You would think James Comey would be tired of this job by now.
Important to note: CNN isn’t claiming that Team Trump asked the FBI to lie to the media. On the contrary. Allegedly a deputy director at the FBI approached Reince Priebus and told him that last week’s stories by the NYT and CNN claiming that Trump campaign aides were in “constant communication” with Russians were wildly exaggerated. Priebus then supposedly asked Comey and the deputy director if they wouldn’t mind mentioning that to a reporter or two before the public concludes that Trump is the Manchurian candidate. In other words, Priebus asked the Bureau to tell the truth about what it knew, not to lie — if CNN’s account is accurate.
There’s also no evidence that he attempted to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s Russia dealings, although depending on how Priebus phrased things, it’s not crazy to think that Comey might have perceived his request as a sort of warning. If, for instance, Priebus had said to him, “It’s about time you say something in defense of our president, whom we both know is innocent, right?”, Comey could have interpreted that as a nudge from the White House that this investigation had better not produce anything incriminating. Even if Priebus’s tone wasn’t threatening, the mere fact that he was leaning on the FBI to do a political favor for the White House — regarding a matter of possible foreign influence over people close to the president of the United States — might have been understood by Comey as a sort of threat in itself. If Reince was willing to cross the line by asking for some PR help from the Bureau, what other lines might he cross to protect Trump’s reputation?
Which gets to the point here: The reason communications between the White House and the FBI are frowned upon is because it’s easy to imagine political influence being brought to bear, deliberately or even unwittingly through miscommunications, on law enforcement. And yet, here we are.
The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a U.S. law enforcement official. A White House official disputes that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts. The White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories. A law enforcement official says McCabe didn’t discuss aspects of the case but wouldn’t say exactly what McCabe told Priebus.
Comey rejected the request for the FBI to comment on the stories, according to sources, because the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Comey’s following his strict rule of not commenting on active investigations unless we’re a week out from a national election, I guess. Meanwhile, here’s what the Justice Department has to say about communications between the White House and the Bureau, according to memos written between 2007 and 2009:
“Initial communications between the [Justice] Department and the White House concerning pending or contemplated criminal investigations or cases will involve only the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General, from the side of the Department, and the Counsel to the President, the Principal Deputy Counsel to the President, the President, or the Vice President from the side of the White House,” reads the 2009 memo.
The memos say the communication should only happen when it is important for the President’s duties and where appropriate from a law enforcement perspective.
The FBI’s not supposed to be talking to anyone at the White House about pending investigations and the DOJ isn’t supposed to be talking to anyone there except Trump, Pence, or the White House lawyers. So how’d we end up in a situation where McCabe is whispering to Priebus and then Priebus is whispering to McCabe and Comey? It was a big deal during the campaign when Bill Clinton hopped aboard Loretta Lynch’s plane for a chat while the Hillary email investigation was ongoing. Now here’s Reince allegedly dialing up the director of the FBI and asking Comey to be a spin doctor for Trump on background — while an investigation is ongoing. There may be no hard evidence of obstruction of justice (yet?) but critics will be howling about it and demanding a congressional investigation into what happened. And that demand isn’t crazy: Much depends here, as I said, on exactly what was said between Priebus, Comey, and McCable. If it’s true that Reince asked the Bureau to do no more than correct the media’s misimpressions based on facts in their possession, that’s still improper per the guidelines quoted above but not a mega-scandal. If Reince asked Comey and McCabe to do more than that, though, and go beyond the facts known to them in trying to defuse Trump/Russia stories in the media, that’s pretty mega. There’ll be calls for Priebus and McCabe to be fired tomorrow. And given how thin the ice beneath Comey is, lefties will be looking to push him out too.
I hope for the White House’s sake that this is “fake news” like they’re always claiming CNN is guilty of. No doubt we’ll get an official denial of the “CNN is blowing this way out of proportion” variety from Reince soon.
— CNN (@CNN) February 23, 2017