Trump’s push for Clin­ton probe raises red f lags

Pres­sure on Jus­tice Dept. de­fies pres­i­den­tial norms

The Buffalo News - - FRONT PAGE - By Peter Baker

WASH­ING­TON – Pres­i­dent Trump did not need to send a memo or tele­phone his at­tor­ney gen­eral to make his de­sires known. He broad­cast them for all the world to see on Twit­ter. The in­struc­tion was clear: The Jus­tice Depart­ment should in­ves­ti­gate his de­feated op­po­nent from last year’s cam­paign.

How­ever they were de­liv­ered, Trump’s de­mands have ric­o­cheted through the halls of the Jus­tice Depart­ment, where At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions has now or­dered ca­reer prose­cu­tors to eval­u­ate var­i­ous ac­cu­sa­tions against Hil­lary Clin­ton and re­port back on whether a special coun­sel should be ap­pointed to in­ves­ti­gate her and the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion.

Ses­sions in­sists that any such de­ci­sion would be made on a “fac­tual ba­sis,” and in so­lic­it­ing the as­sess­ment of depart­ment lawyers, he may be seek­ing a way out of the bind that his boss has put

him in by ef­fec­tively putting the mat­ter in the hands of pro­fes­sion­als who weren’t po­lit­i­cally ap­pointed. But if he or his deputy au­tho­rizes a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Clin­ton, it would shat­ter norms es­tab­lished af­ter Water­gate that are in­tended to pre­vent pres­i­dents from us­ing law en­force­ment agen­cies against po­lit­i­cal ri­vals.

The re­quest alone was enough to trig­ger a po­lit­i­cal back­lash, as crit­ics of Trump quickly de­cried what they called “ba­nana repub­lic” pol­i­tics of ret­ri­bu­tion, akin to au­to­cratic back­wa­ter na­tions where elec­tion losers are jailed by win­ners.

“You can be dis­ap­pointed, but don’t be sur­prised,” said Karen Dunn, a for­mer pros­e­cu­tor and White House lawyer un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama who ad­vised Clin­ton dur­ing her cam­paign against Trump. “This is ex­actly what he said he would do: use tax­payer re­sources to pur­sue po­lit­i­cal ri­vals.”

Democrats still vividly re­call Trump on the cam­paign trail vow­ing to pros­e­cute Clin­ton if he won. “It was alarm­ing enough to chant ‘lock her up’ at a cam­paign rally,” said Brian Fal­lon, who was a cam­paign spokesman for Clin­ton. “It is an­other thing en­tirely to try to weaponize the Jus­tice Depart­ment in order to ac­tu­ally carry it out.”

But con­ser­va­tives said Clin­ton should not be im­mune from scru­tiny while special coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III in­ves­ti­gates Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence in last year’s elec­tion and any ties it may have to Trump’s cam­paign. They ar­gued, for ex­am­ple, that Clin­ton was the one do­ing Rus­sia’s bid­ding in the form of a ura­nium deal ap­proved when she was sec­re­tary of state.

Peter Sch­weizer, whose best­selling book “Clin­ton Cash” raised the ura­nium is­sue in 2015, said a special coun­sel would be the best way to ad­dress this mat­ter be­cause it would ac­tu­ally re­move it from pol­i­tics. “It of­fers greater in­de­pen­dence from any po­lit­i­cal pres­sures and pro­vides the nec­es­sary tools to hope­fully get to the bot­tom of what hap­pened and why it hap­pened,” said Sch­weizer, whose non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion was co­founded by Stephen K. Ban­non, Trump’s for­mer chief strate­gist who now heads Bre­it­bart News.

A let­ter by Stephen E. Boyd, an as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral, to Rep. Robert W. Good­latte, R-Va., chair­man of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, dis­closed that ca­reer prose­cu­tors were eval­u­at­ing is­sues that the con­gress­man raised in his own let­ters to the depart­ment in July and Septem­ber.

Among the is­sues raised by Good­latte was the ura­nium case. In 2010, Rus­sia’s atomic en­ergy agency ac­quired a con­trol­ling stake in Ura­nium One, a Cana­dian com­pany that at the time con­trolled 20 per­cent of U.S. ura­nium ex­trac­tion ca­pac­ity. The pur­chase was ap­proved by a gov­ern­ment com­mit­tee that in­cluded rep­re­sen­ta­tives of nine agen­cies, in­clud­ing the State Depart­ment un­der Clin­ton.

Donors re­lated to Ura­nium One and an­other com­pany that it ac­quired con­trib­uted mil­lions of dol­lars to the Clin­ton Foun­da­tion, and Bill Clin­ton re­ceived $500,000 from a Rus­sian bank for a speech. But there is no ev­i­dence that Hil­lary Clin­ton par­tic­i­pated in the gov­ern­ment ap­proval of the deal, and her aides have noted that other agen­cies, in­clud­ing the Nu­clear Reg­u­la­tory Com­mis­sion, signed off on it, as well. The com­pany’s ac­tual share of U.S. ura­nium pro­duc­tion has been 2 per­cent; the real ben­e­fit for Rus­sia was se­cur­ing far greater sup­plies of ura­nium from Kaza­khstan.

Other is­sues raised by Good­latte in­clude Clin­ton’s use of a pri­vate email server, which was in­ves­ti­gated by the FBI un­til the bureau’s then-di­rec­tor, James B. Comey, de­clared last year that no pros­e­cu­tor would press charges based on the ev­i­dence. Good­latte also asked the Jus­tice Depart­ment to in­ves­ti­gate Comey for leak­ing de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with Trump af­ter the pres­i­dent fired him in May.

To the ex­tent that there may be le­git­i­mate ques­tions about Clin­ton or Comey, how­ever, the cred­i­bil­ity of any probe pre­sum­ably would be called into ques­tion if one is au­tho­rized by Ses­sions or his deputy, Rod J. Rosen­stein, be­cause of the way it came about un­der pres­sure from Trump.

There are few if any re­cent prece­dents. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush did not order an in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­opened into the fundrais­ing prac­tices of for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore, his van­quished ri­val in the 2000 elec­tion, nor did Obama sug­gest the Jus­tice Depart­ment look again at the Keat­ing Five lob­by­ing case that in­volved Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom he de­feated in 2008. Obama re­buffed pres­sure from his lib­eral base to in­ves­ti­gate Bush and for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney for their ac­tions au­tho­riz­ing the wa­ter­board­ing of ter­ror­ism sus­pects de­spite anti-tor­ture laws.

In the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, the IRS ap­plied ex­tra scru­tiny to tax ex­emp­tions for con­ser­va­tive non­prof­its and was ac­cused of politi­ciz­ing the agency much like Pres­i­dent Richard M. Nixon did. But no ev­i­dence emerged ty­ing that to Obama.

Trump promised dur­ing last year’s cam­paign that if he were elected, he would in­struct his at­tor­ney gen­eral to ap­point a special pros­e­cu­tor to in­ves­ti­gate Clin­ton. But he backed off that pledge shortly af­ter the elec­tion, say­ing, “I don’t want to hurt the Clin­tons.”

By last sum­mer, with Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion bear­ing down, he had changed his mind. To Trump, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was a “witch hunt” based on a “hoax” per­pe­trated by Democrats. It was all the more galling to him, ad­vis­ers said, be­cause Clin­ton had not been pros­e­cuted, a frus­tra­tion ex­ac­er­bated by re­cent re­ports about how her cam­paign helped fi­nance a dossier of sala­cious as­ser­tions about him.

While pres­i­dents are not sup­posed to in­ter­vene in in­ves­ti­ga­tions or pros­e­cu­tions of spe­cific in­di­vid­u­als, Trump’s calls for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Clin­ton over the last sev­eral months have been re­peated, in­sis­tent and not even slightly sub­tle.

“So why aren’t the Com­mit­tees and in­ves­ti­ga­tors, and of course our be­lea­guered A.G., look­ing into Crooked Hil­larys crimes & Rus­sia re­la­tions?” he wrote on Twit­ter in July.

“There is so much GUILT by Democrats/Clin­ton, and now the facts are pour­ing out,” he wrote in Oc­to­ber. “DO SOME­THING!”

“At some point the Jus­tice Depart­ment, and the FBI, must do what is right and proper,” Trump wrote again in Novem­ber. He added: “Everybody is ask­ing why the Jus­tice Depart­ment (and FBI) isn’t look­ing into all of the dis­hon­esty go­ing on with Crooked Hil­lary & the Dems.”

Getty Images

Trump and Clin­ton at de­bate Sept. 26, 2016. As pres­i­dent, he has re­it­er­ated his cam­paign call for her to be in­ves­ti­gated.

Getty Images

Back­ers of GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Don­ald Trump wear “Crooked Hil­lary for Prison” T-shirts at 2016 rally in Iowa, where crowd was warmed up with chants of “Lock her up!”

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