Responding to President Donald Trump's demand on Sunday that the Justice Department launch a probe into whether his 2016 campaign was unlawfully surveilled by the FBI for "political purposes"—a claim the president has made repeatedly without offering any evidence—Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he has asked the inspector general (IG) to look into Trump's allegations.
"We are in a state of constitutional crisis when we have a DOJ acting at the behest of the president."
—Kristen Clarke, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
"If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement that some legal analysts characterized as a "dangerous" capitulation to a president who is himself under federal investigation.
"The IG shouldn't be pursuing political charges made by the president based on zero evidence," argued MSNBC legal analyst Matthew Miller in response to Rosenstein's statement.
When you add it all up, today Trump demanded a counter-investigation into the legitimate, lawfully-predicated DOJ probe of his campaign, based on no evidence of wrongdoing, solely to undermine the special counsel - and he got it. The system is failing.
— Matthew Miller (@matthewamiller) May 21, 2018
Trump's demand for an investigation into the actions of the Obama administration's FBI came on the heels of his repeated threats in recent weeks to "get involved" with the Justice Department if special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe doesn't end quickly—warnings that critics denounced as explicit threats to obstruct justice.
"We are in a state of constitutional crisis when we have a DOJ acting at the behest of the president," Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, wrote on the heels of Trump's tweet, which capped off a prolonged Sunday Twitter rant in which the president continued to call Mueller's probe a "witch hunt."
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If Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions follow Trump's lead, Clarke concluded, the result will be a "complete breakdown of democracy."
While some legal analysts argued Rosenstein's statement in response to Trump's demand is evidence that the Justice Department is dropping its pretense of independence to cater to the whims of the president, others portrayed the deputy attorney general's move as an attempt to appease Trump without actually offering any concrete promises or fulfilling any of his wishes.
RR did not capitulate. The smartest prosecutors, and Rosenstein is one, know which battles to fight & which to finesse. His "referral" is professional, but gives away and promises nothing. You could, in legal terms, call it "illusory." There's only one showdown here that matters. https://t.co/BjApYMOwlf
— Elizabeth de la Vega (@Delavegalaw) May 21, 2018
In an analysis of Trump's Sunday tweets and Rosenstein's subsequent announcement at DOJ, CNN's Stephen Collinson on Monday morning argued that while the president's demand does not appear to be illegal in itself, "some critics believe that Trump's repeated pattern of leaning on the Justice Department and the FBI over the Russia investigation could come close to showing intent that could amount to obstruction of justice."
Trump's Twitter outburst "also raised potential scenarios that would threaten the integrity of U.S. governance: first, that Trump could use his power to go after a political opponent and, second, that he means to derail or even end a criminal probe into his own conduct," Collinson noted. "His gambit Sunday also fits into an effort by the White House, Trump's allies on Capitol Hill, and conservative media cheerleaders to muddy the reputations and any eventual findings of special counsel Robert Mueller's team as well as to cement the President's political base."