Did you happen to catch the President on Sixty Minutes on Sunday night? You get a free pass if you didn’t because I know I was watching football. His appearance dealt quite a bit with Vladimir Putin and Russia’s involvement in the deteriorating situation in Syria… certainly an important and worthy topic. But when the host got around to mentioning Hillary Clinton’s email woes, the President took a decidedly more cavalier tone, discussing the ongoing investigation as if it were not that big of a deal. This became the subject of a recent Wall Street Journal editorial.
Yet when Steve Kroft asked if the server posed a security risk, Mr. Obama dismissed the idea by saying “I don’t think it posed a national security problem.” But how would he know unless his lawyers are filling him in on the investigation? Mr. Obama must know as a lawyer how inappropriate it is for a President to comment on a case being conducted by executive-branch officials who work for him.
Mr. Obama also opined that Mrs. Clinton’s actions weren’t comparable to the cases in which former CIA directors John Deutch and David Petraeus pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for mishandling classified information. “We don’t get an impression that here there was purposely efforts on—in—to hide something or to squirrel away information,” he said.
The President has many talents, but we didn’t know mind-reading was one of them. Again as a lawyer, Mr. Obama knows that Mrs. Clinton’s state of mind will be crucial to the FBI’s recommendations in the case. It is hard to believe he wasn’t deliberately trying to work the referees in Mrs. Clinton’s favor. His words cast a pall over FBI Director James Comey, who will now be suspected of following orders if the FBI gives Mrs. Clinton a legal pass.
There’s a reason that the President is, at least in theory, supposed to keep his beak out of ongoing investigations conducted through the Justice Department, the FBI and all the rest of the domestic law enforcement structure. They work for him. It’s part of the executive branch and the jobs of the people at the top in those organizations are either directly or indirectly in the hands of the President. All of the agents reporting to them have to follow the chain of command. If the coach is sending signals as to how he’d like the investigation to go it can become a bit more difficult for those offices to retain any sort of impartiality.
Further, even if they do their jobs properly, when the case is wrapped up it can wind up with a big old asterisk next to it if they just happen to come up with the result that the President clearly desired. I’m guessing that President Obama was speaking extemporaneously when he fielded that question because by Tuesday he had sent out the Press Secretary to assure the nation that such meddling was the furthest thing from his mind.
The White House has figured out how bad this looks because on Tuesday spokesman Josh Earnest said that Mr. Obama’s comment “certainly was not an attempt, in any way, to undermine the importance or independence of the ongoing FBI investigation.” He added that the President “has a healthy respect for the kinds of independent investigations that are conducted by inspectors general and, where necessary, by the FBI.”
This isn’t the first hint we’ve seen that the fix may be in on this investigation. Relations may not always be entirely cozy between the State Department, Justice and Homeland Security, but they do have a disturbing pattern of taking care of their own first. You’ll recall that after the Inspector General concluded a fifteen month investigation into Huma Abedin’s payroll situation and turned over a recommendation that Justice could move forward with an embezzlement charge, they quietly dropped the matter. And that was for a Secretary of State who wasn’t even in office any more by the time they finished. (Though, to be fair, they were no doubt keenly aware that she might be coming back some day as the big boss.)
Is there any causal relationship between all of these things? It’s probably impossible to ever prove either way. But that’s precisely why the President needs to avoid jumping in the middle of such things as he’s done here.