As allegations pile up against two former members of the special counsel’s office, Obama administration intelligence officials, and former Justice Department leaders, President Trump and his allies have stepped up their criticism of the FBI and called into question the objectivity of the team created to look into allegations the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
But the president could risk overplaying his hand by whipping up his base over allegations against the investigation that could yet prove exaggerated or unfounded. And his involvement in promoting these allegations against the FBI may automatically dissuade much of the public, Democrats, and media from taking the situation seriously.
"President Trump needs to keep beating the drum on this front, albeit in a more strategic manner,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist. “The reason is simple: Trump has the biggest megaphone, and when he talks about it, everyone — voters and media — is forced to talk about it, and it becomes part of the national conversation.”
One GOP operative said Trump should rely on advisers to lay out the case against the Justice Department "instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to [his] mind."
Trump’s involvement in elevating accusations related to the FBI in the past have backfired and prevented the kind of bipartisan scrutiny that may have occurred if he had withheld comment.
The president’s claim last March that the Obama administration had “wiretapped” Trump Tower sparked a major backlash and ultimately cast a shadow over the House Intelligence Committee’s probe into allegations of surveillance abuse in the Obama administration.
When Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., raced to the White House several weeks later and presented Trump with what he described as evidence that former Obama administration officials had improperly surveilled Trump’s associates during the presidential race and transition, the House Intelligence Committee chairman was accused of coordinating with the president to validate his controversial wiretapping tweet. This reduced Nunes' role in the Russia investigation, even though his panel has only continued to gather evidence that intelligence officials may indeed have surveilled people in Trump's orbit.
Nunes’ staff has since written a memo that outlines what Republicans characterize as proof that the FBI under former Director James Comey used opposition research — which the Hillary Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee funded — as justification to obtain a surveillance warrant for a former Trump campaign adviser. House Republicans have fought to release the memo, in which Nunes reportedly accuses the FBI of concealing the relationship between the man who authored the opposition research dossier and Clinton.
The White House has encouraged “full transparency” for the memo but has said the administration will wait to see if Congress votes to declassify it before considering whether to intervene. Democrats, meanwhile, have continued to slam any suggestion that the Obama administration could have abused its power to spy on the Trump campaign, while even some GOP lawmakers who have been dismissive of the president's wiretapping claims have begun expressing concern.
Trump has more recently dedicated his attention to Peter Strzok, an FBI agent, and Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer with whom Strzok had a romantic relationship. The pair served on Mueller’s team and expressed anti-Trump bias in a series of text messages that included a reference to the pressure they felt to conclude the Clinton email investigation during the presidential race. They were removed from the Mueller probe.
After the Justice Department informed Congress earlier this month that the bureau had lost all the messages Strzok and Page exchanged between December 2016 and May 2017 — a key window of time in which the Russia investigation took shape — Trump called the missing texts “one of the biggest stories in a long time.”
Brad Blakeman, a Republican strategist, said Trump has “every right to be skeptical and bothered” by what has emerged so far about agents involved in the Russia investigation.
"The FBI has been politicized long before Trump became [president]. But for [Trump] holding people's feet to the fire and keeping this in the forefront of public discussion, who knows where this investigation would be today," Blakeman said. "The [president] is right – the FBI has a lot to answer for. There is an appearance of mismanagement, incompetence, and fear of corruption in the way they have been investigating political targets."
Others, however, push back against what they see as a coordinated attack on the legitimacy of Mueller's investigation and the FBI.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the House Intelligence Committee’s push to publicize a “profoundly misleading set of talking points” about how the FBI has investigated Russian collusion allegations does “a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals.” Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said the memo on alleged surveillance abuses represents a “perversion of the facts” in a GOP effort to “protect the president.”
Criticism of the FBI from Trump and his supporters has extended to Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, whose role in the Clinton email investigation came under intense scrutiny because his wife accepted more than $500,000 in campaign contributions from a close Clinton ally while her husband was overseeing the criminal probe. This fuels the Trump camp's perception that the Clinton investigation was lenient and bias lingers at the FBI.
Trump has openly questioned why McCabe remains in his position, tweeting in late December that the deputy FBI director is “racing the clock to retire with full benefits.”
But Trump and GOP lawmakers have struggled to push questions about FBI impropriety beyond the conservative circles that were already skeptical of the Russia probe.
Yet, there is public support for Republicans’ calls for a special counsel to investigate how the FBI has handled the politically sensitive cases related to Clinton and Trump. A Rasmussen poll released on Jan. 24 found 49 percent of likely voters think the Justice Department should appoint a special counsel, while 31 percent of voters said there is no need to do so.