(FILES) This file photo taken on February 9, 2017 shows US President Donald Trump alongside US Attorney General Jeff Sessions after Sessions was sworn in as...
SAUL LOEB

Trump announces plans for politicized Justice Department probe

Updated

As yesterday progressed, and Donald Trump kept tweeting, it seemed obvious that the president’s latest tantrum was reaching a boiling point. It started with Trump accusing Hillary Clinton of corruption – the election was 558 days ago – followed by him accusing the New York Times of also being corrupt.

That was soon followed by a series of “witch hunt” claims, criticisms of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators, and poorly written complaints about former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Christopher Steele’s dossier, the DNC, the FBI, and John Podesta’s brother. Those who want to believe the president is emotionally stable would’ve been wise to avert their eyes.

The series of enraged missives culminated, however, in a message that was harder to overlook.

President Donald Trump says he’ll demand that the Justice Department review whether it or the FBI infiltrated his presidential campaign for political purposes and whether any demands or requests came from the Obama administration.

Trump tweeted Sunday: “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!”

This represented a slight shift in posture for the Republican: on Friday, Trump declared with some certainty that federal law enforcement officials did, in fact, have a spy inside his 2016 campaign. Now, apparently, the president intends to order the Justice Department to find out if his assertions are true.

About a month ago, Trump told Fox News he “tries” to steer clear of the Justice Department’s decision-making, though he added, “But at some point, I won’t.”

Evidently, we’ve arrived at that point.

For those concerned about the integrity of the federal law enforcement system, watching a sitting president – himself the subject of an ongoing investigation – engage in brazenly political interference with the Justice Department is more than a little alarming. That said, part of the problem here is that it’s difficult to say with confidence whether to take Trump’s nonsense seriously.

After all, this president often struggles to keep his internal monologue internal, routinely tweeting out random thoughts that are unconnected to the White House’s actual plans, and so it’s possible nothing will come of this latest Trump tantrum. Perhaps his aides will distract him with shiny objects today, and he’ll soon direct his attention elsewhere.

Indeed, this president has “demanded” investigations before – remember this one from March 2017? – and those orders were ignored almost immediately thereafter.

But let’s also consider the possibility that the president was serious. His missive did, after all, point to a specific course of action, complete with a timeline, which most of his wild-eyed tweets lack.

With this in mind, sometime today, we should expect Trump to give explicit instructions to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and/or other leading officials in federal law enforcement, ordering them to examine his latest conspiracy theory, which, like so many of his conspiracy theories, positions the president himself in the role of the victim.

Or put another way, if Trump follows through on his Twitter declaration, the president will order the Justice Department to do his bidding – targeting his perceived foes because he says so – even if it interferes with Mueller’s ongoing probe.

Will this presidential effort to break down the firewall between our system of justice and the White House’s political agenda spark a series of resignations? At least for now, that appears unlikely: soon after Trump published his “demand,” the Justice Department asked its inspector general to expand an existing review “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.”

DOJ officials almost certainly know the answer to this question, but they’re apparently going through the motions to pacify the president. This may not work.

A New York Times  report added, “By handing the question to the inspector general, [Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein] appeared to be trying to thread the needle, giving the president what he said he wanted without fully bowing to his demands. But it was not clear whether that would satisfy Mr. Trump, who in February complained that it was ‘disgraceful’ for the Justice Department to hand over the surveillance investigation to an inspector general who lacks prosecutorial power, saying it would ‘take forever’ and suggesting that he was ‘an Obama guy.’”

Watch this space.