President Trump on Wednesday lashed out again at his attorney general, questioning why the man he picked as the country’s top law enforcement official was relying on the Justice Department’s inspector general to review alleged surveillance abuses.
Trump was referring to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s assertion the day before that Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz would look into alleged surveillance abuses that legislators on the House Intelligence Committee have been debating in recent weeks. The announcement was discussed at some length on one of Trump’s favorite television shows, “Fox & Friends,” earlier in the morning — with one of the hosts saying Horowitz might need to “bulk up his staff” and another asking whether they should be concerned because Horowitz is a part of the Justice Department.
“This guy, he works for the DOJ? And he’s going to be investigating the DOJ?” host Ainsley Earhardt asked. “Should we be worried about that?”
“He apparently is a man of integrity,” host Steve Doocy replied.
An spokesman for the inspector general confirmed that the attorney general had asked the office to review such issues but declined further comment.
Sessions said in a statement: “We have initiated the appropriate process that will ensure complaints against this Department will be fully and fairly acted upon if necessary. As long as I am the Attorney General, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor, and this Department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and Constitution.”
Trump has repeatedly lambasted the federal law enforcement apparatus, and Sessions — whose decision to recuse himself from the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election has long irked the president — has drawn particular ire. Trump has called Sessions “beleaguered” and toyed with the idea of firing him. Sessions has shown no signs publicly of fighting back against his boss and has dutifully worked to implement the president’s policy agenda.
Legal analysts say the president seems to be subverting the long-held principle that the Justice Department should be independent — especially when it comes to criminal investigations. His goal, they say, seems to be to undercut an investigation that could touch him.
“In past administrations, both Democratic and Republican, presidents rightly recognized and accepted that White House interference in potential DOJ investigations is wholly unacceptable,” said Matt Axelrod, a senior official in President Barack Obama’s Justice Department who now works at the firm Linklaters. “When this president attacks his own attorney general and urges that attorney general to carry out a political vendetta on his behalf, he subverts both the rule of law and the sacrosanct principle of independent and apolitical law enforcement.”
The most recent dust-up stems from the FBI’s post-campaign monitoring of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, especially its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), have alleged that the FBI and Justice Department misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain a warrant to monitor Page, while Democrats have countered that their GOP colleagues are misstating the facts.
The two sides in recent weeks issued dueling memos on the topic.
The first, from Republicans, said the FBI used information that was ultimately funded by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee to obtain the warrant on Page. That finding and others, it said, amounted to “a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process,” a reference to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The FBI disputed the accuracy of the Republicans’ statements, and Democrats fired back Saturday with their own memo saying the bureau had been unfairly maligned.
Page has acknowledged that an FBI wiretap detected suspected Russian spies discussing their attempts to recruit him in 2013, and he told congressional investigators that he was interviewed by the FBI and cooperated as they investigated the men, who were ultimately charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents. By the Democrats’ telling, the bureau told the court specific details of where its new information on Page came from.
The FBI revealed, for example, that a source whose information the bureau was relying on in part to obtain the warrant had first been approached by a “U.S. person” who had been hired “to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia.” The source was Christopher Steele, a British former intelligence officer who produced a dossier of damaging allegations against Trump.
“The FBI speculates that the U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit candidate #1’s campaign,” the application says. “Candidate #1” is a reference to Trump.
After the Democrats released their memo, Trump wrote on Twitter, “Just confirms all of the terrible things that were done. SO ILLEGAL!” When Sessions revealed Tuesday that he had asked the inspector general to look into the matter, the White House seemed pleased at first.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at a briefing that while she had not spoken with the president about the matter, “it’s something that he’s clearly had frustration over, so I would imagine he certainly supports the decision to look into what we feel to be some wrongdoing.”
“I think that’s the role of the Department of Justice,” Sanders said, “and we’re glad that they’re fulfilling that job.”
Nunes said Tuesday, though, that he was not aware of any plans to launch an investigation based on his findings, and he said he doubted that Horowitz would launch such a probe.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, was chagrined by Sessions’s call for a probe by the inspector general. “If that’s accurate, it represents another weakening of the independence of the Justice Department, and it would mark another sad turn for our system of checks and balances,” he said.
Sessions has previously proved responsive to GOP requests. Late last year, after inquiries on a host of Republican concerns largely centered around Clinton, Sessions directed senior federal prosecutors to look into the matters and report back to him. He indicated he was at least entertaining the idea of a second special counsel for those inquiries, and on Wednesday, a group of 13 Republican legislators asked that such an investigator be appointed to probe alleged surveillance abuses in Page’s case.
Even before the president’s tweet, as congressional leaders raised questions about surveillance abuses, Sessions said he would forward to “appropriate DOJ components” the information he was receiving from legislators.
Horowitz’s office and its lawyers are a part of the Justice Department, though they serve as a sort of ombudsman to police internal wrongdoing. Special agents in his investigations division develop cases for possible criminal prosecution, although on noncriminal matters his office mainly issues reports. He was confirmed as the inspector general in 2012, during the Obama administration, though he was nominated earlier to the U.S. Sentencing Commission by President George W. Bush.
“I have had a number of interactions with Inspector General Horowitz, including as recently as earlier this month,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chair of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement. “He has been fair, fact centric, and appropriately confidential with his work. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate without a single dissent. I have complete confidence in him and hope he is given the time, the resources and the independence to complete his work.”
Horowitz’s office has garnered a high profile lately as it has investigated the FBI’s handling of the probe into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Among the matters Horowitz is looking at are then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s July 2016 announcement that he was recommending the case be closed with no charges and Comey’s decision in October 2016 — on the eve of the election — to reveal that the bureau had resumed its work.
That investigation, which was opened in January 2017, led Horowitz to a discovery that also has been of interest to Trump and Republican congressional leaders — texts between two senior FBI officials who had been assigned to the Clinton and Russia cases and who seemed to dislike the president.
Julie Tate contributed to this report.