(CNN) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday escalated an extraordinary confrontation with his own Justice Department, suggesting it was part of a shady government “deep state” conspiracy against him.
The explosive charge follows Trump’s repeated attacks on the FBI and agents working with special counsel Robert Mueller on the investigation into whether there was collusion between members of his presidential campaign and a Russian election meddling operation in 2016.
His assault, delivered via a tweet, suggested that Trump is again chafing against conventions that presidents normally observe to maintain the independence of judicial authorities and to avoid the perception of political interference in the Justice Department and the FBI.
The latest barb came when Trump suggested that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s top aide Huma Abedin should be jailed for reportedly including log-in details for government email accounts in personal emails.
“She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act?” Trump tweeted, apparently referencing a Daily Caller report.
On Friday, some of Abedin’s emails were released by the State Department that were marked “confidential” and heavily redacted. One email Abedin forwarded to her personal email account from her State Department account included passwords for a two-step laptop log-in process, though that email was not marked classified as Trump claimed.
“I think the President wants to make clear that he doesn’t feel that anyone should be above the law. In terms of any investigation, that would be something the Department of Justice would need to decide, and I would refer you to them on whether or not they move forward,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday, calling the facts surrounding Abedin “disturbing.”
Trump’s new attack was just his latest assault against the former Democratic nominee and her staff in a sequence that has continued long after the end of the 2016 election campaign.
On the face of it, it appears to show the President, who is effectively the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, calling on his own Justice Department to pursue a prosecution against one of his political enemies — a scenario which, if carried out, would represent a departure from the standards of conduct normally expected of those who sit in the Oval Office.
Sanders denied that Trump believes the “entire” Justice Department is part of the “deep state.”
“Obviously, he doesn’t believe the entire Justice Department is part of that,” Sanders said adding that the President wants to “change the culture of the agency” and started doing that by appointing Christopher Wray as FBI director.
Sanders said the President has found some actions “disturbing” adding, “He needs to make sure if there is an issue he would look at that.”
Apparent frustration with Sessions
The tweet was the latest sign of Trump’s apparent frustration with the constraints of his office, and his vexation with the Justice Department under the leadership of his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who Trump has described as “beleaguered” and criticized for recusing himself from oversight of the Russia probe.
Trump’s lawyer John Dowd told Axios last month that a president cannot by definition obstruct justice, because he is the chief law enforcement officer under Article II of the Constitution and “has every right to express his view of any case.”
Many legal experts question that assumption, saying that though a president has the right to weigh in on the resources used to prosecute cases and to remove officers like the attorney general and the head of the FBI, he could open himself up to obstruction of justice charges by trying to end any investigations into his own conduct.
Some observers believe that Mueller, as part of his investigation, may be looking into whether Trump obstructed justice in the firing of former FBI Director James Comey in a bid to forestall his inquiries into the behavior and contacts with Russians of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The President’s tweet on Tuesday also appeared to contradict sentiments he expressed in an interview with The New York Times last week.
“What I’ve done is, I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department. But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter,” he said, referring to the Clinton email investigation.
In November, Trump lamented that he was not allowed to direct the Justice Department against Clinton.
“The saddest thing is that because I’m the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said. “I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI,” he said in a radio interview on “The Larry O’Connor Show.”
Trump’s tweet on Tuesday coincided with arguments by his allies on Capitol Hill that the FBI investigation is biased against him and that there is a plot to undermine the President.
In December, Trump launched a stunning attack on the FBI following the disclosure of text messages ridiculing him between an FBI official who later wound up on Mueller’s team and a colleague.
“It’s a shame what’s happened with the FBI, but we’re going to rebuild the FBI. It’ll be bigger and better than ever,” Trump told reporters on December 15. Earlier in the month, he had lashed out at the bureau, saying its reputation was in “tatters.”
Several top Republicans have called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the handling of the Clinton investigation — which was led by Comey and did not charge the former secretary of state over her private email server — and the sale of a Canadian mining company, Uranium One, to Russia’s atomic energy agency during the Obama administration.
The end of Trump’s tweet on Tuesday also took a new swipe at Comey, who he fired last year, and who testified before a congressional committee that the President had tried to carve out a relationship of patronage with him. The former FBI director wrote in a leaked memo that Trump had asked him to shut down the Flynn investigation.
Tuesday’s outburst by the President also sheds new light into his apparent belief in, or willingness to perpetrate, the idea for political reasons that there is a “deep state” — a secret cabal of government and intelligence officials conspiring against him and his presidency.
Asked about Trump’s tweet targeting Abedin on Tuesday, the Justice Department declined to confirm or deny the existence of an ongoing investigation.
The FBI has previously said that a number of Abedin’s documents were backed up on the laptop of her estranged husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, and that a smaller number were manually forwarded. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee last May, the FBI said, “Although we do not know the exact numbers, based on its investigation, the FBI believes it is reasonable to conclude that most of the emails found on Mr. Weiner’s laptop computer related to the Clinton investigation occurred as a result of a backup of personal electronic devices, with a small number a result of manual forwarding by Ms. Abedin to Mr. Weiner.”
Comey testified last year that “Somehow, her emails were being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information by (Clinton’s) assistant, Huma Abedin,” he said.
But there was no indication that Abedin “had a sense that what she was doing was in violation of the law,” Comey added, and investigators couldn’t prove any sort of criminal intent.