This afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, from the White House podium, declared that former FBI Director James Comey may have “violated federal law” in sharing a memo documenting a conversation with the president:
- The memos that Comey leaked were created on an FBI computer while he was the director. He claims they were private property, but they clearly followed the protocol of an official FBI document. Leaking FBI memos on a sensitive case, regardless of classification, violates federal laws, including the Privacy Act, standard FBI employment agreement and nondisclosure agreements that all personnel must sign. I think that’s pretty clean and clear that that would be a violation.
While conceding it was “not up to [her] to decide,” Sanders opined that “the facts of the case are very clear” and that “the Department of Justice has to look into whether something’s illegal or not.” (Comey shared one memo, according to his testimony, by the way, not “memos.”)
This follows Sanders’s accusation Monday, that Comey had given “false testimony,” another matter she suggested DOJ should “look at.” Then on Tuesday, she said that Comey’s “actions were improper and likely could have been illegal” and that while the ultimate decision to investigate Comey was for the Justice Department to make, “I think if there’s ever a moment where we feel someone has broken the law, particularly if they’re the head of the FBI, I think that’s something that certainly should be looked at.”
Life is too short to rebut every individual outrage or idiocy to emerge from the White House. But Sanders’s remarks bear attention because they are clearly part of a coordinated plan to maliciously besmirch an individual. After her first comment, Sanders had a day to think about it before making her Tuesday remarks. After those, she had a day to think about it before making today’s comments, which appeared to come from a prepared text. So this is not an impulsive, on-the-spot type slime job. This is a deliberate, planned effort of the type that reflects the Trump White House’s considered views of how it should respond to Comey. That is, with months to think about the matter, the White House has decided that it wants to respond to Comey’s testimony by falsely accusing him of criminal activity—and to offer no evidence to support its slanders.
It is a prototypical abuse of power—and particularly pernicious because of the White House’s attempts to involve the Justice Department in the project.
Casting aspersions on the behavior or veracity of key witnesses is more norm than exception in defense lawyering. What is different here is that Trump is using the office of the presidency to bully, defame, and discredit his credits and bolster his own defense. Frivolously accusing individuals of crimes and then threatening them with Justice Department action by stating that the Justice Department should investigate their conduct is not acceptable White House behavior. It is not merely a gross civil liberties violation with respect to the individuals. It also threatens the integrity of law enforcement—by effectively directing law enforcement action against a disfavored individual, in this case, one who has already given derogatory testimony about the President and is expected to do so in the future. It’s what Trump threatened to do throughout the campaign when he promised prosecution of his opponent.
This is what it looks like when the White House itself plays in these waters. It’s the stuff of petty strong-man dictatorships for the President to pronounce an individual guilty of a crime without having to proffer any evidence, offer a legal theory, or convince a jury.