Trump's Twitter complaints about Russia 'witch hunt' growing
Despite a White House policy of not commenting on the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump has been very active commenting about it on Twitter, often giving his followers an incomplete picture of the case.
In a series of tweets on Friday morning, Trump took aim at reports that the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller will include events surrounding his firing of FBI Director James Comey last month.
“I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director!” he wrote.
According to Trump, the investigation so far has found no proof of “collusion with the Russians.” While several current and former officials have said they are unaware of evidence of collusion, but the probe encompasses other issues and allegations as well.
“The man who told me to fire the FBI Director” is apparently Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored a memo recommending Trump fire Comey, but Trump has said he already planned to do so before it was written. Rosenstein also chose to appoint Mueller as special counsel.
The White House has deferred all questions about the tweets to Trump’s attorneys, who have not yet commented on Friday’s posts. One Trump aide told Politico the tweets came out of nowhere and may have just been a response to media reports rather than confirmation of the investigation.
Reportedly against the advice of his lawyers, staff, and many outside observers, Trump has frequently tweeted about the investigation as new details about its scope and direction leak to the press.
“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice,” he tweeted Thursday.
Anyone getting their information about the case from Trump’s Twitter account may be surprised to learn the DOJ and FBI are devoting such extensive resources to “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.”
In at least nine tweets since January, Trump has dismissed the investigation as a witch hunt. He has also claimed on numerous occasions that there is no evidence of wrongdoing.
“When James Clapper himself, and virtually everyone else with knowledge of the witch hunt, says there is no collusion, when does it end?” he tweeted on May 12.
Former Director of National Intelligence Clapper’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee days earlier was not quite so definitive.
“The evidence, if there was any, didn't reach the evidentiary bar in terms of the level of confidence that we were striving for in that intelligence community assessment,” Clapper said, acknowledging that he was unaware of details of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation or of any developments since he left office in January.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Ca., and other Democrats have also publicly said they do not know of any evidence, but they note the investigation is not nearly complete.
Six of the president’s tweets have alleged that the “Trump/Russia story” is nothing more than a Democratic excuse for losing the election.
“Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election,” he wrote on May 11.
However, even many Republicans have said the investigation of Russian hacking and influence on the election is legitimate. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., told MSNBC Thursday that Mueller is not conducting a witch hunt.
“Obviously he is going to get to the bottom and he is going to find the facts, and I think that’s his role,” Thune said. “And I think we ought to let him continue to do that and I assume at some point there will be an end to all this.”
Trump’s tweets also offered a strident defense of Comey’s firing.
“Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me!” he tweeted on May 10.
Trump has attempted to make a case that Hillary Clinton and Democrats should be scrutinized for their actions and their relationships with Russia. Since the alleged interference in the campaign was intended to damage Clinton, though, they are unlikely to face much suspicion.
“Why isn't the House Intelligence Committee looking into the Bill & Hillary deal that allowed big Uranium to go to Russia, Russian speech money to Bill, the Hillary Russian ‘reset,’ praise of Russia by Hillary, or Podesta Russian Company,” Trump tweeted in March. “Trump Russia story is a hoax.”
“We should start an immediate investigation into @SenSchumer and his ties to Russia and Putin. A total hypocrite!” he said a few weeks earlier.
Trump has deflected toward Clinton on the subject of obstruction, too.
“Crooked H destroyed phones w/ hammer, 'bleached' emails, & had husband meet w/AG days before she was cleared- & they talk about obstruction?” he wrote Thursday.
Comey concluded last summer that there was no basis to recommend charges for Clinton over her email practices as secretary of state or her handling of evidence in the case.
Trump’s tweets Friday came one week after he declared that Comey’s Senate testimony provided “total and complete vindication.” While relying on Comey’s words for that vindication, Trump simultaneously accused the former FBI director of making false statements under oath.
“I believe the James Comey leaks will be far more prevalent than anyone ever thought possible. Totally illegal? Very 'cowardly!'” he also claimed without evidence.
Comey admitted in his testimony that he allowed a friend to share details of memos about his one-on-one conversations with Trump with the press. Following Trump’s tweet suggesting there are “tapes” of their meetings, Comey said he hoped making his recollections public would encourage Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel for the case.
Days after details of those meetings were reported, Rosenstein announced Mueller’s appointment, a decision that seemingly frustrated the president.
“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” Trump tweeted.
Trump is now questioning the integrity of the investigators.
“You are witnessing the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history - led by some very bad and conflicted people!” he tweeted Thursday. “#MAGA”
The “very bad and conflicted people” mentioned are presumably Mueller and the attorneys he has hired. Some conservatives have taken issue with the selection of attorneys who donated to Democratic candidates and have ties to Hillary Clinton. Questions have also been raised about whether Mueller’s friendship with Comey obligates him to step down.
Mueller has now hired 13 attorneys to work on the case, with more expected to join the team soon. Most of their names have not been released.
Aides have often said the president considers himself his own best spokesperson, and Politico reported Friday that he has decided to “go on the attack” against the investigation.
The risks of that strategy, both political and legal, are substantial.
“The president’s attack on the special counsel's investigation today as a ‘witch hunt’ could place him at further risk of criminal investigation or impeachment,” said Clark Cunningham, director of the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism at Georgia State University Law School.
Such actions could be used as evidence to support an obstruction of justice charge against the president.
“It can be viewed as part of a larger pattern of conduct to ‘endeavor to impede’ proceedings of a government agency for a corrupt purpose,” Cunningham said.
He rejected Trump’s allegation that the investigation is a witch hunt.
“There is absolutely no reason to believe that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein or former FBI director and current special counsel Robert Mueller are engaged in a witch hunt,” he said.
According to James Thurber, a distinguished professor of government at American University and author of “American Gridlock: The Sources, Character and Impact of Political Polarization,” the more Trump tweets, the worse the situation gets for him politically.
“Less is more,” Thurber said. “It is better for him to say nothing.”
On a day when the administration would likely prefer to be talking about its Cuba policy and its workforce development initiatives, media attention was monopolized for much of the morning by Trump’s tweets.
“His tweets take away from a clear strategy and message from the White House communications team,” Thurber said.
Matt McDermott, a Democratic strategist, pointed to a new Associated Press poll that shows only 35 percent of Americans approve of the president’s performance and 65 percent believe he lacks respect for the country’s democratic institutions. Twitter attacks on the Department of Justice will not improve that perception.
“He doesn't think the law applies to him,” McDermott said. “Donald Trump thinks that he can say whatever he wants to say, fire whoever he wants to fire, and actively obstruct ongoing investigations all to his own personal benefit. He can't.”
Others have defended Trump, arguing that however ill-advised his tweets are, he has done nothing that violates the law or exceeds his authority.
“In the absence of a criminal act, a president cannot be guilty of obstruction of justice for simply exercising his constitutional power to pardon, fire or direct," said attorney Alan Dershowitz, who has been critical of Trump in the past, in recent a Fox News op-ed.
Legal or not, voters’ concerns about the president’s social media activity are growing. A Politico/Morning Consult poll released last week found 69 percent think Trump tweets too much, including 53 percent of Republicans. Overall, 51 percent said his Twitter use endangers national security and 57 percent said it damages his presidency.
“The American people will not allow it to continue for the length of a full term,” McDermott said.
Trump, unsurprisingly, feels otherwise.
“The Fake News Media hates when I use what has turned out to be my very powerful Social Media- over 100 million people! I can go around them,” he tweeted Friday.