President Trump hinted that he may get more deeply involved in the management of his Justice Department — which is overseeing a special counsel probe into possible Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election — in a freewheeling and defiant phone interview with Fox News on Wednesday morning.
Trump said that he tries to “stay away from” intervening in the Department of Justice, before adding, “But at some point I won’t.”
It was unclear to what exactly the president was referring — or threatening — in his comments, but Trump has repeatedly dismissed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe as a “witch hunt” and expressed a desire to fire both Mueller and Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who is overseeing the investigation.
The president’s comments Thursday brought a sharp rebuke from Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who called Trump’s interview “so unbecoming of a president, unbecoming of a democracy.”
“It’s so abundantly clear from the president’s remarks this morning, and from so many other things he has said, that he has little regard for the rule of law,” Schumer said in remarks on the Senate floor. “He seems to have this view that the purpose of the Justice Department is to protect his interests and persecute his enemies.”
Trump’s remarks came as he called on the Department of Justice to investigate corruption within its own ranks, rather than focus on the Russia probe, which now includes not just Russian interference but also possible obstruction of justice.
“Our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from, but at some point I won’t — our Justice Department should be looking at that kind of stuff, not the nonsense of collusion with Russia,” Trump said. “There is no collusion with me and Russia, and everyone knows it.”
The president was initially responding to a question by the hosts of “Fox & Friends” — a morning show that he routinely watches and that offers a largely flattering portrayal of Trump and his administration — about whether he hopes to talk to Mueller and put an end to the investigation. “Well, if I can,” Trump said.
But Trump quickly turned to slamming his own Justice Department’s leadership, complaining that 13 of Mueller’s investigators are Democrats and that Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI who was recently fired just shy of his retirement, accepted $700,000 from a Clinton ally for his wife’s unsuccessful 2016 Virginia state Senate campaign.
The president is right that some of Mueller’s investigators have donated to Democrats, but the number is lower than he claimed; nine of the 16 members of the Russia team gave to Democrats, and Mueller himself was a registered Republican in 2001 when he was nominated to lead the FBI. All members of Mueller’s team, however, are largely believed to be apolitical.
And while McCabe’s wife, Jill, a pediatrician, did receive approximately $500,000 from a political action committee led by former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, Andrew McCabe himself never accepted the contribution, which came before he was directly involved in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
Yet Trump, who has repeatedly demonized both the FBI and the Justice Department leadership, also cast himself as a champion of the agency.
“By the way, you take a poll at the FBI — I love the FBI,” he said. “The FBI loves me.”
Among the other Democrats who criticized Trump’s interview was Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
“Mr. President, it’s not your Justice Department; it belongs to the American people and serves the public interest, not yours,” Schiff wrote on Twitter, adding: “Any interference will not be tolerated.”