The week began with the FBI deputy director abruptly stepping down from his job after months of open accusations of anti-Republican bias from President Donald Trump, and it ended with Trump hinting ominously that he might get rid of the No. 2 at the Department of Justice over the Russia investigation.
In between, the president approved the release of a previously classified House Intelligence committee memo detailing claims of misconduct by officials investigating Trump’s presidential campaign over the clear objections of his own FBI director, Christopher Wray.
The move put Trump openly at odds with the whole of the nation’s law enforcement apparatus, including rank-and-file agents. The president did little to downplay the breach, telling pool reporters in the Oval Office who asked on Friday whether he still had confidence in Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, after reading the memo: “You figure that one out.”
In a TV interview Friday night, White House spokesman Raj Shah seemed to rule out any move by Trump to fire Rosenstein or other officials at the Justice Department.
“On the deputy attorney general, there has been no change in the president’s confidence in the DAG,” Shah said on CNN. “No changes are going to be made at the Department of Justice. We fully expect rod Rosenstein to continue on as the deputy attorney general.”
For his part, Wray signaled that he isn’t planning to quit over the memo release. In an email Friday afternoon, he told his staff to grit their teeth and press on with their work.
“Talk is cheap; the work you do is what will endure,” Wray wrote in a memo distributed across the FBI. “We do that work, and we stay laser-focused on doing great work, even when it’s not easy, because we believe in the FBI. … Let me be clear: I stand fully committed to our mission.”
In the message, read to POLITICO by an FBI official, Wray didn’t mention Trump explicitly, but seemed to allude to the sharp criticism Trump has directed at the FBI since he fired Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, last May.
“You’ve all been through a lot in the past nine months and I know it’s often been unsettling to say the least and the past few days haven’t done much to calm those waters. So I want to make sure you know where I stand and what I want us to do moving forward,” he wrote.
The run-in between the White House and FBI may have been inevitable. Since his victory in 2016, Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on intelligence assessments concerning Russian interference in the presidential election, and he has made clear that he sees support for the investigation into that interference — and into his own efforts to dampen that investigation, including the Comey firing — as evidence of insubordination.
He spent days calling for the release of the House Intelligence memo, written by his California Republican ally Rep. Devin Nunes, and grousing about what he has called unfair treatment of him by the intelligence community, according to administration officials.
Some of Trump’s allies expressed hope that the release of the memo wasn’t the end of the saga but a move that would add a jolt a momentum to a snowballing series of disclosures that could drive out Rosenstein and bring about an end to the investigation overseen by special counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller.
“This memo will lead to more releases of more material and it will go on and on,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a close confidant of Trump. “We will be shocked at how deep the sickness was.”
Gingrich also called the FBI press release opposing the public disclosure of the memo “such extraordinary insubordination” by Wray.
However, some Republicans who supported release of the memo seemed to throw cold water on attempts by Trump and his closest allies to leverage the disclosure into a head-on attack on Rosenstein or Mueller.
“As I have said repeatedly, I also remain 100 percent confident in Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, an intel panel member, wrote on Twitter. “The contents of this memo do not — in any way — discredit his investigation.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan also remarked Thursday that he saw no connection between the memo and Rosenstein, even though it names him as having approved continued Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants for the communications of onetime Trump adviser Carter Page without disclosing that Democrats funded some of the research the FBI used to justify the snooping.
“This does not implicate the Mueller investigation. This does not implicate the DAG,” Ryan said, referring to the deputy attorney general. “This is about us holding the system accountable and reviewing whether or not FISA abuses occur.”
FBI veterans rallied to the side of Wray and Rosenstein on Friday, decrying as bizarre the notion that they are involved in some sort of politically-driven campaign against the president.
“Wray and Rosenstein are Trump appointees. He appointed them,” said Lewis Schiliro, former head of the FBI’s New York field office. “Now, you turn around and say they are biased? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Rosenstein remained publicly mum on the memo issue Friday. He appeared at a Justice Department human trafficking conference Friday morning but did not respond to the president’s decision to ease release of the memo by declassifying it.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions weighed in, even though he has recused himself from all matters related to the 2016 election due to his role in the Trump campaign.
“Congress has made inquiries concerning an issue of great importance for the country and concerns have been raised about the Department’s performance. I have great confidence in the men and women of this Department. But no Department is perfect,” Sessions said in a statement. “Accordingly, I will forward to appropriate DOJ components all information I receive from Congress regarding this. I am determined that we will fully and fairly ascertain the truth.”
Sessions also mounted something of a defense of Rosenstein earlier in the day Friday, declaring at a Justice Department event that Rosenstein exemplifies “the kind of quality and leadership that we want in the department.”
While much in the memo seems aimed at providing fodder for critics of the Russia investigation, some of the details illustrate the challenges Trump will face if he moves against Rosenstein, including in any bid to oust Mueller.
The newly disclosed document makes clear the broad scope of the purge that will be required if Trump wants to root out everyone in government who played a role in the Page surveillance.
The memo shows that, in addition to Rosenstein, former acting Deputy Attorney General Dana Boente also signed off on the submission of at least one renewal of the FISA warrant aimed at Carter Page.
Boente, who was named by Trump to serve as acting attorney general in January 2017 after acting Attorney General Sally Yates was fired, is currently serving in two Justice Department posts: as the U.S. Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, and as the acting head of DOJ’s National Security Division.
Wray recently tapped Boente to become the FBI’s general counsel, filling the shoes of an official some Trump administration official some considered too close to Comey.
And just last week, in a speech calling for the depoliticization of the Justice Department, Sessions praised Boente.
“Dana has just been a right hand to me. Somebody I trust. I like. I value,” the attorney general said. “You’ve got to have people around you like that.”
Josh Meyer, Matthew Nussbaum, and Andrew Restuccia contributed to this report.
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