Trump’s push for Clinton probe raises red f lags
Pressure on Justice Dept. defies presidential norms
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.”
Trump and Clinton at debate Sept. 26, 2016. As president, he has reiterated his campaign call for her to be investigated.
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!”