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Trump Launched Campaign to Discredit Potential FBI Witnesses

The president targeted three bureau officials who could provide key testimony in the Mueller probe.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-FBI Director James Comey at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with then-FBI Director James Comey at the White House on Jan. 22, 2017. (Andrew Harrer-Pool/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump pressed senior aides last June to devise and carry out a campaign to discredit senior FBI officials after learning that those specific employees were likely to be witnesses against him as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, according to two people directly familiar with the matter.

In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, recently fired FBI Director James Comey disclosed that he spoke contemporaneously with other senior bureau officials about potentially improper efforts by the president to curtail the FBI’s investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s efforts constituted obstruction of justice.

Not long after Comey’s Senate testimony, Trump hired John Dowd, a veteran criminal defense attorney, to represent him in matters related to Mueller’s investigation. Dowd warned Trump that the potential corroborative testimony of the senior FBI officials in Comey’s account would likely play a central role in the special counsel’s final conclusion, according to people familiar with the matter.

In discussions with at least two senior White House officials, Trump repeated what Dowd had told him to emphasize why he and his supporters had to “fight back harder,” in the words of one of these officials.

In a brief conversation Friday afternoon, Dowd denied the accounts of administration officials contained in this story as “flat-out wrong,” but he also refused to discuss what details were incorrect. “My advice to the president is confidential,” he told Foreign Policy.

“You don’t know me,” Dowd added. “You don’t how I lawyer, and you don’t know what I communicated to the president and what I did not.”

While Dowd’s private advice to the president would ordinarily be protected by attorney-client privilege, Mueller might be able to probe comments that Trump made to others about that legal advice by asking him directly about it as well as anyone else he shared that advice with.

A person with direct knowledge of the matter said although Dowd explained the risks of senior FBI officials joining Comey in testifying against Trump, that information was part of a broader presentation to the president about Mueller’s investigation. It is not improper, but in fact is a duty, for an attorney to explain to a client how they are at risk, the source said. What may have been improper, however, were actions Trump took upon learning that information.

Since Dowd gave him that information, Trump — as well as his aides, surrogates, and some Republican members of Congress — has engaged in an unprecedented campaign to discredit specific senior bureau officials and the FBI as an institution.

The FBI officials Trump has targeted are Andrew McCabe, the current deputy FBI director and who was briefly acting FBI director after Comey’s firing; Jim Rybicki, Comey’s chief of staff and senior counselor; and James Baker, formerly the FBI’s general counsel. Those same three officials were first identified as possible corroborating witnesses for Comey in a June 7 article in Vox. Comey confirmed in congressional testimony the following day that he confided in the three men.

In the past, presidents have attacked special counsels and prosecutors who have investigated them, calling them partisan and unfair. But no previous president has attacked a long-standing American institution such as the FBI — or specific FBI agents and law enforcement officials.

Mueller has asked senior members of the administration questions in recent months indicating that prosecutors might consider Trump’s actions also to be an effort to intimidate government officials — in this case FBI officials — from testifying against him.

The New York Times reported late Thursday that Trump also ordered the firing of Mueller last June. Trump reportedly changed his mind after White House counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign and two of the president’s highest-ranking aides told him that it would have devastating effects on his presidency.

Press reports at the time said there were indications that Mueller was already investigating Trump for obstruction of justice, even though he was only recently appointed.

Obstruction of justice cases depend largely on whether a prosecutor can demonstrate the intent or motivation of the person he or she charges. It’s not enough to prove that the person under investigation attempted to impede an ongoing criminal investigation — a prosecutor must demonstrate some corrupt purpose in doing so.

That Trump may have been motivated to attack specific FBI officials because they were potential witnesses against him could demonstrate potential intent that would bolster an obstruction of justice case. 

The White House declined comment for this story, but a White House spokesman, Raj Shah, responded to recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had pressured FBI Director Christopher Wray to remove McCabe as deputy director. Having the attorney general pressure the FBI director to remove his deputy would be an unprecedented act in modern U.S. political history.

“The president has enormous respect for the thousands of rank-and-file FBI agents who make up the world’s most professional and talented law enforcement agency,” Shah said. “He believes politically motivated senior leaders, including former Director Comey and others he empowered, have tainted the agency’s reputation for unbiased pursuit of justice.’’

In June, Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump had pressured him during a private Oval Office meeting in February to shut down a criminal investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Comey refused to do so, and Trump fired him on May 9.

Comey confirmed during his testimony that he discussed these events on a regular basis with the “senior leadership team” of the FBI — which he identified as his deputy director, chief of staff, and the general counsel — and then named two other senior FBI officials who attended meetings about Trump’s attempts to influence the FBI’s Russia investigation on a number of occasions.

Since Comey’s testimony, Trump and his political supporters have personally targeted all three FBI officials.

Rybicki has been the frequent target of Republican attacks in recent months. This week, Wray announced that Rybicki, who had continued as chief of staff under the new director, was resigning.

Trump also mentioned Baker, who was recently replaced as the FBI’s top lawyer, following allegations that he had served as a source for a reporter. “Wow, ‘FBI lawyer James Baker reassigned,’ according to @FoxNews,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 23.

McCabe, at the time Comey identified him as a corroborating witness, was acting director of the FBI. McCabe became interim director when Comey was fired and then went back to being deputy director after Wray was named as the new FBI director.

As acting FBI director — and later returning as deputy director — McCabe could potentially be, next to Comey, the most damaging FBI witness against Trump in Mueller’s investigation.

Trump has singled out McCabe for his most aggressive attacks.

On July 26, Trump tweeted that Sessions should fire McCabe: “Why didn’t A.G. Sessions replace Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend who was in charge of Clinton investigation but got … big dollars ($700,000) for his wife’s political run from Hillary Clinton and her representatives. Drain the Swamp!”

Trump was making reference to the fact that McCabe’s wife — Jill McCabe — had run for the Virginia State Senate and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Virginia Democratic Party, as well as from a political action committee associated with then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a close political ally of the Clintons.

Jill McCabe received no money directly from Hillary Clinton.

Andrew McCabe helped oversee the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server. FBI ethics officials cleared McCabe’s involvement in the case, which occurred long after his wife’s political campaign was over.

After it was reported that McCabe planned to retire later this year, Trump tweeted: “FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!”

Murray Waas has worked as an investigations editor for Vice, an investigative reporter for Reuters, and a senior correspondent for National Journal.

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