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How the FBI tailing Trump could dog his presidency

From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, history suggests that it is never a good thing for a president to have the FBI, with its nearly infinite resources and sweeping investigative powers, on his tail.

FBI Director James Comey’s promise to the House intelligence committee Monday to “follow the facts wherever they lead” in the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia during last year’s election amounted to an ominous guarantee, barely two months into Trump’s term, that institutional forces beyond any president’s control will force the facts of the case to light, whatever they are.

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“Comey’s admission of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, with no endpoint in sight, is a big deal,” said historian Timothy Naftali, who was the first director of the federally-run Nixon presidential library. “This is not going away.”

Moreover, given Trump’s demonstrated willingness to attack any adversary – hours before Comey’s testimony, he tweeted that the suggestion of collaboration between his campaign and Russia was “fake news” – official acknowledgment of the investigation not only raises sharp new questions about the president’s own credibility, but about his willingness to continue undermining public trust and confidence in the government institutions he leads.

Typically, there mere existence of such an investigation would make any White House hypersensitive about the appearance of attempting to interfere with the FBI or the Justice Department. Bill Clinton’s loathing for his FBI director, Louis Freeh, was an open secret in the 1990s (and the feeling was mutual), but it couldn’t stop the bureau from doggedly pursuing investigations of Whitewater or the Monica Lewinsky affair. If anything, the reverse was true.

Will the Trump White House, which is installing loyalty monitors in every Cabinet department, feel similarly hamstrung about publicly attacking Comey, whom the president famously hugged at a Blue Room reception shortly after his inauguration, or trying to quash the inquiry? At a minimum, Trump and his aides would do well to recall the most celebrated instance of a president’s attempt to block an FBI investigation.

FBI’s Trump-Russia probe knocks White House on its heels

“The obvious example that comes to mind is Watergate, when Richard Nixon famously turned to the CIA to block the FBI’s investigation,” said the historian Julian Zelizer, a professor at Princeton. That attempt failed spectacularly, of course, but Zelizer added, “This is the kind of investigation that is never good news for an administration,” and noted that the current probe has already “consumed much of the president’s time and the doors keep opening to bigger potential problems.”

Trump has an ambitious agenda that involves the Justice Department, on matters from immigration, to civil rights to border security. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was one of his earliest and most vocal supporters, had his choice of Cabinet positions. Sessions has announced he would recuse himself from the Russia investigation, but Comey went out of his way to say that the Justice Department had authorized him to take the unusual step of disclosing it.

The disclosure raises questions about how will Trump navigate his dealings with his attorney general and the department to avoid any suggestion of meddling in an ongoing investigation. At least since Watergate, there have been strict protocols covering contacts between the White House and Justice Department about pending investigations – protocols that Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus may already have violated by speaking with Comey and Assistant FBI Director Andrew McCabe about the Russia inquiry.

It also raises the possibility that Trump will get bogged down in questions about the investigation, which could adversely affect his ability to achieve his policy goals. Even initiatives that have nothing to do with Russia or national security could suffer if a Republican Congress is less inclined to fight for his proposals, and there is also the matter of the time and focus responding to such an inquiry requires from the White House.

Louis Freeh, President Clinton's choice to head the FBI, speaks as the president looks on July 20, 1993, in the Rose Garden of the White House. The two came to dislike each other.

Louis Freeh, President Clinton’s choice to head the FBI, speaks as the president looks on July 20, 1993, in the Rose Garden of the White House. The two came to dislike each other. | AP Photo

Bill Clinton devoted much of his second term to fending off the Lewinsky investigation and subsequent impeachment proceedings, fueled not only by the zealous special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, but by a hostile FBI. When the Lewinsky probe was gathering steam in 1998 and Starr’s lieutenant Bob Bittmann requested 20 FBI agents and ten financial analysts, “We had them the next day,” he would recall. Freeh personally let Attorney General Janet Reno know that he opposed the Secret Service’s invocation of a “protective function” privilege that would shield its agents from having to testify about any contacts they may have witnessed between Clinton and Lewinsky.

Trump’s aides and allies have questioned whether the permanent professional bureaucracy of the federal government amounts to a “deep state,” dedicated to undermining his policies. They should be more concerned in the short term amount a new “Deep Throat,” like the long- anonymous source who aided the Washington Post’s Bob Wooodward’s coverage of Watergate. The source turned out to be Mark Felt, the No. 3 official at the FBI, a reality that the Nixon White House caught on to just months after the foiled break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters.

“Now why the hell would he do that?” Nixon asked his chief of staff Bob Haldeman on October 19, 1972. A few months later, when Felt’s name was floated as a possible successor to FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, who had resigned under fire, Nixon told his attorney general, Richard Kliendienst, “I don’t want him. I can’t have him.”

If Trump can take any comfort from Comey’s latest revelation it may be that the FBI director’s own credibility was badly damaged last year — first when he took the unusual step of announcing that the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server did not warrant prosecution; then when he announced he was revisiting the investigation in light of potential new evidence found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin; and finally when he declared, just days before the election, that his original conclusion still stood.

5 takeaways from Comey’s Trump takedown

Trump has repeatedly shown himself willing to breach the usual niceties of presidential decorum and discourse. With his White House now officially under siege by an entity empowered to seek subpoenas to compel testimony, it’s anybody’s guess just how the president or his lieutenants might react. But one thing is certain: The mood in the White House is grim, and probably apt to get worse before it gets better.

In September 1972, as the FBI pursued its Watergate investigation, Nixon had some advice for his White House counsel, John Dean, as reported in John A. Farrell’s forthcoming book, “Richard Nixon: The Life.” “This is war,” Nixon said. “We’re getting a few shots and it will be over, and we’ll give them a few shots and it will be over. Don’t worry. I wouldn’t want to be on the other side right now.”

The president had no idea just how wrong he was. But the FBI did.

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Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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