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Trump suggests 'Deep State Justice Dept' jail Clinton aide over emails

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2016 file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks with senior aide Huma Abedin aboard her campaign plane at Westchester County Airport in White Plains. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

President Donald Trump suggested Tuesday that a longtime aide to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton belongs in prison because of classified information found on her husband’s laptop, prompting questions from critics about how far he is willing to press what he considers his “absolute” authority over the Department of Justice.

“Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid, Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols. She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others.”

Trump appeared to be referring to a Daily Caller report mentioned on “Fox and Friends” Tuesday positing that emails Abedin forwarded to her Yahoo account could have been obtained by hostile foreign actors who breached hundreds of millions of users.

Following a lawsuit by conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, the State Department last Friday released copies of emails found on a laptop belonging to Abedin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner during a probe of Weiner’s sexting with an underage girl.

The existence of the emails was first made public less than two weeks before the 2016 election when then-FBI Director James Comey revealed the investigation of Clinton’s email practices was being reopened. Comey later announced the emails found on the laptop had not changed investigators’ decision not to recommend charges in the case.

Several of the emails released Friday were redacted due to sensitive and classified information. Abedin had told investigators she sometimes forwarded emails to her personal account in order to print them.

One email Abedin sent to her Yahoo account in 2009 included passwords for her State Department laptop. The Daily Caller notes that 500 million Yahoo accounts were allegedly hacked by a Russian intelligence operative in 2014, though there is no evidence Abedin’s was one of the accounts accessed. All three billion Yahoo users were impacted by a separate breach in 2013, but investigators have not determined who was responsible for that.

Though Trump’s tweet seems to demand Abedin be imprisoned, she has not faced any criminal charges. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did little to clarify the president’s position.

“Obviously, the facts of that case are very disturbing and I think the president wants to make clear that he doesn’t think anybody should be above the law,” she told reporters at a press briefing Tuesday.

Trump also referred to a Navy sailor, Kristian Saucier, who was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation for taking photos in classified areas of a nuclear submarine. Saucier’s attorney claimed the prosecution was politically motivated, and the president has raised the case before as evidence of a double standard compared to the leniency he believes Clinton was shown.

Trump’s latest complaints about the DOJ come less than a week after he asserted total control over the agency in an interview with the New York Times.

“I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department,” he said. “But for purposes of hopefully thinking I’m going to be treated fairly, I’ve stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.”

He made that comment in response to a question about whether the Clinton email investigation should be reopened, but it echoed statements made elsewhere in the interview about not attempting to influence special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election because he expects to be treated fairly.

Several legal experts and former DOJ officials who had expressed concern over Trump’s “absolute right” claim cited it in their response to his tweet Tuesday.

“POTUS on 12/28: ‘I have the absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department,’” tweeted Sally Yates, a former deputy attorney general fired by Trump for refusing to follow orders last year. “Today he slanders career DOJ professionals as ‘deep state,’ calls for prison for a political opponent, and tries to sic DOJ on a potential witness against him. Beyond abnormal; dangerous.”

Comey, who Trump fired in May, could be a witness in any investigation of alleged obstruction of the Russia probe. Following his removal and leaking of details about his meetings with Trump, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to handle the investigation.

“Saying nothing of the fact that the ‘Deep State Justice Department’ is run by Trump’s own appointees, his effort to use its power to punish his political rivals and protect him from law enforcement is an abuse of power,” wrote Evan McMullin, a former CIA operative who ran an independent presidential campaign against Trump in 2016.

According to Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, Trump cannot order the DOJ to do something illegal and there are checks in the system to prevent the president from overstepping his authority, but beyond that, he is basically right about his power over the department.

“If he raises questions about particular prosecutions, they should respond appropriately,” Fitton said.

He suggested President Barack Obama used his position to influence the Clinton email investigation by saying publicly that she did nothing illegal while the probe was ongoing. He does not see Trump’s tweet as a literal order to DOJ officials to open an investigation.

“I hope it’s an attempt to influence the Justice Department, but I see it more as venting his frustrations,” Fitton said.

Even some Trump critics acknowledge he is not wrong that he can do what he wants with the DOJ.

“When he said that, ‘the absolute right,’ technically speaking, he’s correct,” said Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesperson, though he added other presidents have generally not exercised that power.

“It’s just a long-standing norm that previous presidents and attorneys general have abided by…,” he said. “What he’s exposed is this question of whether the norms that have governed our country are enough to protect us.”

This is far from the first time the president has demanded a criminal investigation or a prison sentence for one of his enemies. “Lock her up!” chants targeting Clinton continue to echo through his rallies more than a year after the election.

Coming so soon after Trump openly bragged about his authority to control the DOJ, the context of Tuesday’s tweet is different from his past Twitter rants.

“I think we should take it absolutely seriously,” Miller said. “It is clear that he wants to completely corrupt the Justice Department…. What is still somewhat in question is whether the Justice Department will cave to his commands.”

Luke Hunt, an assistant professor at Radford University and former FBI special agent, warned that Trump could spark a constitutional power struggle if he goes beyond social media and explicitly attempts to exert his power over the DOJ to advance his political vendettas.

"What we are seeing is tension between constitutional executive power and the limits of that power,” said Hunt, who also served as a law clerk to a federal judge. “There is no doubt that the president--as Chief Executive--may exercise authority over the FBI and DOJ, but that doesn't mean that he may do so with impunity. Law enforcement is within the scope of the president's executive power, but ordering investigations of political enemies is not.”

Former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder predicted following Trump’s New York Times interview that career DOJ staff will choose the law over the president if such a confrontation does emerge.

“Trump doesn’t have absolute rights with DOJ,” Holder tweeted Friday. “But women and men there have ABSOLUTE duty to follow Constitution and rule of law - not a man. Career DOJ people have ABSOLUTE right to defy illegal orders. And they will. I know them.”

Trump has long claimed “deep state” actors inside the government were working to undermine him, a view that has gained more traction among Republicans recently amid reports that FBI officials who opposed Trump or supported Clinton were involved in investigations surrounding the 2016 election.

“Obviously, he doesn’t believe the entire Justice Department is part of that,” Sanders told reporters Tuesday.

Supporters of President Trump have floated the theory that anti-Trump DOJ officials used unvetted information from an opposition research dossier funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to secure warrants and justify their probe of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a letter to Rosenstein last week that “at this point it seems the DOJ and FBI need to investigating themselves.” He threatened to hold Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray in contempt of Congress if they fail to adequately comply with requests for documents related to the dossier.

Fitton said there is “a real crisis” and the DOJ and FBI, and Trump’s anger is well-founded because their Clinton investigation was “irredeemably compromised.” Despite the president’s rhetoric and the panic it inspires on the left, it has mostly just been rhetoric so far.

“I haven’t seen anything happen beyond the tweet,” Fitton said. “If he was being direct, you’d have probably a new deputy attorney general, you’d have investigations of Clinton, you’d have Mueller having his wings clipped.”

Instead, the special counsel’s investigation continues, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sidelined by his recusal, and Fitton has doubts about Rosenstein’s loyalties.

“There’s this real issue that the DOJ is answerable to no one right now in many key functions,” he said.

Others see little evidence of a conspiracy against the president.

“The people at the Department of Justice all come to work every day with one very clear motivation and that is to follow the facts and follow the law,” Miller said.

Sometimes they fail to do that, he acknowledged, and when they make mistakes, the president has every right to point that out. All he has seen so far, though, is conspiracy theories and unproven claims of bias.

Miller pointed to Rosenstein composing a memo to justify Comey’s firing, Sessions considering appointing a special counsel to look at alleged corruption surrounding the Uranium One deal, and the DOJ allowing a purported whistleblower to testify about that deal as evidence that Trump’s words are already influencing the department. If the president can order the opening of an investigation via Twitter, though, that would be a significant escalation.

“The fact that he’s even considering it shows that that wall between the Justice Department and the White House that’s so important is starting to break down a little bit,” Miller said.

The alarm raised over Trump’s “absolute right” comment and his tweet about Abedin may ultimately prove unwarranted, but that depends on whether his words translate into actions in the months and years ahead.

“At the end of the day, the central issue is the president's motive and intent,” Hunt said. “It will be left to the other branches of government to determine whether the president is merely venting, or whether his comments are indicative of an inappropriate motive."

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