- Michael Hayden, the former CIA and National Security Agency director, sounded the alarm this week after Donald Trump Jr. unloaded on the Department of Justice and the FBI.
- Hayden said Trump’s suggestion that the nation’s top law-enforcement agency was tainted with bias against President Donald Trump was “an appeal to the heart of autocracy.”
- Hayden and other former intelligence officials have largely pushed back on claims that the DOJ and the FBI are biased against the older Trump.
Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, said Tuesday that Donald Trump Jr.’s comments about the Russia investigation and the FBI were “scary” and appealed “to the heart of autocracy.”
Trump slammed the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and President Donald Trump’s campaign while speaking with a group of young conservative activists at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Florida on Tuesday. He also suggested that the focus on his father’s campaign – and on the president – was fuelled by anti-Trump sentiment at the Department of Justice and the FBI.
“There is, and there are, people at the highest levels of government that don’t want to let America be America,” the younger Trump said. “My father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign, and people were like, ‘Oh, what are you talking about?'” he added. “But it is. And you’re seeing it.”
During his interview with Hayden on Tuesday night, the CNN host Don Lemon played a clip of the younger Trump’s comments and asked the former intelligence chief what he thought.
“Well, I have to confess to you, when I first heard that earlier this evening, that was a little scary,” Hayden replied. “I mean, that is an appeal to the heart of autocracy and challenging the patriotism of those folks who work in the US government.”
Hayden added that though American institutions were “imperfect” and at times “have imperfect people who send messages they shouldn’t send,” that does not undermine the legitimacy of government and the rule of law.
The former CIA director was most likely referring to recent reports that the special counsel Robert Mueller ousted Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence investigator, from his team over the summer after Strzok exchanged texts with an FBI colleague, Lisa Page, in 2016 calling the older Trump an “idiot” and otherwise being critical of the president. He also lambasted the former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the former Attorney General Eric Holder.
It later emerged that Andrew Weissmann, a seasoned prosecutor on Mueller’s team who specialises in “flipping” witnesses, praised the former acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January for refusing to defend Donald Trump’s initial travel ban and attended Hillary Clinton’s election-night party last year.
Former intelligence officials defend Mueller and the FBI
Hayden on Tuesday said “we’re now seeing a constant attack” from Donald Trump’s allies and Republican lawmakers who had seized on the reports to paint Mueller’s investigation and, at times, the broader intelligence community, as tainted by partisan bias and political corruption.
Hayden added that while the revelations were not ideal and that investigators should practice more discretion when expressing their political leanings, they still did not compromise the integrity of the investigation.
Former federal prosecutors and FBI agents reiterated that point,pushing back in earlier interviews on the claims of bias on Mueller’s team from the president’s allies.
“I can tell you I never knew what Andrew’s politics were when we were in the same office,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor and longtime white-collar defence lawyer who worked with Weissmann in the past.
“Politics never comes up between prosecutors in my experience. We have them, of course. We are citizens. But among the feds I worked with, it would have been incredibly inappropriate for anyone to express a political view at work.”
Joseph Pelcher, a former FBI counterintelligence operative who was stationed in Russia and specialised in organised crime, said that while agents should be careful about openly expressing their opinions, “there is certainly nothing wrong with holding political views as long as it doesn’t interfere with an investigation.”
LaRae Quy, who served as a covert operative at the FBI for 24 years, largely echoed that point.
“It’s very important for agents to appear (and be) apolitical,” she said. “I know that’s ‘pie in the sky’ since we all have political views. But the nonpartisan aspect of an agent’s job is important.”
That said, “agents are allowed to express their personal opinions… and encouraged to vote and be responsible citizens,” Quy said. “Almost every agent I know votes and upholds the democratic process. They are just smart enough to keep their mouth shut and their minds open.”
Several prominent former intelligence and law-enforcement officials also defended Mueller and the FBI earlier this month after Donald Trump said the agency was in “tatters” and its reputation was the “worst in history.”
“I want the American people to know this truth: The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is, and always will be, independent,” James Comey, the former FBI director, tweeted after the older Trump attacked the bureau.
“The FBI is in ‘tatters’?” Yates, the former acting attorney general, tweeted. “No. The only thing in tatters is the President’s respect for the rule of law. The dedicated men and women of the FBI deserve better.”
Holder tweeted that he was “not letting this go,” referring to the older Trump’s remarks. “The FBI’s reputation is not in ‘tatters,'” Holder wrote. “It’s composed of the same dedicated men and women who have always worked there and who do a great, apolitical job. You’ll find integrity and honesty at FBI headquarters and not at 1600 Penn Ave right now.”
The president of the FBI Agents Association released a statement Tuesday after the younger Trump slammed the agency.
“Attacks on our character and demeaning comments about the FBI will not deter Agents from continuing to do what we have always done – dedicate our lives to protecting the American people,” the statement said. “Special Agents are focused on the Constitution and protecting the public. Their work should be recognised, not denigrated.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray also stepped in to publicly defend the bureau, saying “there is no finer institution than the FBI.”
‘Unwise’ for Donald Trump Jr. to attack prosecutors investigating him
Asked to comment on why the younger Trump would attack the credibility of the DOJ, the FBI, and the Russia investigation, Hayden said the remarks suggested that he did not “think this investigation is going to a happy place, at least not a happy place from their point of view.”
He added that while he was not drawing any conclusions about where the investigation would lead, “we learn more and more about the synchronisation of activities of the Trump campaign, including the president’s son with WikiLeaks and the actions of the Russian federation.”
Donald Trump Jr. is a central figure in several threads of Mueller’s inquiry. He invited intense scrutiny earlier this year when it was reported that he accepted a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in June 2016 after being offered damaging information on Clinton.
He had to release several amended statements responding to reports about the meeting, particularly after it emerged that it was pitched “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Last month, The Atlantic also obtained documents showing that the younger Trump was in contact with WikiLeaks– the radical transparency group that was a key player in the 2016 election and is known for its pro-Russia stance – several times between September of last year and July of this year.
Hayden said that while it was normal for the younger Trump to be concerned about the investigation and the potential consequences for him and his family, it was unwise of him to publicly rail against it.
“My great fear, based upon that earlier quote [from Trump Jr.], is that we’re going to do long term damage to things on which we depend,” Hayden said, like “American institutions, belief in the American government, and the integrity of the American system.”
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