Under pressure from President Trump, the Justice Department on Sunday asked its inspector general to assess whether political motivation tainted the FBI investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign — a remarkable step officials hoped might avert a larger clash between the president and federal law enforcement officials.
Trump, who spent much of Sunday railing against the year-old special counsel probe, tweeted in the afternoon that “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!”
Hours later, the Justice Department responded by saying it had asked its inspector general to expand an ongoing review of the applications to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser “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.”
The department noted that a U.S. attorney would be consulted if evidence of criminal conduct was found.
“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
Sunday’s developments came in the wake of reports that a longtime U.S. intelligence source assisted the investigation into Russian election interference now overseen by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The Washington Post reported Friday that the source, a retired American professor, had contacts with three Trump advisers during the 2016 campaign.
Trump and his allies have seized on the informant’s role to claim that the FBI spied on his campaign. There is no evidence to indicate an intelligence source was embedded within the campaign, as the president has suggested.
The quick move Sunday by the Justice Department could forestall a bigger showdown.
Late last month, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) issued a subpoena to the Justice Department seeking all documents related to the professor. So far, he has been rebuffed by department officials, who have said that exposing the source or the source’s work could put him and his contacts in danger and jeopardize international intelligence partnerships.
Law enforcement officials consider the informant’s identity so sensitive that the FBI had been working over the past two weeks to mitigate the potential damage if his name was revealed, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Some Justice Department officials feared that the president’s tweet signaled that he might overrule them and order the department to turn over the material Nunes seeks. If that occurs, it is possible that senior officials could resign in protest — or refuse the president’s order and force him to fire them.
Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said that while Trump has the authority to order Justice Department officials, those officials also have the right to quit rather than follow his direction.