- Alex Wong/Getty
- The FBI’s top lawyer, James Baker, was abruptly reassigned within the bureau last week.
- Though the move was not unexpected, national-security experts and former intelligence officials are questioning its timing and whether it was a politically-motivated decision in response to pressure from President Donald Trump and his allies.
- Trump and his defenders have ratcheted up their attacks on career officials at the FBI and the Department of Justice in recent weeks.
The sudden reassignment of the FBI’s top lawyer, James Baker, last week was not necessarily unexpected.
When FBI Director Chris Wray was appointed to replace James Comey after Comey was fired in May, it was widely understood that he would bring in his own team, including a new general counsel and, potentially, a new deputy.
The timing of Baker’s reassignment, however – and a controversial Politico piece published on Friday – has led some former Justice Department and FBI officials to wonder whether it was, at least partially, a political decision made under mounting pressure from President Donald Trump and his allies.
“I have no problem with the idea that Wray should pick his own team over time, including his own general counsel,” said Benjamin Wittes, an expert in national security law and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has known Baker for years.
“The idea that Jim should stay in place indefinitely is not what I would argue,” Wittes said. “But, if I were Wray and I meant to replace my general counsel, the antics of the last two weeks would have convinced me not to do it under fire to make sure no one thinks I am giving the administration a scalp.”
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Baker is a close friend and longtime associate of Comey, who was fired by Trump two months after revealing publicly that the FBI was investigating whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow during the 2016 election. Meanwhile, certain factions of the GOP still resent Comey for closing the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in July 2016 without recommending criminal charges.
The Department of Justice’s Inspector General is now investigating the FBI’s handling of that investigation.
Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe was also involved in the Clinton email probe. Trump attacked McCabe on Saturday over a $500,000 political contribution that was made to McCabe’s wife in 2015 by a political organization of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is a longtime friend of the Clintons.
The contributions did not come from the Clintons themselves, however, and McCabe did not become the FBI’s deputy director until February 1, 2016, three months after his wife lost her campaign for one of Virginia’s 40 senate seats.
McCabe took on an oversight role in the Clinton email probe for the first time “months after the completion” of his wife’s campaign, the FBI told the Wall Street Journal in a statement last year.
Former CIA Director John Brennan tweeted in response that “Andy McCabe & Jim Baker epitomize integrity, competence, and respect for rule of law. Not surprised @realdonaldtrump fears them, along with the rest of FBI.” Brennan added that he had donated to the FBI Agents Association, and encouraged others to do the same.
Frank Montoya, Jr., a former senior FBI official who worked closely with McCabe before retiring in 2016, said on Saturday – before news broke that McCabe planned to leave the bureau – that he suspected McCabe would retire as soon as he was eligible.
“Most guys are leaving right when they are eligible,” Montoya said. “That’s been the case for years. But if he goes it will be of his own accord, not because he was pushed out.”
‘Anyone can be attacked for partisan gain’
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The DOJ ignited further controversy earlier this month when it chose to release private text messages, obtained as part of the inspector general’s investigation into how the bureau handled the Clinton email probe. Those texts, which contained messages that were critical of Trump, were exchanged between two FBI employees during the election.
The employees, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, were part of Mueller’s team before he ousted them over the summer, and Trump was far from the only politician they mocked on either side of the aisle. But the text messages prompted Trump’s allies in Congress and the media to push theories that a swarm of anti-Trump FBI employees are working to take down the White House.
Anonymous House Republican sources indicated to Politico on Friday that Baker, a career national-security lawyer who served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, was one of those employees. The sources said, without evidence, that Baker may have pointed Mother Jones reporter David Corn to the now-famous collection of memos, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, outlining collusion between Trump and Russia. Corn was the first to report on the existence of the Steele dossier in October 2016.
The sources told Politico they could not confirm the connection and were simply investigating. Politico framed the story to suggest Baker and Corn were definitively linked, and the report drew immediate scrutiny for citing congressional GOP sources without confirming the information. It also left career national-security officials who have known Baker for years astonished and outraged.
“Sadly, we are now at a point in our political life when anyone can be attacked for partisan gain,” Comey tweeted on Friday. “James Baker, who is stepping down as FBI General Counsel, served our country incredibly well for 25 years & deserves better. He is what we should all want our public servants to be.”
David Kris, a former Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s National Security Division, echoed that sentiment.
“I have known Jim Baker for many years, in and out of government,” Kris said on Saturday. “And I know him to be a person, and public servant, of the highest moral character and integrity.”
Jack Goldsmith, a former Assistant Attorney General who worked closely with Baker at the DOJ, said Baker operated “by the book” and is “a person of absolute integrity.”
Gen. Michael Hayden, the former head of both the CIA and the National Security Agency, tweeted on Friday that “Jim was/is a wonderful PUBLIC servant.” Former acting CIA Director John McLaughlin agreed.
Wittes elaborated further on Twitter.
Baker “is not, whatever the fever swamp may be concocting about him, a partisan,” he wrote. “I have known him for a long time…He is one of the most deeply respected national security law practitioners out there. The very best of the very best think of him as a peer. He is not a leaker. The idea is just silly to anyone who knows him.”
Montoya characterized Baker as a highly-competent lawyer who was “well-liked on the ‘seventh floor'” – the floor at FBI headquarters that is occupied by the Director and his senior aides.
“I credit Baker with advising Comey to do what was right by the Constitution and the nation, politics be damned,” Montoya said, referring to the controversy over Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe.
There is no publicly available evidence that Baker leaked sensitive information while serving as the FBI’s general counsel. But Montoya wondered whether it would be a scandal if Baker had spoken with Corn at all – a feeling also expressed by Wittes, who noted that Baker frequented think tank events where journalists were usually present.
“The reporter is not a representative of the Russian government,” Montoya added. “And if Jim was talking to him, it was to clarify a point in a story, not to leak the dossier. That stuff didn’t come from the Seventh Floor.”
Steele, the former MI6 officer who compiled the dossier, had worked with the FBI’s “Eurasian Organized Crime” squad in the past on Russia-related investigations. Alarmed by what he’d uncovered, Steele gave his first two reports to an FBI agent in Rome in August 2016, according to Vanity Fair.
Montoya scoffed at the idea that the bureau would leak such an explosive document, which top national-security and intelligence officials condensed into a single-page memo and shared with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and President-elect Trump back in January. BuzzFeed published the full document days later.
“They knew it was potential dynamite and kept it very close hold,” Montoya said, referring to the dossier. “That’s a fact.”