bragged about it before an Australian ambassador; Carter Page had been on the intelligence community’s watch list for quite a while; so had Paul Manafort; Michael Flynn had taken money from Russia Today; and Donald Trump Jr. approved a meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian cut-out regarding supposed dirt on Hillary Clinton.
4. Trump Could Declassify All Of This At Any Time. Perhaps the weirdest part of this entire conspiracy theory is the fact that Trump could simply declassify all of this material rather than waiting for an investigation. We still don’t have the original Carter Page FISA warrant, which House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes says shows the misuse of the infamous Steele dossier to surveil Page. We could get all the documents with regard to the FBI’s decisionmaking process on using an informant too. All Trump has to do is sign the papers.
5. This Didn’t Come Out During The Campaign. Another weird part of this conspiracy theory is the idea that Trump’s enemies were attempting to sink Trump’s campaign with false stories about Russian conspiracies – when none of this material broke during the campaign. We didn’t know about the Trump Tower meeting; we’d never heard about Papadopoulos; we knew about Manafort, but only because Manafort had allegedly been corrupt for years (and Trump fired him over it); Flynn’s relationship with RT was public. But if news had leaked about the use of an informant during the Trump campaign, that surely would have damaged Trump. If that was the point, why didn’t this stuff leak?
6. There Have Been Ridiculous Leaks Since Trump’s Election. Trump’s election triggered a series of devastating leaks, however. There were leaks about the Steele dossier; about Michael Flynn; about the Trump Tower meeting; about the path of the investigation along every step of the investigation; of FBI Director James Comey’s notes. If there’s corruption, that’s where to look.
7. It’s Unclear That Team Clapper Unloaded The Steele Dossier To The Media. There are a series of emails that have now been released between top Obama administration DOJ and FBI officials regarding the CNN story on the Steele dossier. Republicans have taken those emails to mean that these people coordinated on the release of the dossier, and then set Trump up by giving CNN a newshook – they talked to Trump about the story. There’s a plausible counter-explanation: CNN reached out to these officials about the dossier, they felt a duty to inform Trump, they believed the story would run in any case, and it did. That doesn’t mean that Team Obama didn’t leak the dossier. But that’s just not clear-cut at this point.
So, here’s the bottom line, as always: we just don’t know enough at this point. We don’t know if the FBI targeted Trump illegitimately; we don’t know that the Steele dossier came out thanks to Team Obama manipulation. We do know, however, that Trump has every right to look into these issues.