President Donald Trump pressed senior aides last June to devise and carry out a campaign to discredit senior FBI officials after learning that those specific employees were likely to be witnesses against him as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, according to two people directly familiar with the matter.
In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, recently fired FBI Director James Comey disclosed that he spoke contemporaneously with other senior bureau officials about potentially improper efforts by the president to curtail the FBI’s investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Mueller is investigating whether Trump’s efforts constituted obstruction of justice.
Not long after Comey’s Senate testimony, Trump hired John Dowd, a veteran criminal defense attorney, to represent him in matters related to Mueller’s investigation. Dowd warned Trump that the potential corroborative testimony of the senior FBI officials in Comey’s account would likely play a central role in the special counsel’s final conclusion, according to people familiar with the matter.
In discussions with at least two senior White House officials, Trump repeated what Dowd had told him to emphasize why he and his supporters had to “fight back harder,” in the words of one of these officials.
In a brief conversation Friday afternoon, Dowd denied the accounts of administration officials contained in this story as “flat-out wrong,” but he also refused to discuss what details were incorrect. “My advice to the president is confidential,” he told Foreign Policy.
“You don’t know me,” Dowd added. “You don’t how I lawyer, and you don’t know what I communicated to the president and what I did not.”
While Dowd’s private advice to the president would ordinarily be protected by attorney-client privilege, Mueller might be able to probe comments that Trump made to others about that legal advice by asking him directly about it as well as anyone else he shared that advice with.
A person with direct knowledge of the matter said although Dowd explained the risks of senior FBI officials joining Comey in testifying against Trump, that information was part of a broader presentation to the president about Mueller’s investigation. It is not improper, but in fact is a duty, for an attorney to explain to a client how they are at risk, the source said. What may have been improper, however, were actions Trump took upon learning that information.
Since Dowd gave him that information, Trump — as well as his aides, surrogates, and some Republican members of Congress — has engaged in an unprecedented campaign to discredit specific senior bureau officials and the FBI as an institution.
The FBI officials Trump has targeted are Andrew McCabe, the current deputy FBI director and who was briefly acting FBI director after Comey’s firing; Jim Rybicki, Comey’s chief of staff and senior counselor; and James Baker, formerly the FBI’s general counsel. Those same three officials were first identified as possible corroborating witnesses for Comey in a June 7 article in Vox. Comey confirmed in congressional testimony the following day that he confided in the three men.
In the past, presidents have attacked special counsels and prosecutors who have investigated them, calling them partisan and unfair. But no previous president has attacked a long-standing American institution such as the FBI — or specific FBI agents and law enforcement officials.
Mueller has asked senior members of the administration questions in recent months indicating that prosecutors might consider Trump’s actions also to be an effort to intimidate government officials — in this case FBI officials — from testifying against him.
The New York Times reported late Thursday that Trump also ordered the firing of Mueller last June. Trump reportedly changed his mind after White House counsel Donald McGahn threatened to resign and two of the president’s highest-ranking aides told him that it would have devastating effects on his presidency.
Press reports at the time said there were indications that Mueller was already investigating Trump for obstruction of justice, even though he was only recently appointed.