Trump Demand for FBI Inquiry Ratchets Up Stakes on Russia Probe

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s formal demand that the Justice Department investigate possible surveillance of his campaign marks a turning point: It’s the first time he’s using the authority of his office to counter the Russia probe since he fired FBI Director James Comey last year.

“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!” Trump said Sunday on Twitter, where he has often protested the investigation he calls a “witch hunt.”

The move from tweets to action was urged on by Republican Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who said on Fox News that U.S. spy agencies crossed a “red line” if they planted a paid informant inside Trump’s campaign.

Some of Trump’s allies are beginning to push for Congress to open an investigation akin to the Church Committee’s probe in the 1970s into executive branch abuses of intelligence agencies to conduct improper domestic security operations, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, is bracing to see exactly what, if any action, Trump orders them to take this week. There’s no evidence that the FBI installed an informant or spy in Trump’s campaign. The FBI did rely on an informant who was in contact with Trump associates, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

‘Implanted’ Agent

Trump tweeted last week that reports suggest “there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign.” The New York Times reported that agents sent an informant to talk to two of Trump’s campaign advisers but “only after they received evidence that the pair had suspicious contacts linked to Russia during the campaign.”

The Justice Department responded Sunday by asking its inspector general to expand an ongoing review to include whether “any impropriety or political motivation” was a factor in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation related to the Russia probe, spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Russia probe now being run by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, said in a statement that “if anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action.”

In addition, in March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed John Huber, a U.S. attorney based in Utah, to conduct an internal probe into complaints of FBI bias and wrongdoing in response to Republicans allegations of anti-Trump bias during the 2016 campaign.

Trump and some Republican lawmakers are increasingly pressing the argument that Mueller’s inquiry into Russian meddling, and whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it, should be shut down because it was irreversibly tainted by improper actions early in the inquiry, well before Mueller was appointed a year ago.

Democrats -- who have long suggested that Trump was looking for grounds to fire Rosenstein, if not Mueller -- pushed back against the suggestion the FBI improperly spied on Trump’s campaign.

Claim ‘Nonsense’

Representative Adam Schiff, Nunes’s Democratic counterpart on the House Intelligence panel, said in a tweet that the president’s “claim of an embedded ‘spy’ is nonsense. His ‘demand’ DOJ investigate something they know to be untrue is an abuse of power, and an effort to distract from his growing legal problems.”

Based on “everything I have seen,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “it would have been negligent for the FBI not to take steps to protect the country in the midst of the information it was receiving.”

Trump Jr. Meeting

Trump also hit back Sunday after the New York Times reported that emissaries from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates met with members of Trump’s team, including his eldest son, Don Jr., at Trump Tower in New York about three months before the election. They offered to help the billionaire developer win, according to the report.

“Now that the Witch Hunt has given up on Russia and is looking at the rest of the World, they should easily be able to take it into the Mid-Term Elections where they can put some hurt on the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

An attorney for Donald Trump Jr. confirmed on Saturday that a meeting took place with, among other people, Erik Prince, founder of the private military company Blackwater USA, which is now known as Academi.

“They pitched Mr. Trump Jr. on a social media platform or marketing strategy. He was not interested and that was the end of it,” Alan Futerfas, an attorney for the younger Trump, said Saturday in an emailed statement.

But the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat said the Times report suggests Trump’s campaign had been “clearly receptive” to such offers.

“I don’t understand what the president doesn’t get about the law that says, if you have a foreign nation interfere in an American election, that is illegal,” Senator Mark Warner of Virginia said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.