While many commentators have written about President Trump’s predilection for interpreting law via Twitter (whether the actions of his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, in allegedly arranging “hush money” payoffs, were a crime, for example), a different presidential tweet poses even more difficult questions.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions committed to not allowing the Department of Justice to be improperly influenced by political considerations, the President tweeted the following:
Jeff, this is GREAT, what everyone wants, so look into all of the corruption on the “other side” including deleted Emails, Comey lies & leaks, Mueller conflicts, McCabe, Strzok, Page, Ohr…FISA abuse, Christopher Steele & his phony and corrupt Dossier, the Clinton Foundation, illegal surveillance of Trump Campaign, Russian collusion by Dems – and so much more. Open up the papers & documents without redaction? Come on Jeff, you can do it, the country is waiting!
While the tweet about Michael Cohen’s actions not being a crime raised questions about whether the tweet constitutes a legal determination that is binding on the executive branch, the tweet about Sessions amounts, in my view, to what appears to be a presidential directive to investigate political opponents.
To what extent may federal authorities, particularly the DOJ and the FBI, respond in ways that are consistent with their interpretation of law and policy?
The question has become even thornier with the president’s recent comment that Sessions should investigate an anonymous Op Ed published by the New York Times. The author of the Op Ed claimed that members of the administration have worked to thwart some of the president’s agenda and inclinations, though he did not suggest any crimes were committed.
On the face of it, there is no reason why such an unclassified Op Ed would not be protected by the First Amendment.
The jabs at Sessions thus raise questions about a president’s constitutional duty—as Chief Executive—to “take care that the laws [be] faithfully executed” (Article II). Let me try to unpack some of those questions from the vantage point of the civil servants actually conducting investigations.
In other words, when President Trump calls for Sessions to investigate Op Eds or look into the “other side,” what does that mean for investigators?
Most FBI agents don’t carry around a copy of the Constitution in their pocket (well, some probably do), but they all have easy access to the Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide (DIOG), which “applies to all investigative activities and intelligence collection activities conducted by the FBI within the United States” (DIOG, § 1.1).
More generally, as both an intelligence agency and a law enforcement agency within the Department of Justice, the FBI’s power is dependent upon the authority vested in the office of the Attorney General, who may delegate authority to the FBI’s officials. This has been done in part through the DIOG, as well as through documents such as the Attorney General’s.
These documents standardize the FBI’s investigation policy in national security and criminal law cases. Specifically, the DIOG permits four basic ways for the FBI to “look into” crime:
- Preliminary Investigations
- Full Investigations, and
- Enterprise Investigations
An Assessment is the most basic type of formal FBI investigation. Notably, the DIOG states that “[a]lthough ‘no particular factual predication’ is required, the basis of an Assessment cannot be arbitrary or groundless speculation, nor can an Assessment be based solely on the exercise of First Amendment protected activities…FBI employees who conduct Assessments are responsible for ensuring that Assessments are not pursued for frivolous or improper purposes….” (DIOG, § 5.1).
The DIOG goes into great detail about the various types of Assessments that may be opened and the standards for conducting them. As one would expect, moving to Preliminary (DIOG, § 6), Full (DIOG, § 7), and Enterprise Investigations (DIOG, § 8) requires even more exacting rules with respect to investigative scope, predication, techniques, and so on.
Preliminary Investigations are predicated based upon “’allegation or information’ indicative of possible criminal activity or threats to the national security” (DIOG, § 6.1), while Full Investigations are predicated upon an “’articulable factual basis’ of possible criminal or national threat activity” (DIOG, § 7.1).
Finally, Enterprise Investigations are opened as Full Investigations, but with respect to “a group or organization that may be involved in the most serious criminal or national security threats to the public” (DIOG, § 8.1).
Does the unsigned Op Ed, or for that matter, the suggestion to look at corruption “on the other side” fulfill any of these four guidelines for launching an investigation?
Working outside of this stringent framework would indeed be uncharted territory—at least since President Richard Nixon (and presidents before him) ordered investigations that resulted in solely political and personal information unrelated to national security.
So it hasn’t been terribly long since presidents successfully used the FBI as their personal spy agency.
The US Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (or the “Church Committee”) helped expose a variety of widespread information-gathering tactics—including illegal searches and surveillance under the FBI’s COINTELPRO program from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s.
Based on recent precedent, it seems safe to assume that the FBI and Department of Justice will ignore requests for investigations without a firm, non-arbitrary investigative basis that is consistent with policy.
But how long can we rely upon this assumption?
And there is a deeper question that has higher stakes: If there is disagreement about whether the Executive is taking care that the law be executed faithfully, what are the long-term implications for the rule of law in the United States given a dysfunctional executive branch?
Our history illuminates how executive authority and discretionary power have grown to such a degree that it is trending toward illiberal practices and policies. This is not a Republican or a Democratic problem. It is a broader problem regarding the limits imposed by the legal, political, and philosophical norms of a constitutional democracy in the liberal tradition.
Although it may sound alarmist, the evidence suggests that we are returning to an older model of executive power that entertains political whims. There is no doubt that presidential executive power includes a great deal of discretion, but all of us should take care that we remain a state governed by the rule of law—not executive discretion.
Luke William Hunt is Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Radford University. After law school and a federal judicial clerkship, he worked for seven years as an FBI Special Agent and Supervisory Special Agent in Charlottesville, VA, and Washington, D.C. After leaving government service, he completed his doctoral work in philosophy at the University of Virginia. He is the author of “The Retrieval of Liberalism in Policing,” forthcoming with Oxford University Press.