- President Donald Trump has escalated a burgeoning war with the FBI in the wake of the former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s reaching a plea agreement with the special counsel.
- Trump has slammed the bureau, saying it “ruined” Flynn’s life.
- His battle could backfire, as it did in a tweet this weekend.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to federal agents about his conversations in December with the former Russian ambassador – and one of President Donald Trump’s first reactions was to attack the FBI as a “rigged” agency that had “ruined” Flynn’s life while letting Democrat Hillary Clinton off the hook.
“So General Flynn lies to the FBI and his life is destroyed, while Crooked Hillary Clinton, on that now famous FBI holiday ‘interrogation’ with no swearing in and no recording, lies many times…and nothing happens to her?” Trump tweeted on Saturday night. “Rigged system, or just a double standard?”
He continued his attacks on Sunday, characterising the bureau’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state as “tainted” because of text messages sent last year by one of the agents in charge of that probe that appeared to show an anti-Trump skew.
The president also laid into James Comey, the former FBI director whom he blamed for leaving the bureau’s reputation “in Tatters” after a “phony and dishonest Clinton investigation.”
Speaking to reporters Monday morning, Trump again said that Flynn had been treated unfairly.
“I feel badly for General Flynn,” Trump said. “Hillary Clinton lied many times to the FBI, and nothing happened to her.”
He added: “She lied many times; nothing happened to her. Flynn lied, and they ruined his life. It’s very unfair.”
Scott Olson, a recently retired FBI agent who spent 20 years at the bureau and specialised in counterintelligence, acknowledged that “Comey did more damage than he realised or intended by how he handled things last year.”
But Olson said he thought Trump was “actively keeping a narrative alive to counter the news coming out of Mueller’s investigation,” referring to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether any of Trump’s associates colluded with Moscow.
“And I think he’ll continue to latch onto any and all available targets to support his counter-narrative,” Olson said.
‘We have a couple of surprises left’
Trump’s suggestion that the FBI has sought to protect Clinton was undermined last November by Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who was a Trump campaign surrogate and close confidant.
A few days before the 2016 election, Giuliani indicated in an interview with Fox News that someone within or close to the FBI had leaked him information about the Clinton email investigation because they were “outraged” by the way Comey had handled it. Giuliani also suggested that he and the Trump campaign intended to weaponize that information before Election Day.
“We have a couple of surprises left,” he said.
In another interview three days before Election Day, Giuliani claimed there was “a revolution going on” inside the FBI that had reached “a boiling point” over Comey’s decision to close the investigation without recommending criminal charges.
The reason for the leaks to Giuliani – and to multiple media outlets in the days leading up to the election – was that “the FBI is Trumpland,” one agent told The Guardian last November. Some agents, the person added, had openly discussed voting for Trump.
“The reason why they’re leaking is they’re pro-Trump,” another unnamed agent told the publication, adding that Clinton was “the Antichrist personified to a large swath of FBI personnel.”
Olson argued that “the bureau is neither anti-Trump nor anti-Hillary.”
“All political opinions are well represented in the ranks of FBI employees,” he said. “And the debates over coffee and lunch are the same as anywhere else.”
Asha Rangappa, an FBI counterintelligence special agent who served under President George W. Bush, largely echoed that assessment.
“There are people across the political spectrum, but by and large I’d say it is a politically conservative organisation,” she said.
“It’s worth noting that the FBI has objectively investigated admins of both parties – Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Lewinsky, Valerie Plame leak, etc. All of the presidents in these investigations let them take their course,” she added. “The last president to vilify the FBI was Nixon.”
‘Now Mueller knows what the truth is’
That Trump has defended Flynn while vilifying the FBI signals a dual purpose for his attacks, experts say: undermine the bureau, and alert Flynn that he could be rewarded with a pardon if he limits what he tells Mueller, who is also investigating whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice when he fired Comey in May.
But taking his feud with the FBI and defence of Flynn into the court of public opinion may backfire for the president. Trump’s tweet on Saturday showed why – it seemed to indicate that he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI when he asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, raising more questions about whether Trump tried to obstruct justice.
The White House scrambled to clean up the mess Trump’s tweet created, claiming hours later that Trump’s lawyer John Dowd had crafted the tweet unartfully.
Legal experts were incredulous.
“Most lawyers I know are so careful about what they write that they triple-check every letter they send out,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor. “We’re supposed to believe Trump’s lawyer wrote a false tweet about the Mueller investigation and sent it out through the president’s account?”
A pardon, moreover, would essentially be useless at this point, said Matt Miller, a former Department of Justice spokesman – and Flynn is most likely aware of that.
“It would have worked before he started cooperating because Mueller could then compel Flynn’s testimony and he could just claim not to remember anything,” Miller said on Monday. “But now Mueller knows what the truth is.”
The truth, court documents filed by Mueller’s office on Friday say, is that Flynn had spoken to Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, about sanctions on Russia during the presidential transition but told federal agents that the subject never came up.
Trump’s renewed attacks on the FBI and hints of sympathy for his former national security adviser won’t change the fact that Flynn, with his son also potentially facing criminal charges and with the looming threat of more charges related to his initially undisclosed lobbying work for Turkey, is now Mueller’s star witness – one who, according to his lawyer, “has a story to tell.”
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