On Sunday, President Donald Trump issued a “demand” that his Justice Department investigate whether his campaign was “infiltrated or surveilled” by the previous administration. This move carried the potential to bring his long-simmering conflict with his own DOJ to a head, coming after a series of escalating demands by Trump’s congressional allies apparently seeking to out a secret intelligence source.
Within hours of Trump’s demand, though, it seemed as though the DOJ had backed down, again coming up with a potential compromise solution. On Sunday evening, the department responded to Trump’s tweet by expanding an inspector general investigation of the DOJ to include the subject of the president’s tweet.
According to the Washington Post, the DOJ expanded that IG investigation “to include determining whether there was any impropriety or political motivation in how the FBI conducted its counterintelligence investigation of persons suspected of involvement with the Russian agents who interfered in the 2016 presidential election.”
With the move, the Justice Department appears to be making the calculation that it can appease Trump, while also buying time for the various investigations of the president.
“If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said.
The concession comes after weeks of Trump’s allies in Congress pushing to acquire information on a U.S. counterintelligence source who had reportedly approached three members of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
The Justice Department had told House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes that revealing that information could endanger lives and threaten international intelligence partnerships, according to the Post’s reporting.
Earlier this month, Nunes’ Democratic counterpart in that committee, Adam Schiff, told me that he believed Nunes’ goal was to force Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Rosenstein into an impossible bind in which they would have to give up information that could harm national security, or reject the demands of members of Congress. (Nunes was threating to hold Sessions in contempt of Congress at the time.) This was being done, Schiff argued, in order to lay a predicate for Trump to fire the leaders of the DOJ and ultimately sabotage the Mueller investigation.
On Monday, Schiff told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell “it certainly looks like a Saturday Night Massacre in slow motion,” referencing Richard Nixon’s series of firings that led to the removal of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. “We see it in the president ordering an investigation of his own investigators,” Schiff continued.
One of Trump’s attorneys, Rudy Giuliani, told the Post on Sunday that the president’s questions about the source needed “to be cleared up before we even approach the idea of doing an interview.” Trump has gone back-and-forth on his willingness to do an interview with Mueller’s team for months.
On Friday, the Post revealed that it had uncovered the name of the intelligence source in question—a retired American professor—but was “not reporting his name following warnings from U.S. intelligence officials that exposing him could endanger him or his contacts.”
Still, the newspaper published extensive details of the source’s interactions with Trump officials, describing meetings with former foreign policy advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, along with Trump campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis.
From the Post’s Friday reporting:
In late summer, the professor met with [Clovis] for coffee in Northern Virginia, offering to provide foreign-policy expertise to the Trump effort. In September, he reached out to George Papadopoulos, an unpaid foreign-policy adviser for the campaign, inviting him to London to work on a research paper.
Page recalled his [July] conversation with the professor as pleasant, if not particularly memorable. It was the first interaction they ever had, he said.
The conference was held days after Page had traveled to Russia, where he had delivered a speech at Moscow’s New Economic School that publicly criticized U.S. foreign policy.
Page and the FBI informant stayed in touch after the conference, meeting several times in the Washington area, Page said. Page said he did not recall exactly what the two men discussed.
What happens next will largely depend on the aggressiveness of the approach of both Trump and his main congressional allies in the matter, Reps. Nunes, Trey Gowdy, Jim Jordan, and Mark Meadows.
During Monday’s swearing-in ceremony at CIA headquarters for Trump’s newly confirmed CIA director, Gina Haspel, Nunes was in attendance. Trump thanked Nunes for coming, calling him “a very courageous man.”
“He‘s courageous, congressman Devin Nunes,” Trump continued. “Thank you very much, Devin, for being here. I appreciate it.”