Former officials say something 'insidious' is brewing between the White House and DOJ

The White House's tumultuous relationship with the Justice Department has deteriorated further in recent days, with the president publicly attacking his attorney general in interviews and on Twitter and his new communications director suggesting he asked the FBI to investigate his West Wing rivals.

Some former officials have construed the episodes as attempts by President Donald Trump and the White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci, to project a degree of control over the DOJ. That perception intensified on Thursday when a top Justice Department official delivered an unannounced briefing at the White House on anti-gang efforts.

The official, Rob Hur, the principal associate deputy attorney general, was joined by the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But the briefing, combined with Trump's characterization of Attorney General Jeff Sessions as "beleaguered" and Scaramucci's suggestion that the FBI gave him "digital fingerprints" of alleged White House leakers, has stoked fears of an increasingly politicized — and potentially delegitimized — Department of Justice.

"All of the episodes are disconcerting," said William Yeomans, a former deputy assistant attorney general who spent 26 years at the Justice Department.

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) joins President Donald Trump (L) for an opioid and drug abuse listening session at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
President Donald Trump speaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions as they attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions speaks next to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Alabama February 28, 2016. REUTERS/Marvin Gentry
U.S. President Donald Trump watches as Vice President Mike Pence (R) swears in Jeff Sessions (L) as U.S. Attorney General while his wife Mary Sessions holds the Bible in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 28: Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., left, endorses Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee for president during a campaign rally at Madison City Schools Stadium in Madison, Ala., February 28, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
U.S. President Donald Trump congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney General as his wife Mary Sessions looks on during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump sits with U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (L) and retired U.S. Army General Keith Kellogg (R) during a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower in Manhattan, New York, U.S., October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a swearing-in ceremony for new Attorney General Jeff Sessions (R) at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Under a portrait of former President Andrew Jackson, U.S. President Donald Trump (L) congratulates Jeff Sessions after he was sworn in as U.S. Attorney General during a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
President Donald Trump reaches out toward Attorney General Jeff Sessions as they attend the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
US President-elect Donald Trump (C) talks with Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (2nd L) and US Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (L) as he arrives in Mobile, Alabama, for a 'Thank You Tour 2016' rally on December 17, 2016. / AFP / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
MOBILE, AL - DECEMBER 17: President-elect Donald Trump greets Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump's picks for attorney general, during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama. President-elect Trump has been visiting several states that he won, to thank people for their support during the U.S. election. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump watches as Vice President Mike Pence (R) swears in Jeff Sessions (L) as U.S. Attorney General while his wife Mary Sessions holds the Bible in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
MOBILE, AL- AUGUST 21: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introduces Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R) Mobile during his rally at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on August 21, 2015 in Mobile, Alabama. The Donald Trump campaign moved tonight's rally to a larger stadium to accommodate demand. (Photo by Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images)
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Trump's attacks on Sessions, stemming from his anger about Sessions' recusing himself from the Russia investigation, "demonstrate again that Trump has no sense of the rule of law, or of the fact that the attorney general is beholden to the law and is not Trump's personal lawyer," Yeomans said.

The White House and DOJ did not respond to requests for comment.

Sessions has said the attacks were "kind of hurtful" but given no indication that he plans to resign. And he has reportedly been working on getting back in Trump's good graces by pursuing leakers more aggressively, something that Trump indicated in a press conference Wednesday was another point of friction between them.

Thursday's briefing was another unforced error.

"The DOJ has a perfectly good press room for significant announcements," Yeomans said. "Moving them to the White House dissolves the necessary separation between the White House and law enforcement when it comes to criminal investigations and prosecutions."

Matt Miller, a DOJ spokesman under President Barack Obama, seemed to agree.

"Forget Russia recusal," he tweeted. "Sessions is still breaking the WH/DOJ wall in a million ways."

He continued: "All these little things — inappropriate contacts & press release language, DOJ staff at the WH — add up to one big thing: politicization of DOJ."

'I will be contacting' the FBI and DOJ

Perhaps the most striking episode, however, was Scaramucci's expletive-laden interview with The New Yorker on Wednesday night in which he threatened to sic the FBI on people he believed to be White House leakers.

"I've got digital fingerprints on everything they've done through the FBI and the f------ Department of Justice," Scaramucci said.

Later that night, in a tweet that has since been deleted, Scaramucci said that "in light of the leak of my financial disclosure info," which he said was a felony, "I will be contacting" the FBI, DOJ, and the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who Scaramucci thought had leaked his financial disclosure form to Politico.

"The greatest threat in our democracy to the rule of law is using our criminal justice system to go after people for political reasons," Yeomans said. "Asking the FBI to investigate infighting in the White House is a stunning misuse of the FBI's power and would drag the bureau into the middle of the political thicket."

The bureau would most likely decline, since it is traditionally averse to — and wary of — politicization. Former FBI Director James Comey has said this is why he went to such great lengths last year to avoid the perception that his investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server had been tainted by Attorney General Loretta Lynch's tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton.

"The FBI is full of highly trained and experienced law-enforcement officers and intelligence professionals who know that a person using this type of loud, threatening, bullying behavior usually has nothing to back it up," said Scott Olson, a recently retired FBI agent who spent more than two decades at the bureau.

"I can't imagine anyone at the FBI is particularly impressed with Scaramucci," he said.

'There is something more insidious happening'

As Carrie Cordero, a former DOJ counsel, wrote recently, Trump's feud with the Justice Department long predated Scaramucci's appointment and the events of the past week.

Cordero noted that Trump fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January when she refused to defend his executive order on immigration and that he dismissed Comey after he refused to state publicly that Trump was not personally under FBI investigation.

In an op-ed on Friday, Yates warned against the White House encroaching on the DOJ.

"The spectacle of President Trump's now daily efforts to humiliate the attorney general into resigning has transfixed the country," Yates wrote. "But while we are busy staring at the wreckage of Attorney General Jeff Sessions' relationship with the man he supported for the presidency, there is something more insidious happening."

Trump's attacks on DOJ officials have extended to Twitter, where he has repeatedly questioned the credibility of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the FBI's Russia investigation.

"President Trump's actions appear aimed at destroying the fundamental independence of the Justice Department," Yates said. "All the while, he's ripping the blindfold off Lady Justice and attempting to turn the department into a sword to seek vengeance against his perceived enemies and a shield to protect himself and his allies."

Cordero recommended the country "take note of who he is firing or pressuring to resign in his first six months in office."

"These are the senior government officials responsible for the equitable enforcement of our laws," she wrote.

Dan Goldberg, a former chief of the DOJ's Office of Legislative Affairs, argued that Trump's distaste for the department's independence went back to his presidential campaign, when he disparaged US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel based on his Mexican heritage.

"It's been very clear from the get-go that this president does not respect the rule of law," said Goldberg, now the legal director of the progressive judicial-advocacy group Alliance For Justice. "And it's remarkable."

Goldberg pointed to a memo written in 2009 by Eric Holder, then the attorney general, that set out guidelines "to govern all communications" among DOJ representatives, the White House, and Congress.

"The legal judgments of the Department of Justice must be impartial and insulated from political influence," the memo reads. "It is imperative that the department's investigatory and prosecutorial powers be exercised free from partisan consideration."

Goldberg emphasized that while much attention had been paid to these high-profile attacks, "the vast majority of DOJ employees are apolitical, outstanding civil servants who walk into work every day with one goal: to properly enforce the Constitution and the rule of law."

"The politicization at the top of the DOJ is deeply disconcerting," he said. "But I'm confident that most of the department's civil servants are continuing to serve their country admirably."

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