Donald Trump’s daily Twitter postings often set the agenda for the day’s news cycle, but he concluded a lengthy, seemingly frantic series of messages to his Twitter feed on Sunday morning with a declaration that caused shock among legal experts, who say that Trump may have triggered a genuine constitutional crisis with his final statement in the thread.
In that final message, posted shortly after noon Eastern time on Sunday, Trump said that he would “demand” the Justice Department investigate allegations that under the Barack Obama administration, the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation “infiltrated” his 2016 presidential campaign for “political purposes” — an allegation that many law enforcement and legal experts have dismissed as “absurd.”
Trump’s “demand” appears to be a reaction to reports that during the campaign, the FBI used an informant to gather information about the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia to affect the outcome of the election. But no evidence has emerged to support Trump’s claim that the FBI installed a “spy” inside his campaign.
On Friday, The New York Times reported that the “informant” was a respected professor and foreign policy expert who met with three members of Trump’s campaign, including George Papadopoulos who has since taken a plea deal and is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and Carter Page — who was already under FBI scrutiny for his 2013 contact with a Russian spy ring in New York. The FBI became suspicious when Trump named Page to his foreign policy advisory team in March of 2016.
The FBI informant met with Page shortly after Page traveled to Moscow in July of 2016, where he delivered a foreign policy speech that was scathingly critical of United States policy while offering praise for the Russian government.
Papadopoulos first came to the FBI’s attention when investigators learned that he had been told by a Russia-linked academic that Russia possessed “dirt” on Democrat Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The professor also reached out to Trump campaign Co-chair Sam Clovis.
Though the FBI appears to have valid investigative reasons for seeking more information from Papadopoulos and Page, Trump has not acknowledged those reasons in his public and Twitter statements, and his “demand” to investigate the FBI has raised alarms among legal experts.
“He has finally crossed the red line and ordered up a DOJ investigation of his political opponents, as well as career law enforcement agents,” said Obama administration Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller. “Moment of truth for (Deputy Attorney General Rod) Rosenstein and (Attorney General Jeff) Sessions and moment of danger for the country.”
Former Federal Prosecutor Renato Mariotti also said that Trump’s “demand” risked creating a crisis.
“Let’s call this what it is — an abuse of power meant to gain information about the criminal investigation of his campaign,” Mariotti wrote on his Twitter account.
Democrat Adam Schiff, of the House Intelligence Committee — and a former federal prosecutor — also condemned Trump’s “demand” as an “abuse of power.”
Legal scholar Benjamin Wittes, of the Brookings Institute and the Lawfare legal site, said on Sunday that he expected Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray to quit their jobs rather than follow Trump’s “demand” for an investigation.
“There is no doubt in my mind that neither the attorney general (who is recused anyway) nor the deputy attorney general nor the FBI director can in good conscience comply with such an order. And I don’t believe they will,” Wittes said. “This is a nakedly corrupt attempt on the part of the President to derail an investigation of himself at the expense of a human source [i.e. the professor] to whose protection the FBI and DOJ are committed.”
Wittes also said that while he generally ignores Trump’s Twitter postings, Sunday’s Trump “demand” message required a response.
“This tweet is different from other Trump craziness tweets. It’s one that promises a specific action on a specific date (tomorrow) with respect to a specific agency that will, if it takes place, precipitate a showdown,” Wittes wrote.
Georgetown University Law Professor Carrie Cordero also said that she expected FBI and DOJ officials to resist Trump’s “demand,” if Trump chooses to go through with it.
“The Department of Justice doesn’t open investigations for political purposes, which is what the president says today he will order tomorrow,” Cordero said. “There are rules. And I’m convinced there are people left in this government who will follow them.”
But Wittes also added that he believed that Trump may not go ahead with his “demand,” averting a Constitutional crisis after all.
“Trump is a wuss, so he may well back down. He was going to fire Rosenstein, and he wussed out. He was going to fire Mueller and he wussed out. So I don’t want to overstate this. There’s lots of ways this could peter out.” Wittes wrote. “But this tweet is no joke.”