The FBI Is Quietly Asserting Its Independence From Trump
(Bloomberg) -- The FBI is quietly asserting independence after President Donald Trump moved this week to pull the agency into two of the most heated political controversies of his tenure.
Agency officials aren’t assenting to Trump’s demand for “immediate declassification” of some materials related to the Russia investigation, and are likely to push for redactions, according to people with knowledge of the matter. At the same time, the FBI is willing to probe sexual assault allegations that have jeopardized Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court -- despite Trump’s claims otherwise -- but it can’t do so without a formal White House request.
The tension adds to an already fraught relationship between the president and the law enforcement agencies he oversees. Trump has repeatedly attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions for failing to quash Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling in the 2016 elections, and he’s accused the Justice Department and FBI of targeting him and Republicans because of political bias.
The controversies are seen as a test for FBI Director Christopher Wray, who has repeatedly vowed to defend the agency’s work from political manipulation. While Sessions has taken the brunt of the president’s ire, the FBI was on the receiving end last month when Trump said he’d “get involved” if the Justice Department and FBI didn’t “start doing their job.” He accused the agencies of turning a blind eye to possible ties between Democrats and Russia, and instead focusing on him and his campaign.
The FBI declined to comment Wednesday.
Trump on Monday directed the FBI, Justice Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence to immediately declassify certain documents and evidence related to the ongoing investigation of Russian election interference in which he’s a central figure. Trump and some Republican lawmakers say the material will prove that anti-Trump bias tainted the early stages of the Russia probe that’s now being run by Mueller.
The FBI and Justice Department are conducting a review of material Trump wants declassified and are expected to recommend keeping some information secret or redacted in order to protect confidential sources and methods, two people with knowledge of the matter said.
Among other things, Trump wants to publicly release more pages of a previously secret warrant application to eavesdrop on Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign who was flagged by intelligence agencies as a target of Russian interest. He also wants to release reports of interviews the FBI conducted with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr about his role in the Russia inquiry. Trump has repeatedly accused Ohr of being biased.
Critics, including leading congressional Democrats, say that Trump has crossed a line by ordering release of the documents in order to interfere with and undermine an investigation in which he’s a key figure.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, the top Democrat on a panel that oversees the FBI budget, said in a statement Thursday that she sent a letter to Wray cautioning that the declassification Trump is demanding risks exposing sensitive sources and methods for “political purposes, which puts lives at risk.”
Meanwhile, the FBI never told Trump or anyone at the White House it doesn’t want to be involved in investigating the allegations against Kavanaugh, and it could investigate the matter if directed to do so by the White House, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Trump claimed on Tuesday that the bureau isn’t interested in investigating the allegations.
The FBI in 1991 investigated Anita Hill’s claims as part of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation that he had sexually harassed her repeatedly.
Kavanaugh’s confirmation process in the Senate was disrupted last week after California college professor Christine Blasey Ford went public with allegations that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her more than three decades ago when they were in high school.
The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee has set a hearing next week for Ford and Kavanaugh to testify about the allegations. Ford’s lawyers told the panel she is prepared to cooperate but that an FBI investigation should be “the first step” before she appears before senators to describe her allegations.
The FBI conducts background investigations on behalf of the White House. It did so for Kavanaugh and closed it before Ford went public with her allegations. Trump and the White House would provide the direction and parameters for any additional FBI investigation.
“The FBI does not make any judgment about the credibility or significance of any allegation," a Justice Department spokesman said.
"The purpose of a background investigation is to determine whether the nominee could pose a risk to the national security of the United States," the spokesman said. "The allegation does not involve any potential federal crime. The FBI’s role in such matters is to provide information for the use of the decision makers.”
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