On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump performed what has become a regular ritual for his presidency, going off on yet another Fox News-inspired Twitter rant in an attempt to discredit the investigation into alleged collusion between his presidential campaign and Russia. This time, he seized upon the news that the FBI had used an informant to gather information about his campaign as a pretext for doing so.
For what it's worth, the nonpartisan fact-checker PolitiFact disagreed with Trump's repeated assertions that the FBI did anything improper by using informants to learn more about the campaign. As the site explained on Tuesday:
We contacted experts who work at the intersection of law and surveillance to help us drill into what informant, infiltration and spying mean, and to what extent they apply to what seems to have gone on. They told us that so far, what they see doesn’t amount to the definition of infiltration. As for the use of an informant, it overall seems pretty typical for the FBI.
"The use of informants is standard practice in any FBI investigation, and indeed in law enforcement investigations in general," said Paul Pillar at the Georgetown Center for Security Studies. "Interviewing anyone with possibly relevant information about the suspected crime is a core part of any such investigation."
Of course, Trump has never been one for rhetorical precision. More importantly, it is likely that Trump was inspired to unleash his current tweet storm by watching Fox News. As Media Matters' Matt Gertz illustrated, this is something Trump does often and can frequently be traced back to some of his more outlandish assertions:
Fox News has since "reported" on Trump's tweet, providing Trump's assertion the veneer of objective news.
The recent attempt to deflect attention from the Russia investigation to the FBI's use of informants is part of a longer pattern in which Trump, with the help of his fellow Republicans and supporters in conservative media, has tried to diminish both the investigation into his campaign and administration and the notion that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in order to place him into power.
"I do not believe that I've seen that conclusion that the specific intent was to help President Trump win. I'm not aware of that," Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters on Tuesday about the presence of election security threats, according to NBC News. Although Nielsen later tried to backpedal by claiming that she had "no reason to doubt any intelligence assessment" about Russia's motivations for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, one Democratic congressman who attended the election security briefing said that they doubted the Trump administration was going to do much to stop Russian interference in the future.
"If you're not in agreement of what happened, how we're so vulnerable, who was responsible, what Russia sought to do, I don't understand how you can adequately protect us in this upcoming election," Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., told reporters. Although the House of Representatives has 435 members, only 40 or 50 legislators attended the briefing, according to Reuters.
Another instance of Republicans carrying Trump's water can be seen in House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., meeting with the Department of Justice on Thursday "to review highly classified and other information they have requested" about the informant, according to The Hill. Although this meeting will be attended by senior officials at the Justice Department, FBI and the intelligence community, some conservative House Republicans are already claiming that they will be angry if they are only given briefings as to the documents rather than unlimited access to the actual materials themselves.
Then again, as Jennifer Rubin wrote in The Washington Post on Tuesday, both the upcoming meeting with Nunes and Gowdy and Trump's own meeting with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (which is incredibly unorthodox, given that they are overseeing an investigation of the president) could actually be part of the Justice Department's grander plan.
Wray and Rosenstein, with Mueller’s full backing, might be setting up Trump. We know Mueller is already pursuing an obstruction-of-justice inquiry that might relate to acts such as Trump firing former FBI director James B. Comey, falsely accusing him of illegally leaking confidential material, pressuring Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn, helping draft a phony cover story to explain the June 9 Trump Tower meeting and conducting an extended campaign to smear, discredit and disrupt the work of the FBI and the special counsel. In that vein, wouldn’t a meeting directly ordering Wray and Rosenstein to conduct what amounts to a wild goose chase and to put confidential material into the hands of congressional allies be part of the pattern of possible obstruction they are investigating?
Goodness knows what Trump said in the meeting and what he revealed about his intent with regard to outing the previously secret source. Moreover, Wray and Rosenstein already may have a very good idea who leaked the name of the source (initially to the right-wing Daily Caller, it appears) and may be keen to see whether the materials shared with congressional Republicans get leaked as well. (They, too, understand the finite protections of the Constitution’s “speech or debate” clause.)
Nunes, it is worth remembering, was investigated by the House last year over whether he shared classified information in order to help Trump. He also told a Republican dinner in April 2017 that he believed the investigation into Trump and Russia exists solely because Democrats "want to continue the narrative that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are best friends, and that’s the reason that he won, because Hillary Clinton would have never lost on her own; it had to be someone else’s fault."
Trump and his supporters also have a long history of coming up with new stories to misdirect the press from reports about potential collusion between his campaign and Russia. These included inaccurately claiming that the president's loss in the popular vote was the result of widespread voter fraud, the president falsely asserting that Trump Tower had been wiretapped and releasing the so-called "Nunes Memo" that purported to reveal political bias in the investigation into Trump when it had no such proof.
Trump has also on occasion attempted to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, only to be walked back from doing so at the last second.