Trump's advocacy for criminal probe of his political opponent marked a significant breach of the traditional boundaries within the executive branch designed to prevent investigations from being politicized.
In a Thursday radio interview, Trump said “the saddest thing” about being president is that he is not supposed to give orders to the Justice Department or FBI. The president said he was “very frustrated” that he could not be involved with those agencies, and said it was “very discouraging to me” that they were not “going after Hillary Clinton.”
“Hopefully they are doing something and at some point, maybe we are going to all have it out,” Trump said Thursday on “The Larry O'Connor Show.”
Trump has long been annoyed, and at times angry, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not taking on Clinton more aggressively and for not better protecting him from the wide-ranging Russia probe led by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, the president's advisers have said.
As he departed the White House Friday morning for an 12-day trip to Asia, Trump told reporters: “A lot of people are disappointed in the Justice Department, including me.”
In a series of Friday morning tweets, Trump claimed there was mounting public pressure for the Justice Department to investigate Clinton. Trump suggested law enforcement reopen its probe of the deleted emails from Clinton's private server while she was secretary of state, as well as a Russian uranium sale and the international business of Democratic super-lobbyist Tony Podesta.
Trump also raised the Clinton campaign's joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic National Committee that effectively gave her control over the party's finances, strategy and staffing before the primaries began. The details were outlined in a new book by former DNC interim chair Donna Brazile.
Trump tweeted: “Everybody is asking why the Justice Department (and FBI) isn't looking into all of the dishonesty going on with Crooked Hillary & the Dems . . . New Donna B book says she paid for and stole the Dem Primary. What about the deleted E-mails, Uranium, Podesta, the Server, plus, plus . . . People are angry. At some point the Justice Department, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper. The American public deserves it!”
In a fourth tweet, Trump alleged that “the real story on Collusion” is the fundraising agreement noted in Brazile's book. The president appears to be conflating collusion with a foreign government, which is a subject of Mueller's Russia investigation, with the financial arrangement Clinton's campaign made with the DNC.
And in a fifth tweet on the subject, Trump invoked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who said Thursday on CNN that she believed the Democratic primaries were rigged in Clinton's favor. Using his pejorative nickname for Warren, the president tweeted (apparently misspelling the word led): “Pocahontas just stated that the Democrats, lead by the legendary Crooked Hillary Clinton, rigged the Primaries! Lets go FBI & Justice Dept.”
This marks only the latest attempt by Trump to use his presidential bully pulpit to influence the criminal justice process. He has delivered off-the-cuff remarks this week recommending punishment for Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect accused of killing eight people with a rental truck in New York. Trump at first said he was considering sending Saipov to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but then reversed course and advocated a civilian trial in federal court for the terrorism suspect he called “an animal.”
The Justice Department is a part of the executive branch; the attorney general is nominated by the president. So it is normal for the White House to direct the Justice Department on broad policy goals.
But unlike other executive branch agencies, the Justice Department traditionally enjoys a measure of independence, especially when it comes to individual criminal investigations. Government lawyers have long sought to enforce a clear line preventing White House officials from influencing specific investigations or prosecutions to ensure such work is not politicized.
The president directing a particular investigation — especially of a former political rival — would be viewed by most in law enforcement as inappropriate. When Trump made similar comments on the campaign trail a year ago, even former Republican attorney general Michael Mukasey, a vocal Clinton critic, said Trump ordering a prosecution of her would be “like a banana republic.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment Friday.
In his Thursday radio interview, Trump said, “You know, the saddest thing is, because I am the president of the United States I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I'm not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I'm not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing and I am very frustrated by it.”
Trump continued by referencing a salacious research dossier detailing Trump's ties to Russia, which was initially sponsored by the conservative Washington Free Beacon and later paid for by the Clinton campaign and DNC, through the Perkins Coie law firm.
Trump added on the radio show: “I look at what's happening with the Justice Department, why aren't they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her dossier, and the kind of money . . . I don't know, is it possible that they paid $12.4 million for the dossier . . . which is total phony, fake, fraud and how is it used? It's very discouraging to me. I'll be honest.”
Trump has not provided evidence to support his $12.4 million figure, and he may have grossly exaggerated how much the dossier cost. Fusion GPS, the firm that commissioned the dossier, has said it paid former British spy Christopher Steele $168,000 for his research, according to Reuters.
The Washington Post has reported that the Clinton campaign paid Perkins Coie $5.6 million in legal fees from June 2015 to December 2016, and the DNC paid the firm $3.6 million since November 2015, according to campaign finance records. But the filings do not detail how that money was spent, so it is impossible to tell how much work was related to the dossier research and how much was for legal services.
Devlin Barrett and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.