At his confirmation hearings, Christopher Wray promised over and over again that he would run the FBI independently from the White House — just the way it’s always been run. But in a breathtaking new interview with the New York Times, Donald Trump makes it clear — over and over again — that he does not believe the FBI or any other agency should in any way be independent from his personal whims and interests.
Here he is explaining that the FBI director “reports directly to the president”:
TRUMP: And nothing was changed other than Richard Nixon came along. And when Nixon came along [inaudible] was pretty brutal, and out of courtesy, the F.B.I. started reporting to the Department of Justice. But there was nothing official, there was nothing from Congress. There was nothing — anything. But the F.B.I. person really reports directly to the president of the United States, which is interesting. You know, which is interesting. And I think we’re going to have a great new F.B.I. director.
HABERMAN: Chris Wray.
TRUMP: He’s highly thought of by everybody. I think I did the country a great service with respect to Comey.
In reality, James Comey wrote in his prepared testimony before Congress that this is so far from being true that he only spoke to Barack Obama twice during his years of service, and one of the times was a farewell conversation after the election.
Trump keeps sliming Comey for “illegal leaks”
But speaking of Comey, Trump not only fired him but is smearing him on his way out the door as a criminal. At one point, he remarks that “Comey also says that he did something in order to get the special prose — special counsel. He leaked. The reason he leaked. So, he illegally leaked.”
In reality, Comey didn’t “leak” anything at all — Trump had already fired him.
Of course, it would still be illegal for a former government official to disclose classified information. But there was nothing classified about the recollections of his conversations with Trump that Comey shared. Comey himself is obviously going to be okay here. He’s a famous former high-ranking official with good media and political connections and first-rate legal skills who also earned millions of dollars during a brief stint on Wall Street.
But it’s no small thing to be baselessly accused of serious crimes by the president of the United States, and Trump is sending a clear message here to any official of the US government who, at any level, might be thinking of trying to uphold the rule of law rather than bend to his whims. Trump later returns to this wild allegation:
So think of this. Mike. He illegally leaks, and everyone thinks it is illegal, and by the way, it looks like it’s classified and all that stuff. So he got — not a smart guy — he got tricked into that, because they didn’t even ask him that question. They asked him another question, O.K.?
There is, again, absolutely nothing classified about an FBI director’s recollection of his conversation over dinner with the president. Trump is just making things up.
Trump also slimed the deputy director of the FBI
For good measure, Trump also makes up a weird slander about Deputy FBI Director Andy McCabe, who he would like you to believe is essentially on Hillary Clinton’s payroll:
TRUMP: I mean, look at what we have now. We have a director of the F.B.I., acting, who received $700,000, whose wife received $700,000 from, essentially, Hillary Clinton. ’Cause it was through Terry. Which is Hillary Clinton.
HABERMAN: This is [Andrew] McCabe’s wife, you mean?
TRUMP: McCabe’s wife. She got $700,000, and he’s at the F.B.I. I mean, how do you think that?
What actually happened is that McCabe’s wife, Jill, ran for state Senate in Virginia in 2015 as a Democrat. The seat she was running for was considered a good pickup opportunity, so a PAC affiliated with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe put about $500,000 into her campaign and the state party put in another $200,000. Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with it, and the implication that McCabe’s wife was just pocketing Clinton money directly is absurd.
The underlying issue here is that McCabe is a career FBI agent and not a Donald Trump loyalist. His wife is even a Democrat. To Trump, that’s suspicious. But of course, even a Republican like Jeff Sessions could be considered suspect if he were to ever fail to act in Trump’s personal interest.
Trump says Sessions shouldn’t have recused himself
There’s little indication that Trump has really let this damage his day-to-day working relationship with Sessions, but he makes it very clear that he thinks Sessions should have spared him the need to face an independent counsel. The sequence of events, you’ll recall, is that Sessions recused himself from Russia-related matters after it was revealed that he’d lied to Congress about meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
That put Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge. Rosenstein is a Trump appointee, but he’s also a career prosecutor and not necessarily a die-hard Trump loyalist. His public reputation was also in a bit of a shambles after his letter arguing that Comey mishandled the Clinton email investigation was used as the White House pretext for firing the FBI director. Then Rosenstein redeemed himself by recruiting former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel to investigate Russia.
Trump’s take on the whole thing is that Sessions mistreated him:
TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.
HABERMAN: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?
TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.
HABERMAN: [Rod J.] Rosenstein.
TRUMP: Who is he? And Jeff hardly knew. He’s from Baltimore.
To a normal person, this is a case of the system working as designed (also Rosenstein is from the Philadelphia area, though he served as US attorney for Maryland). To Trump, that the system worked as designed indicates a systemic failure on Sessions’s part. He thinks Sessions should have alerted him that he wasn’t willing to systematically put Trump’s personal interests ahead of constitutional and legal obligations. If Sessions had been honest with him about that, Trump never would have hired him in the first place and now Trump wouldn’t have these problems.
Trump keeps recapitulating his original sin with Russia
The Trump-Russia scandal is many things. But above all else, it is the story of a man who, faced with a crime that was perpetrated by a dangerous foreign leader and that victimized hundreds of Americans, can’t see beyond the fact that the crime benefited him personally.
He regards all efforts to investigate and punish — or, really, even discuss at all on any level — the crime as an assault on him personally.
And Trump’s Trump-centric worldview radiates out from there. It was wrong of Comey to not defer to Trump’s personal interest in sidelining the investigation. It was wrong of Sessions to not step in and block the appointment of a special prosecutor. It was wrong of Rosenstein, the mysterious Baltimorean, not to do the same. It’s suspicious that McCabe could have a high position in the government without even necessarily belonging to Trump’s political party. And, of course, it’s borderline absurd to think that Trump will view any of this any differently if Wray tries to run his bureau independently of the White House.
Trump is all about Trump.