President Donald Trump, joined by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, Vice President Mike Pence, second from left, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly,...
Carolyn Kaster

White House’s Kelly reminds DOJ about Trump’s ‘expectations’

There have been so many legitimately important controversies surrounding Donald Trump’s White House, it’s easy to forget some of the stories that were overshadowed by other, bigger scandals. Reince Priebus, for example, faced some awkward questions very early on in his tenure.

In fact, just two months after the president’s inauguration, then-White House Chief of Staff Priebus had some controversial communications with the FBI about an ongoing FBI investigation. (The communications were with then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whose name probably sounds familiar.)

As we discussed at the time, there are rules in place that strictly limit the communications between the White House and federal law enforcement, and Priebus failed to follow those rules.

And now I’m curious if Priebus’ successor made a similar mistake.

Bloomberg Politics reported this week that Donald Trump threw another tantrum after the Justice Department announced its opposition to the public release of the Nunes memo. The president, evidently, wanted the DOJ to prioritize his political interests above other considerations.

But that same report also noted what officials in the West Wing have done in response to Trump’s frustrations:

[White House Chief of Staff John Kelly] held separate meetings or phone calls with senior Justice Department officials last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to convey Trump’s displeasure and lecture them on the White House’s expectations, according to the people. Kelly has taken to ending such conversations with a disclaimer that the White House isn’t expecting officials to do anything illegal or unethical.

After Trump’s strong reaction on Air Force One over the [Justice Department’s letter about the Nunes memo], White House officials, including Kelly, sprang into action again, lashing Justice Department officials Thursday over the decision to send the letter….

At face value, the White House’s efforts to politicize the Justice Department should be alarming to anyone who values the independence of federal law enforcement. But there’s also the question of whether Kelly’s multiple chats about the president’s “expectations” – while the president is facing a federal investigation into possible obstruction of justice – were fully proper.

TPM had a good report along these lines yesterday, noting that the chief of staff’s contacts “may have violated at least the spirit and perhaps the letter of the Trump administration’s own guidelines regulating communications between the White House and DOJ.”

Discussions between Kelly and Justice Department officials related to “a criminal and counterintelligence investigation in which the White House and President have equities and a conflict of interest” would be strictly off limits, Andy Wright, associate White House counsel to President Barack Obama, told TPM.

The guidelines aim to create a firewall between the two bodies regarding ongoing criminal investigations – particularly those that involve the current administration. The possibility that they were breached is just the latest step in the ongoing politicization of federal law enforcement under Trump.

White House Counsel Don McGahn established a policy a week after Inauguration Day that limits Justice Department communications to the president, vice president, and White House counsel . Any additional contacts, including those made by subordinates, “should be handled in conjunction with a representative of the Counsel’s office,” per McGahn’s instructions.

It’s worth emphasizing that there are elements to this that we do not yet know. Bloomberg Politics’ report didn’t specify, for example, whether Kelly talked to the White House counsel’s office before reaching out to senior Justice Department officials – more than once – to upbraid and remind then about Trump’s wishes.

But TPM talked to Andy Wright, associate White House counsel to President Barack Obama, who “pointed out that sharing the president’s personal opinion on an issue stemming from an open criminal investigation would undercut the entire reason” there are policies in place to limit interactions between the White House and federal law enforcement.