Former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden sounded the alarm this week after Donald Trump Jr. unloaded on the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Hayden said that Trump Jr.'s suggestion that the nation's top law-enforcement agency was tainted with bias against President Donald Trump was "an appeal to the heart of autocracy."
Hayden and other former intelligence officials have largely pushed back on Trump's and his allies' claims that the DOJ and FBI are biased against him.
Retired Gen. Michael Hayden, the former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency, said Tuesday that Donald Trump Jr.'s comments about the Russia investigation and the FBI were "scary" and appealed "to the heart of autocracy."
Trump Jr. slammed the FBI's investigation into Russia's election interference and President Donald Trump's campaign while speaking to a group of young conservative activists at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit in Florida on Tuesday. He also suggested that the focus on Trump's campaign — and the president himself — was fueled by anti-Trump sentiment at the Department of Justice and the FBI.
"There is, and there are, people at the highest levels of government that don't want to let America be America," Trump Jr. said. "My father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign, and people were like, 'Oh, what are you talking about?'" he added "But it is. And you're seeing it."
CNN host Don Lemon played a clip of Trump Jr.'s comments during his interview with Hayden on Tuesday night and asked the former intelligence chief what he thought.
Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr. through the years
Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr. through the years
FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump Jr. (L) gives a thumbs up beside his father Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (R) after Trump's debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo
Donald Trump, flanked by his son Donald Jr. (R), addresses the media in Chicago May 10, 2006. Trump was in Chicago to speak about his Trump International Hotel and Tower Chicago that is being built on the old site of the Chicago Sun-Times building on the north side of the Chicago River. Trump also stated in the news conference that he has given the project oversight to the children.
FILE PHOTO: Donald Trump Jr. (C) hugs his father, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump, as Donald Jr's wife Vanessa (L) walks past after Trump accepted the Republican presidential nomination at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File photo
Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump during 1988 U.S. Open - September 3, 1988 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Donald Trump Jr. (L) walks off stage with his father Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump after Trump's debate against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. during 'Veranda: New York's Best at Trump Park Avenue, The Ultimate Showcase Penthouse' Opening Night Reception at The Trump Park Avenue in New York, New York, United States. (Photo by Robin Platzer/FilmMagic)
Donald Trump (C), entrepreneur and host of the television reality series "The Apprentice" poses with his wife and children (L-R) Donald Trump, Jr., Tiffany, Donald Trump, wife Melania, and daughter Ivanka at the party following the live telecast of the finale of season five in Los Angeles June 5, 2006. REUTERS/Fred Prouser
Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Donald Trump (C) and his sons Eric F. Trump (L) and Donald Trump Jr. (R) attend the 'Celebrity Apprentice All Stars' Season 13 Press Conference at Jack Studios on October 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Desiree Navarro/WireImage)
Donald Trump (2nd L), entrepreneur and host of the television reality series 'The Apprentice', poses with his children, (L-R) son Donald Trump, Jr., and daughters Tiffany and Ivanka at the party following the live telecast of the finale of season five in Los Angeles June 5, 2006.
CLEVELAND, OH - JULY 20: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (C) speaks with Donald Trump Jr. (L) and Ivanka Trump (R) during the third day of the Republican National Convention on July 20, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Cleveland, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Republican National Convention kicked off on July 18. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (R) waves to a fan as his son Donald Jr. looks on after Trump received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles January 16, 2007. REUTERS/Chris Pizzello (UNITED STATES)
(L-R) Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump attend the ground breaking of the Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office Building in Washington July 23, 2014. The $200 million transformation of the Old Post Office Building into a Trump hotel is scheduled for completion in 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS REAL ESTATE)
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump kisses his son Donald, Jr. at a campaign event at Regents University in Virginia Beach, Virginia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
UNITED STATES - APRIL 14: Donald Trump is joined by his son, Donald Jr., at a Park Ave. luncheon hosted by The Donald. (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - OCTOBER 27: Donald Trump, Visionary Business Leader award honoree, poses with his children Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka at Fashion Group International's 22nd Annual 'Night Of Stars' at Cipriani's 42nd Street October 27, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 19: Donald Trump Jr., Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump at the Trump Soho Launch on September 19, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage)
COO Trump International Hotels, Jim Petrus, Ivanka Trump Donald Trump Jr. and Donald Trump at Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump, Jr.and Eric Trump Launch the N on October 10, 2007 at Jean Georges, Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York City. (Photo by Shawn Ehlers/WireImage)
DATELINE NBC -- Pictured: (l-r) Donald Trump, Natalie Morales, Donald Trump Jr. -- (Photo by: Heidi Gutman/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 27: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (L) introduces his son Donald Trump Jr. (R) as he addressing the crowd during a campaign rally at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum on April 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Trump is preparing for the Indiana Primary on May 3rd. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 09: Donald Trump, Jr. (R) greets his father Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. This is the second of three presidential debates scheduled prior to the November 8th election. (Photo by Rick Wilking-Pool/Getty Images)
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"Well, I have to confess to you, when I first heard that earlier this evening, that was a little scary," Hayden replied. "I mean, that is an appeal to the heart of autocracy, and challenging the patriotism of those folks who work in the US government."
Hayden added that though American institutions are "imperfect" and at times "have imperfect people who send messages they shouldn't send," that still does not undermine the legitimacy of government and the rule of law.
The former CIA director was likely referring to recent reports that special counsel Robert Mueller ousted Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence investigator, from his team over the summer after Strzok exchanged texts with FBI colleague Lisa Page in 2016 calling Trump an "idiot" and being otherwise critical of the president. He also slammed former Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders and former attorney general Eric Holder.
It later emerged that Andrew Weissman, a seasoned prosecutor on Mueller's team who specializes in "flipping" witnesses, praised former acting attorney general Sally Yates in January for refusing to defend Trump's initial travel ban, and attended former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's election-night party last year.
Former intelligence officials defend Mueller and the FBI
Hayden said Tuesday that "we're now seeing a constant attack" from Trump's allies and Republican lawmakers who have seized on the reports to paint Mueller's probe and, at times, the broader intelligence community, as tainted by partisan bias and political corruption.
He said that while the revelations were not ideal and that investigators should practice more discretion when expressing their political leanings, they still did not undermine the integrity of the investigation.
Former federal prosecutors and FBI agents agreed that investigators should be careful about expressing their personal views while working on politically charged cases, but they also pushed back in earlier interviews on the claims of bias on Mueller's team from Trump's allies.
"I can tell you I never knew what Andrew's politics were when we were in the same office," said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor and longtime white-collar defense lawyer who worked with Weissman in the past.
"Politics never comes up between prosecutors in my experience. We have them, of course. We are citizens. But among the feds I worked with, it would have been incredibly inappropriate for anyone to express a political view at work."
Joseph Pelcher, a former FBI counterintelligence operative who was stationed in Russia and specialized in organized crime, said that while agents should be careful about openly expressing their opinions, "there is certainly nothing wrong with holding political views as long as it doesn't interfere with an investigation."
LaRae Quy, who served as a covert operative at the FBI for 24 years, largely echoed that point.
"It's very important for agents to appear (and be) apolitical. I know that's 'pie in the sky' since we all have political views," she said. "But the non-partisan aspect of an agent's job is important."
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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That said, "agents are allowed to express their personal opinions ... and encouraged to vote and be responsible citizens," Quy said. "Almost every agent I know votes and upholds the democratic process. They are just smart enough to keep their mouth shut and their minds open."
Several prominent former intelligence and law-enforcement officials also defended Mueller and the FBI earlier this month after Trump said the agency was in "tatters" and its reputation was the "worst in history."
"I want the American people to know this truth: The FBI is honest. The FBI is strong. And the FBI is, and always will be, independent," tweeted former FBI director James Comey after Trump attacked the bureau.
"The FBI is in 'tatters'?" Yates, the former acting attorney general, tweeted. "No. The only thing in tatters is the President’s respect for the rule of law. The dedicated men and women of the FBI deserve better."
Former attorney general Eric Holder tweeted that he was "not letting this go," referring to Trump's remarks. "The FBI’s reputation is not in 'tatters'," Holder wrote. "It’s composed of the same dedicated men and women who have always worked there and who do a great, apolitical job. You’ll find integrity and honesty at FBI headquarters and not at 1600 Penn Ave right now."
The president of the FBI Agents Association released a statement Tuesday after Trump Jr. slammed the agency.
“Attacks on our character and demeaning comments about the FBI will not deter Agents from continuing to do what we have always done — dedicate our lives to protecting the American people,” said the statement. “Special Agents are focused on the Constitution and protecting the public. Their work should be recognized, not denigrated.”
FBI director Christopher Wray also stepped in to publicly defend the bureau, saying "there is no finer institution than the FBI."
It is 'unwise' for Trump Jr. to attack prosecutors investigating him
Asked to comment on why Trump Jr. would attack the credibility of the DOJ, the FBI, and the Russia probe, Hayden said the younger Trump's remarks suggested that he does not "think this investigation is going to a happy place, at least not a happy place from their point of view."
He added that while he was not drawing any conclusions about where the investigation will lead, "we learn more and more about the synchronization of activities of the Trump campaign, including the president's son with WikiLeaks and the actions of the Russian federation."
Putting the Trump-Russia timeline into perspective
Putting the Trump-Russia timeline into perspective
June 7: The 2016 primary season essentially concludes, with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the presumptive party nominees
June 9: Donald Trump Jr. — along with Jared Kushner and former campaign chair Paul Manafort — meets with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
June 9: Trump tweets about Clinton's missing 33,000 emails
July 18: Washington Post reports, on the first day of the GOP convention, that the Trump campaign changed the Republican platform to ensure that it didn't call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces
July 21: GOP convention concludes with Trump giving his speech accepting the Republican nomination
July 22: WikiLeaks releases stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee
July 25: Democratic convention begins
July 27: In final news conference of his 2016 campaign, Trump asks Russia: "If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing"
August 4: Obama CIA Director John Brennan confronts his Russian counterpart about Russia's interference. "[I] told him if you go down this road, it's going to have serious consequences, not only for the bilateral relationship, but for our ability to work with Russia on any issue, because it is an assault on our democracy," Brennan said on "Meet the Press" yesterday.
October 4: WikiLeaks' Julian Assange says his organization will publish emails related to the 2016 campaign
October 7: WikiLeaks begins releasing Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta's emails
October 7: Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence release a statement directly saying that Russia is interfering in the 2016 election
October 31: "This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove," Trump says on the campaign trail
November 4: "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," Trump says from Ohio.
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Indeed, Trump Jr. is a central subject in several threads of Mueller's inquiry. He invited intense scrutiny earlier this year when it was reported that he accepted a meeting with a Kremlin-connected lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in June 2016 after being offered damaging information on then-candidate Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. had to release several amended statements responding to reports about the meeting, particularly after it emerged that it was pitched "as part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump."
Last month, The Atlantic also obtained documents showing that Trump Jr. was in contact with WikiLeaks — the radical transparency group that was a key player in the 2016 election and is known for its pro-Russia stance — several times between September 2016 and July 2017.
Hayden said that while it was normal for Trump Jr. to be concerned about the investigation and the potential consequences for him and his family, it was unwise of him to publicly rail against it.
"My great fear, based upon that earlier quote [from Trump Jr.], is that we're going to do long term damage to things on which we depend," Hayden said, like "American institutions, belief in the American government, and the integrity of the American system."