Donald Trump has dramatically escalated his attacks on the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the US election, and his fightback against the Department of Justice reached a turning point this week with aspects of the inquiry itself now being investigated.
The president’s growing frustration with special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry now appears to be having an impact at high levels – as experts warned that Trump’s fresh offensive could backfire, and the former FBI director James Comey counter-punched.
Trump’s manoeuvring came as reports indicated an FBI informant was in contact with several Trump campaign officials in 2016. Trump swiftly seized on the news to claim, without evidence, that the FBI had planted a spy within his campaign and demanded that the DoJ investigate the matter.
Now a meeting will be held on Thursday between top government officials and two senior Republican lawmakers – but no Democrats – to allow the congressmen to review classified information relating to claims the FBI deployed a confidential source to gather information on Trump’s presidential campaign, the White House said on Tuesday afternoon.
Made against the backdrop of a series of characteristically fuming tweets, Trump’s demand signalled he was embracing an aggressive strategy to discredit the special counsel’s investigation.
Trump was tweeting busily and ferociously on Wednesday morning, with declarations such as: “SPYGATE could be one of the biggest political scandals in history!” and inflammatory, conspiracy-style talk about the government he heads as the “Criminal Deep State”.
Trump’s demand also marks a significant use of his authority to potentially undercut the FBI and apply direct pressure on the officials tasked with upholding the independence of Mueller and his team.
“If they had spies in my campaign, that would be a disgrace to this country,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. “It would be very illegal aside from everything else.”
The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, responded to Trump’s demand by referring the president’s inquiry to the Office of the Inspector General, which acts as the justice department’s internal watchdog. Trump subsequently reached a deal with top officials at the justice department under which Republican congressional leaders will be able to review highly classified information related to the investigation.
The course of events raised fresh concerns over Trump’s willingness to flout the norms that have historically ensured oversight of the executive branch.
On Wednesday morning the former director of the FBI, James Comey, whose controversial firing last year spurred the Mueller investigation, hit back – also via Twitter.
“Facts matter. The FBI’s use of Confidential Human Sources (the actual term) is tightly regulated and essential to protecting the country. Attacks on the FBI and lying about its work will do lasting damage to our country. How will Republicans explain this to their grandchildren?” Comey posted. In a subsequent tweet he warned about a “dangerous time” for the US.
Trump’s combative nature has also increasingly been mimicked by his beefed-up legal teamamid negotiations over the terms of a potential interview between the president and the special counsel, as new addition Rudy Giuliani tries quickly to reshape the narrative in Trump’s favour.
There has been no evidence to suggest the FBI informant was embedded with Trump’s campaign, as the president is implying. The informant, revealed over the weekend as the former University of Cambridge professor Stefan Halper, was in contact with a number of Trump aides who had come under FBI scrutiny as the agency investigated communications between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
The president has long cast the entire investigation as a “witch-hunt”, even as the special counsel has indicted 19 people and three companies.
“You have unprecedented dishonesty … in terms of the false statements that issue from the White House on a daily basis,” said Richard Ben-Veniste, a lawyer and former Watergate prosecutor. “Provably false statements that by comparison make Richard Nixon look like George Washington.”
Jack Sharman, who was special counsel to Congress during the Whitewater investigation into Bill and Hillary Clinton’s real estate affairs, said it was not unusual for a federal criminal investigation to expand in nature, and Trump’s constant aggressions could “cause more trouble than they’re worth”.
“They maybe unintentionally can cause other people – including perhaps investigators – to take a different tack,” he said, adding that statements “can actually raise suspicions or cause problems”.
The investigation has left Washington divided along familiar partisan lines, even as the president’s repeated outbursts against the FBI have often proved challenging for his own party.
Pressure has mounted on Republicans, who control both chambers of Congress, to more clearly denounce what critics see as efforts to interfere with Mueller’s investigation.
When asked about Trump’s “demand” that the justice department investigate whether the FBI infiltrated his campaign, the House speaker, Paul Ryan, expressed support for an inspector general review.
“It’s really important that we conduct a proper oversight of the executive branch to make sure that that power is not or has not or will not be abused,” he said.Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who is on the Senate judiciary committee, said Trump and his allies were “weaponizing false claims” against the FBI and justice department.
“This calculated, coordinated strategy,” he added, “is the last resort of many criminal defendants: when an investigation has you cornered, attack the investigators.”
This week, Giuliani suggested Mueller would follow existing justice department guidelines under which a president cannot be indicted. Legal experts are torn on that.
Meanwhile, any evidence of impeachable offences would place Trump’s fate in the hands of Congress.
But any moment of reckoning may ultimately lie with the American public, which is where Trump’s efforts to taint the intelligence community and its independence might prove most consequential.
While polling has found a majority of Americans support Mueller’s investigation, a growing number of Republicans believe Trump is being framed. A striking 83% of Republican respondents to one recent survey agreed with the president’s characterisation of the investigation as a “witch-hunt”.