Under pressure from President Trump, the Justice Department on Sunday asked its inspector general to assess whether political motivation tainted the FBI investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign — a remarkable step officials hoped might avert a larger clash between the president and federal law enforcement officials.
Trump, who spent much of Sunday railing against the year-old special counsel probe, tweeted in the afternoon 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!”
Hours later, the Justice Department responded by saying it had asked its inspector general to expand an ongoing review of the applications to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser “to include determining whether there was any impropriety or political motivation in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation of persons suspected of involvement with the Russian agents who interfered in the 2016 presidential election.”
The department noted that a U.S. attorney would be consulted if evidence of criminal conduct was found.
“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
Sunday’s developments came in the wake of reports that a longtime U.S. intelligence source assisted the investigation into Russian election interference now overseen by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The Washington Post reported Friday that the source, a retired American professor, had contacts with three Trump advisers during the 2016 campaign.
Trump and his allies have seized on the informant’s role to claim that the FBI spied on his campaign. There is no evidence to indicate an intelligence source was embedded within the campaign, as the president has suggested.
The quick move Sunday by the Justice Department could forestall a bigger showdown.
Late last month, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) issued a subpoena to the Justice Department seeking all documents related to the professor. So far, he has been rebuffed by department officials, who have said that exposing the source or the source’s work could put him and his contacts in danger and jeopardize international intelligence partnerships.
Law enforcement officials consider the informant’s identity so sensitive that the FBI had been working over the past two weeks to mitigate the potential damage if his name was revealed, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Some Justice Department officials feared that the president’s tweet signaled that he might overrule them and order the department to turn over the material Nunes seeks. If that occurs, it is possible that senior officials could resign in protest — or refuse the president’s order and force him to fire them.
Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while Trump has the authority to order Justice Department officials, those officials also have the right to quit rather than follow his direction.
“If the president is basically saying, ‘I want you guys to investigate yourselves, to convince me that you weren’t spying on me,’ there comes a point where DOJ has to say, ‘We’ll refer to the IG, but that’s all we’re doing,’ ” Vladeck said.
The furor over the role played by the professor in the Russia investigation could further complicate the sporadic negotiations between Trump’s legal team and the special counsel over the prospect of a presidential interview.
Mueller has sought a sit-down with the president to conclude the portion of his investigation examining whether Trump or any officials sought to obstruct the probe.
In an interview with The Post on Sunday, Rudolph W. Giuliani, one of the president’s attorneys, said that Trump’s lawyers would like questions about the source “to be cleared up before we even approach the idea of doing an interview.”
Giuliani also said that Mueller, in pressing for that interview, told him in a late April meeting that the investigation into the president’s conduct and possible obstruction of justice could be completed by Sept. 1 if Trump agreed to sit down with investigators.
Giuliani said Mueller “put it out there as an incentive that if we do the interview, we can have more control over the termination date.”
Giuliani acknowledged, though, the timeline could change significantly if the president did not cooperate.
“It would depend on if they subpoena him. And if they subpoena him, there will be litigation. So no timeline on that,” Giuliani said. “That’d be unfortunate, but it could happen.”
Throughout the weekend, Trump appeared consumed by the revelations about the role played by the FBI source in the Russia investigation, repeatedly tweeting about the matter and consulting by phone with Giuliani.
“He called me very early, 6:30 a.m., and we spoke Saturday night,” Giuliani said. “We concluded last night that he should do something to ask the Justice Department.”
Trump was “doing what the president should do,” Giuliani added. “He’s telling the Justice Department the obvious, which is — they should turn over information gleaned from this source.”
But later in the conversation, Giuliani seemed to note that the president had not yet given a formal order. He said he expected a letter would be issued Monday.
“He’s not commanding them at this point but asking them to reveal the substance of this and clear it up,” Giuliani said.
Giuliani said he was not worried about that sparking a possible crisis at the Justice Department, remarking: “I have a hard time believing they won’t go along. They have to eventually reveal something about this. This is a serious issue.”
In emails and phone calls Sunday afternoon, GOP lawmakers close to Trump conferred and tried to interpret his position. They wondered, in particular, whether he would forcefully demand that Justice Department hand over documents to Congress or whether he would simply push the department to eventually share more information from its ongoing probes led by its inspector general, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
On Sunday, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) wrote on Twitter: “DOJ can’t be trusted to investigate themselves--Congress needs the documents too. Rod Rosenstein: where are the documents? Show Americans the truth.”
There was also concern among Trump-aligned lawmakers that White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and White House counsel Donald McGahn may be trying to “water down” the president’s position as a way of avoiding a potential crisis over highly sensitive materials that the Justice Department has long been wary of releasing, according to one person close to those Republicans.
“What’s in the letter on Monday and what it tells DOJ to do is going to be everything for us. Not the tweets,” said the person, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk about a topic the person was not authorized to discuss publicly.
The president’s tweet — and the Justice Department’s quick response — left open the possibility that a larger conflict could be averted.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz announced in March that he would explore controversial applications to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, along with the department’s relationship with a former British intelligence officer who provided information cited for those requests.
That review will assess whether the FBI and the Justice Department complied with the law and their own policies in requesting and carrying out the surveillance. Horowitz also said that he would examine other matters that might arise from his work.
It is possible that Horowitz’s review might have led him to look at the FBI’s use of the confidential source, who had contact with Page, in the Russia investigation. The Justice Department’s response to the president’s tweet indicated that, no matter the case, Horowitz’s investigation could now broaden.
Devlin Barrett and Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.