- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The divide between the executive branch and the FBI, widening amid President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated accusation that President Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower phones during the 2016 campaign, is “truly unprecedented” and “unusual, to say the least,” former Department of Justice officials told Business Insider on Tuesday.
FBI Director James Comey was reportedly so “incredulous” over Trump’s explosive accusation on Saturday that he asked the DOJ to release a public statement rebuking Trump’s claim.
The DOJ has yet to release such a statement, however, which has “frustrated” Comey, CNN reported earlier this week. But former DOJ and FBI officials say the fact that Comey apparently went as far as to ask the DOJ to publicly contradict the president is highly unusual, if not unprecedented.
“I’ve never heard of a situation similar to this ever, actually,” former FBI Assistant Director Tom Fuentes told CNN on Monday. “In 30 years in the FBI, and dealing with the FBI in the eight years since retirement, I’ve not heard of a similar situation.”
“Director Comey must have a high level of confidence in his conclusion to push back in such a public way,” Thomas Dupree Jr., a former top DOJ official who served as deputy assistant attorney general from 2007 to 2009, told Business Insider on Tuesday.
“Comey would know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether there was wiretapping of Trump or his campaign, and if he says there wasn’t any, it’s safe to say there wasn’t,” said Matthew Miller, a DOJ spokesman during the Obama administration.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on Monday, however, saying she didn’t think Trump believed Comey’s insistence that Obama never ordered the wiretapping.
That the back-and-forth has been so publicized is “unusual, to say the least,” Dupree said. “While disagreements between the White House and those running federal agencies are common, it is very rare for a dispute of this nature to erupt in so public and personal a fashion.”
“There have been similar breaches in the past (Watergate, Clinton with Louis Freeh), but it’s hard to imagine ever one that has been because the president made something up out of thin air,” Miller told Business Insider, referring to suggestions that Trump accused Obama of wiretapping based solely an unverified report he had read in Breitbart News.
“That is truly unprecedented,” he added.
Indeed, historians say the relationship between Nixon and the FBI soured so much after the death of Director J. Edgar Hoover that the resentment drove W. Mark Felt, then a high-level FBI official, to leak information to The Washington Post about Nixon’s crimes under the pseudonym “Deep Throat.”
Louis Freeh, who served as the director of the FBI under President Bill Clinton, had a notoriously toxic relationship with Clinton stemming from the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia.
But many experts feel that tensions between the executive branch and the intelligence community have reached new heights under Trump, who has criticized US intelligence agencies on Twitter rather than privately to his staff, as Nixon and Clinton did.
Amid a flurry of bombshell reports about the intelligence community’s investigation into Trump’s ties with Russia, the president accused it of leaking information to undermine him. He has compared the intelligence community’s leaks to “Nazi Germany” and “Russia,” and reports have surfaced that he wants to launch a “broad review of American intelligence agencies.”
“Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia,” Trump tweeted last month. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”
Trump chose to keep Comey on as FBI director despite having accused him of having “bad judgment” last summer when Comey recommended that no charges be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
Comey has no plans to resign in protest over Trump’s latest accusation, a source told CNN, adding that Comey felt “institutionally he has to push back on this” and was prepared to be fired for it.
“Does he know of possibility there might be a confrontation and be fired by the president? Sure,” the source said. “Does he worry about it? No.”