When these investigations have ended with no findings of criminal activity, they have generally been ignored or swept under the rug, though that hasn’t stopped Trump from accusing his opponents of pervasive corruption.
President Donald Trump campaigned on the promise of “draining the swamp” in Washington, DC. In both his campaigns and as president, he has routinely billed himself as the “Law and Order” president who would take on corruption. Trump has also repeatedly promised to arrest his political opponents, including both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Vice President Joe Biden.
While a number of close associates of Trump have ended up in prison since he took office, so far neither Clinton nor Biden (nor any other Trump political rival) has faced criminal prosecution.
In one of his many unprecedented tactics as president, Trump publicly demanded criminal investigations into his opponents, even calling upon the customarily nonpartisan Department of Justice to lead the effort. However, even with the direction of Attorney General William Barr, who has been accused of corrupting the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Trump’s behalf, no prosecutions have occurred.
When these investigations have ended with no findings of criminal activity, they have generally been ignored or swept under the rug, though that hasn’t stopped Trump from accusing his opponents of pervasive corruption
The “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation
Since the first months of his presidency, Trump has maintained that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, used the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to spy on his campaign.
It is a fact that the FBI was investigating members of Trump’s campaign for possible connections to Russia. It has been confirmed by congressional investigations that Russia actively sought to interfere in the 2016 election to help Trump win.
There were four men tied to the campaign under investigation: George Papadopoulos, a Trump aide; Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser; Carter Page, a Trump campaign adviser; and Paul Manafort, who was briefly the Trump campaign’s chairman and chief strategist.
The FBI has maintained that the investigation, named “Crossfire Hurricane,” was justified based on intelligence they received. Trump and members of the right-wing media have pushed back, claiming the Obama administration illegally spied on the Trump campaign to help the Clinton campaign. Trump has alternatively named this alleged scandal “Spygate” and “Obamagate.”
It has been confirmed that there were multiple contacts between members of Trump’s team and Russian personnel, a fact investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Ultimately, Mueller reported there was no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded (or collaborated) with Russia. Nonetheless, multiple criminal convictions resulted from the investigation.
Papadopoulos, Flynn and Manafort were later arrested and convicted of crimes: Papadopoulos and Flynn for lying to the FBI about Russian contacts and Manafort for multiple financial crimes and for conspiracy against the US. No charges were brought against Page, though his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee did confirm he had spoken with Russian government officials.
The charges against Flynn were later dropped by the DOJ and his case was dropped.
In a pair of tweets in March 2017, Trump claimed Obama had his phones at Trump Tower wiretapped. He insisted there should be an investigation into the matter, which, in fact, has occurred.
The complaints about the FBI surveillance alleged that the agency had improperly obtained Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants, which are specifically used to surveil someone believed to be a foreign spy. Trump wanted the DOJ to investigate the matter, though his initial attorney general, Jeff Session, resisted.
Eventually, the matter was investigated by Michael Horowitz, the Inspector General for the DOJ. In his review, released to the public in December 2019, Horowitz reported there was evidence of troubling procedural issues with obtaining the FISA warrants but overall found the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation to be justified by the facts available to the FBI.
Horowitz’s final assessment was that the FBI should update its policy and provide more oversight, particularly as it relates to surveillance warrants. It did not, however, find that any laws were broken or that the investigation was an illegal effort to spy on the Trump administration.
Despite these findings, undertaken by Trump’s own DOJ, the president maintains that Obama – and by extension, Obama’s vice president, Biden – spied on him. When the FISA investigation turned up no evidence of criminal activity by the Obama administration or the FBI, a different tactic was adopted: claiming the previous administration improperly requested the “unmasking” of Trump officials.
When a citizen of the United States is involved in an intelligence investigation (such as “Crossfire Hurricane”), their names are redacted, or masked. An unmasking request by a top-level government official is therefore a request to have a name unredacted for greater clarity. It is a common practice.
Both Obama and Biden appeared on a list of names of those who made unmasking requests. That list was sent to Republican senators by the Acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, in May. Since then, Trump and his Republican allies have asserted, without evidence, that both Obama and Biden made the unmasking requests to spy on the Trump campaign.
At the bequest of Republicans, the current attorney general, William Barr, initiated an investigation into the Obama administration’s unmasking policies. Barr had US Attorney John Bash lead the investigation.
On October 14, The Washington Post reported the investigation had been quietly concluded with no charges. Barr also chose not to release a public report of the findings because, sources told the Post, “the findings ultimately turned over to Barr fell short of what Trump and others might have hoped.”
Department of Justice under the Trump administration
Barr’s willingness to order apparently partisan investigations for Trump has bothered many people within the DOJ. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Phillip Halpern, a San Diego, California-based federal prosecutor, described as “a 36-year veteran of the Justice Department,” accused AG Barr of abusing his power on behalf of the president.
Halpern, who retired from the department, was the third DOJ prosecutor – after Boston, Massachusetts-based James D. Herbert and Seattle, Washington-based Michael Dion – to publicly criticize the sitting attorney general. It is very rare for DOJ employees to publicly break with the attorney general, let alone for three to do so.
In a letter in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Halpern wrote, “Barr’s resentment toward rule-of-law prosecutors became increasingly difficult to ignore, as did his slavish obedience to Donald Trump’s will … This career bureaucrat seems determined to turn our democracy into an autocracy.”
Writing previously in The Boston Globe, Herbert criticized Barr for “the unprecedented politicization of the office of the attorney general.”
Shortly thereafter, Dion also accused Barr of many misdeeds: “Barr, however, is turning the Justice Department into a shield to protect the president and his henchmen. He misled the American public about the Mueller report. He meddled to spare Roger Stone and Michael Flynn from the consequences of their crimes. He demeaned career prosecutors in a speech at Hillsdale College in Michigan.”
Dion added, “Barr does these things because his goal is to protect his master, rather than the American people. The power of the Justice Department is too great to be in the hands of a person like Barr. America deserves better.”
Earlier this year, four federal prosecutors withdrew from a case after the DOJ stepped in to reduce the sentence for Roger Stone, a Trump loyalist. Stone was found guilty of obstructing a congressional investigation and lying under oath. Barr denied seeking Trump’s guidance on the matter, but the reduced sentence came after Trump tweeted that Stone’s situation was “horrible and very unfair.”
Still, Barr has yet to publicly charge any Obama administration figures for any crimes, suggesting that he is not willing to ignore the results of the DOJ investigations.
The voter fraud commission
Not all Trump-directed investigations are conducted by the DOJ.
Trump has frequently claimed, both during the 2016 election and the current election, that voter fraud is rampant in US elections. This claim has been disputed by experts, but it continues to be a widespread talking point, especially for the right-wing media.
After Trump won the electoral college in the 2016 election but lost the popular vote, he began circulating a claim that there were millions of illegal votes in the election. He insisted that he had actually won the popular vote over Clinton.
On May 11, 2017, Trump used an executive order to establish the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was led by Vice President Mike Pence and the former secretary of state of Kansas, Kris Kobach. The commission was established to find evidence of improper or fraudulent voter registration and voting in the 2016 election.
In August 2018, the AP reported the commission had been disbanded after finding no evidence of widespread voter fraud. While Kobach claimed there was evidence of voter misconduct, the final report merely presented “1,000 convictions for various forms of voter misconduct since 1948.”
That aligns with the view of many experts who believe voter suppression is a greater risk than voter fraud. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, found fewer than 1,300 examples of voter fraud over a nearly four-decade period.
Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at [email protected]