The widening divide between the executive branch and the FBI, stemming from President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower phones, is “truly unprecedented” and “unusual, to say the least,” former Department of Justice officials told Business Insider on Tuesday.
FBI Director James Comey was reportedly so “incredulous” over Trump’s explosive accusation on Saturday that he asked the Department of Justice to release a public statement rebuking Trump’s claim.
The Department of Justice has yet to release such a statement, however, which has “frustrated” Comey, CNN reported earlier this week. But former DOJ and FBI officials say the fact that Comey went as far as to ask the DOJ to publicly contradict the president is highly unusual, if not unprecedented.
“I’ve never heard of a situation similar to this ever, actually,” former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes told CNN on Monday. “In 30 years in the FBI, and dealing with the FBI in the eight years since retirement, I’ve not heard of a similar situation.”
“Director Comey must have a high level of confidence in his conclusion to push back in such a public way,”
Thomas Dupree, Jr., a former top DOJ official who served as deputy assistant attorney general from 2007 to 2009, told Business Insider on Tuesday.
“Comey would know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether there was wiretapping of Trump or his campaign, and if he says there wasn’t any, it’s safe to say there wasn’t,” added Matthew Miller, a former spokesman for the Department of Justice during the Obama administration.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on Monday, however, saying she didn’t think Trump believed Comey’s insistence that Obama never ordered the wiretapping.
That the back-and-forth has been so publicized is “unusual, to say the least,” Dupree said. “While disagreements between the White House and those running federal agencies are common, it is very rare for a dispute of this nature to erupt in so public and personal a fashion.”
“There have been similar breaches in the past (Watergate, Clinton with Louis Freeh), but it’s hard to imagine ever one that has been because the president made something up out of thin air,” Miller told Business Insider, referring to suggestions that Trump accused Obama of wiretapping based solely an unverified report he had read in Breitbart.
“That is truly unprecedented,” he added.
Indeed, the relationship between Nixon and the FBI soured so much after then-Director J. Edgar Hoover died that historians say the resentment drove W. Mark Felt, then a high-level FBI official, to leak information to The Washington Post about Nixon’s crimes under the pseudonym “Deep Throat.”
Louis Freeh, who served as the director of the FBI under President Bill Clinton, had a notoriously toxic relationship with Clinton stemming from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
But many experts feel that tensions between the executive branch and the intelligence community have reached new heights under Trump, who has taken to Twitter to criticise US intelligence agencies rather than complain about them in private to his staff, as Nixon and Clinton did.
Amid a flurry of bombshell reports about the intelligence community’s investigation into Trump’s Russia ties, the president accused it of leaking information to undermine him. He has compared the intelligence community’s leaks to “Nazi Germany” and “Russia,” and has indicated that he wants to launch a “broad review of American intelligence agencies.”
“Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia,” Trump tweeted last month. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
Trump chose to keep Comey on instead of replacing him, despite having criticised Comey for having “bad judgment” last summer when he decided not to recommend that charges be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was at the State Department.
Comey has no plans to resign in protest over Trump’s latest accusation, a source told CNN, but he feels “institutionally he has to push back on this” and is prepared to be fired for it.
“Does he know of possibility there might be a confrontation and be fired by the president? Sure,” the source told CNN. “Does he worry about it? No.”
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