Fair and Unbalanced
It’s the day after, and the nation awoke to the new reality — that everything had changed and that nothing had changed.
The Justice Department’s special counsel to investigate Trump-Russia ties is now in place. Congressional committees are just warming up. The Trump White House was, if only briefly, shocked into near silence. But if it feels as if the Trump story is racing full throttle toward some kind of resolution — you know, Thelma and Louise style — don’t be fooled.
Donald Trump met the new day in the old style, by tweeting out the news that he was the victim of the greatest witch hunt in American history. You don’t need to pause to consider the accuracy of this ahistorical conclusion because, as we know, the president didn’t pause to consider anything when he pressed the button on his phone. It’s enough to consider that Trump remains unchastened, which is all we could have anticipated.
We are now at that famed Churchillian juncture. Not the beginning of the end but, perhaps, the end of the beginning. There are many, many battles yet to be fought. And the nature of those battles — including whether a dependably craven Congress will step up to do its part — will be played out over months and possibly years.
Remember, we’re not quite four months into the Trump presidency. I know it seems longer. It seems like forever. If there’s a lesson here, it may be that the more we yearn for a return to some kind of normalcy, the harder it can be to even remember what normal was like.
Naming a special counsel to investigate all things Trump and Russia should be a start. Naming Robert Mueller, well respected across the political spectrum, as the special counsel should be a start. The fact that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — still recovering from the misstep of his James Comey memo — named a special counsel without consulting the White House is a clear reminder of a time when democratic institutions still mattered. That is definitely a start.
But it’s only a start. Donald Trump is still Donald Trump, as he reminded us with the usual series of tweets. Why, Trump tweet-whined, didn’t Hillary Clinton get a special counsel (or councel, as Trump wrote it)? Why not Barack Obama? Why only him?
A better question is whether a special counsel is enough (Hint: it isn’t). The special counsel investigates illegality. It investigates in secret. It takes a lot of the action indoors, which is why you see so many Republican leaders embracing Mueller. For the moment, at least, it takes them somewhat off the hook. How can they comment, they’ll say, when there’s an active investigation ongoing? (Hint: They can.)
What is still required — and what remains most important — is a public accounting of Russian interference in the election, whether there was any collusion with the Trump campaign, what complicating financial ties Trump might have with Russians, how, in fact, Trump came to fire Comey and why Trump thought he could ask him to “let this go,” how, in fact, Michael Flynn came to be hired, why House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy jokes at a Republican meeting that Trump is on the Putin payroll. This is what we’re left depending on the Republican-controlled Congress to do. The strict legality here, after all, is far less important than the assault on American values.
But, whatever happens, it won’t be happen fast, even in our hyper-speed world. Here’s the thing to remember, as I wrote a few days ago: It was more than two years after the Watergate break-in that Richard Nixon resigned. And another thing: Trump still has the power to fire Rosenstein and name a new Deputy AG, who could fire Mueller as special counsel. Impossible? Ask Archibald Cox.
At this point, you would have hoped, though, that Trump might have learned a lesson concerning abuse of power. But you know better. Trump doesn’t do lessons, as we’ll see as he heads off for his first overseas diplomatic mission. He’ll go with two major disadvantages: He’ll be, of course, ill-prepared for the wide array of meetings and at those meetings he’ll be in a weakened position to negotiate anything.
To understand where Trump sees his situation you have only to read the news reports that Trump is blaming his staff for his problems, as if it were a public relations problem that he passed secrets onto the Russians or that he tried to get Comey to stop his investigation before Trump fired him or that the ultra-careful Comey had detailed notes about the meetings or, well, where does it end. It doesn’t end, and that’s the main thing to consider.
We’re not at some stopping point. Trump will continue to be Trump. The past missteps will only help predict the next one. And the next Trump story — soon to broken in either The New York Times or The Washington Post — will no doubt be as shocking as the last.
The latest story, mostly missed with the special counsel announcement, was that the Trump transition team knew that Flynn was under investigation when Trump named him national security adviser, giving him full access to our nation’s secrets. Mike Pence, it should be noted, was head of that transition team. And so now we must ask, what did the vice-president know and when did he know it? And before we get an answer, if we ever do, there will be a dozen more questions to come.
Photo by Medill DC via Flickr: Creative Commons
Now it’s getting serious. It’s one thing to give up sensitive information to Russian diplomats while possibly endangering the life of an Israeli intelligence source. That may sound illegal, and it certainly sounds wholly inappropriate, whatever H.R. McMaster says, but presidents have the absolute right — as Donald Trump tweeted it — to instantly declassify any level of classified information.
This is different. As the New York Times is reporting, there is a memo written by James Comey, the just-fired FBI director, detailing how Trump had asked Comey to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn. According to the memo, Trump told Comey in an Oval Office meeting, “I hope you can let this go.”
Comey didn’t let it go. And because Comey didn’t let it go, Trump couldn’t let it go. If Trump fired Comey not because he treated Hillary Clinton badly and not just because of the “Russia thing,” but because Comey wouldn’t drop the Flynn investigation, that begins to sound like obstruction of justice.
We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. But, in one memo, all the bogus stories about impeachment just got a lot less bogus, and the stories of smoking guns will soon follow.
This is just that serious. And for those Republicans who have tried with varying degrees of success to pretend that whatever Trump does in the White House is at least semi-defensible, they now face an entirely different test. Assuming the memo is real — it was read over the phone to The Times and confirmed by The Washington Post — this is something that cannot be ignored.
The memo will be subpoenaed. Comey will have to testify. There will be hearings. A written statement from the White House rebutting the memo won’t be enough, particularly given Trump’s longstanding issues with the truth. If there is a memo and Trump can’t show it to be inaccurate, we’ll finally see an independent counsel or a select committee or maybe both. If Trump has, in fact, been taping conversations in the Oval Office, as he threatened, they will be subpoeanaed, too. And let’s just say, for the record, that Comey doesn’t seem at all worried about the possible existence of tapes.
The Post is reporting that the memo is two pages long and quite detailed. The Times is reporting that Comey shared the memo with his top deputies but didn’t make it public because he didn’t want it to influence the FBI investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 campaign. And various reports are saying that Comey wrote memos on everything.
According to this memo, Trump was meeting with Comey, Vice-President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the Oval Office the day after Flynn had resigned. Trump asked Pence and Sessions to leave so he could have a private meeting with Comey. In that meeting, according to the memo Comey wrote soon after, Trump said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” You think that’s worse than Bill Clinton on the tarmac with Loretta Lynch?
The story is just one more in a long string of damaging stories in the still-brief Trump presidency. This latest rush of self-inflicted wounds — the kind that defines this administration — began soon after Trump finally had some good news, getting Trumpcare out of the House and onto the Senate. The bill may die there, but for Trump, it was enough of a win that he actually had a halftime Rose Garden victory party.
Then came the Sally Yates testimony, the Comey firing, Sean Spicer in the bushes, the Trump tweets on the “Russia thing,” the Trump tweet on possible tapes of his conversations with Comey, the Comey story of the Trump dinner and the loyalty oath, the bombshell report that Trump had shared top-secret information with the Russians, the McMaster news conference defending Trump by saying the (willfully ignorant) president had no idea where the information came from. And now the Comey memo. A plea of ignorance won’t do, but I think I see an Alec Baldwin skit forming.
Presidents don’t generally fire FBI chiefs, if for no other reason that they know too much. Trump didn’t just fire Comey. He humiliated him. Trump sent his bodyguard to FBI headquarters with a letter to tell the man who may have gotten him elected president that he was fired. And in the letter, Trump took a shot at Comey’s integrity, thanking Comey for telling him three times he was not under investigation.
Since Comey was out of town, he didn’t get the letter. He learned about the firing not from Trump, but from watching the news on TV. And Comey has said that he never told Trump about the status of the investigation. There’s a famous piece of LBJ’s typically earthy wisdom on why he couldn’t get rid of J. Edgar Hoover: that it was “better to have him inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” That’s one way to describe the memo.
The funny thing is, we have no idea if the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. We don’t know where the investigation might lead, or if it will go anywhere. But there’s no doubting the evidence of a coverup. In the Republican-controlled Congress, there’s no certainty what will come of it. But there’s one thing for sure: It will not just be Comey who won’t let this go.
Photo by Jeremy Tenenbaum via Flickr:Creative Commons
It was the usual post-gaffe/scandal/outrage routine. Donald Trump does something indefensible and, in most cases, inexplicable. The White House rushes to settle on a message, which is usually, shall we say, disingenuous, but only because to tell the truth would be to reveal the boss as an idiot/liar/incompetent.
The next morning, Trump, unhappy with the reception the message is getting, tweets out a whole new message that invariably contradicts the previous one and dependably tosses his advisers under the bus (now, officially, the most overused phrase in the Trump era).
That’s where we were in the story at the moment National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, presumably inadvertently, ran the bus back over Trump.
McMaster was holding a press briefing to explain what had happened last week in the meeting between Trump and Russian diplomats, in which Trump had, according to a Washington Post story, passed on code-word (spy talk for way beyond top secret) information about a possible ISIS attack involving a laptop. In doing so, he may have risked upending an ally’s sensitive operation and putting the source, an actual person or persons, in danger.
In a classic of the non-denial-denial genre, McMaster had labeled the story “false” on Monday night without pointing out any actual falsities. But when Trump woke up the next morning, he basically confirmed the story in a Tuesday tweetstorm, saying that he had an “absolute right” to pass along whatever facts he had passed along. And so McMaster, putting his integrity at risk, was forced to concede that the facts of the story may not have been false but that the premise of the story was — because Trump’s actions, he said, were “wholly appropriate.”
McMaster would go on to say “wholly appropriate” a bunch of times, and then, just as he was leaving the stage, he noted that “the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from” and had not been told who the source was, as if Trump’s ignorance was also wholly appropriate.
In other words, it was just as we had supposed. Trump had a juicy bit of information — “great intel,” as the Post quoted him as saying to the Russians — and was thrilled to pass it along. He didn’t know where it came from. He didn’t know or appreciate the risks of passing it on. There had been no plan, according to McMaster, for the president to bring up the intelligence. It was off the cuff. It was just some old pals shooting the, uh, Oval Office breeze.
And it would all seem even less appropriate, and more sensitive, when The New York Times later reported that the source was Israeli intelligence while noting the obvious, that Russia could pass along any details to Iran or Syria.
You can wonder why the president hadn’t been fully briefed, why he hadn’t been told of the information’s great sensitivity, why he had walked into a meeting with Russians without having discussed which areas might be dangerous to discuss other than, you know, possible campaign collusion. Maybe it’s because, as The Times is reporting, Trump thinks McMaster talks too much and is a “pain.”
But more than that, you can wonder how the news that Trump was not informed makes Trump look like anything but uninformed. We know that Trump likes his morning intelligence briefings reduced to a single page with bullet points. We’re told that he doesn’t always bother with the single-pager either.
And now we’re told that Trump, not wholly briefed, gave away information so sensitive — information that we don’t even share with close allies — that intelligence sources were forced to leak the news to the Post because they had to do something to try to stop Trump’s leaking. The story would then be confirmed by reporting from the Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and others.
Did Trump have an absolute right? It is true that presidents can declassify any information at any time?That includes a president whose campaign was based in large part on the notion Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted with classified information because her email server might have been hacked. Trump didn’t wait to be hacked, although, in an earlier gaffe/scandal/outrage, he had, of course, accused Barack Obama of wiretapping him. Trump just jumped in, apparently convinced that the Russians could be trusted with code-word secrets.
The presumption on presidents and classified information is that the leader of the free world is trustworthy. But this is the same leader who fired the FBI director for that “Russia thing,” on the day before he met the Russian diplomats in the Oval Office, the same president who fired his previous national security adviser for lying about his ties to the Russians, the same president who barred the American press from the meeting but welcomes a photographer from the Russian state news agency.
The question being asked now is whether foreign intelligence agencies or, for that matter, American intelligence agencies can trust the president with sensitive information. It’s the question being asked in Congress, even by a few (although only a very few) Republicans. It’s a question that will certainly be asked of Americans in the next set of polls.
But it’s a question for which there really is no good answer. It’s obvious that you can’t keep classified information from a president, who actually needs the intelligence to make critical, world-shaping decisions. Sadly, that’s even true when the president is unaccountably the wholly inappropriate Donald Trump.
Picture by ResoluteSupportMedia via Flickr: Creative Commons
At first blush, it may look as if Donald Trump has finally gone the full Nixon. But if there’s one thing we can safely take away from Trump’s tweeted threat that he has taped White House conversations, it’s that he doesn’t understand Watergate any more than he understands anything else.
Nixon didn’t threaten to release tapes in order to silence anyone. It would be wrong, that’s for sure. What Nixon did, what the Saturday Night Massacre was all about, was to try desperately to hold on to those previously secret but always incriminating tapes that led, eventually, to Nixon’s resignation.
Trump must have his ’70s iconography confused. Trump’s tweet — “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” — is more Godfather than Watergate. What Comey should worry about it is not a recording system in the White House, but finding a horse’s head in his bed.
Or as John Dean — yes, that John Dean — just tweeted: “Obviously, President Trump is confused. He is the one who must hope there are no tapes. Honest people don’t have problems being taped.”
I don’t believe Trump has “taped” Comey or anyone else any more than I believe Trump’s tweet that Obama had “wiretapped” Trump. It’s more Trumpian bluster, but, of course, it’s not only that.
Trump doesn’t think any more about publicly threatening Comey than he does in publicly firing Comey and in publicly lying about why he fired Comey and then, after sending out all his surrogates, including the vice-president, to lie about why he fired Comey, to admit the truth in an NBC News interview with Lester Holt. In one step, he threw all his communications people under the bus (or, in Spicey’s case, into the bushes) while, at the same time, making the case for why there must be an independent investigation into all things Russia and Trump.
No one paying any attention at all can be surprised that Trump lied about why he fired Comey. We knew from the start that it was never about Comey’s mistreatment of Hillary Clinton or about Rod Rosenstein’s craven memo. It was always about, as Trump himself said, “this Russia thing.” It’s clear now, as it has been all along, that Trump fired Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.
What upset Trump enough to go off in his Friday morning tweetstorm — getting ahead of the weekend rush — was an anonymously sourced story in The New York Times about the now-infamous dinner meeting between Trump and Comey. Trump said that the dinner was at Comey’s request. Trump said that during the dinner, he had asked Comey whether he was under investigation and that Comey had directly assured him that he wasn’t.
This is another story no one believed. Whatever else you think of Comey and whatever possible missteps he might have made, you tend to trust the FBI sources who told The Times that Trump invited Comey, that Comey was wary of the invitation and did not want to accept, that he would never discuss with Trump whether he was under investigation (that, also, would be wrong; that’s for sure) and that in the actual conversation, Trump asked Comey whether he would pledge loyalty to him and Comey answered that he would offer honesty instead.
That sounds like Trump. And if that’s what Comey told him, that was the beginning of the end. Personal loyalty, not truth, is what concerns Trump, and it would have to concern him even more given the fact of the FBI investigation. His willingness to fire the FBI chief in charge of the investigation— and apparently not even realizing the blowback he would receive for it — is one more bit of evidence of how little respect, and understanding, Trump has for American institutions.
With the taping threat, Trump has ensured that all the irresistible Watergate references stay alive. And the one that should worry him most is the memory — not always perfectly accurate — that brave Republicans stood up to Nixon. From break-in to resignation, the Watergate saga took more than two years. Most Republicans were very slow to condemn, or even question, Nixon. Same for the country. The five burglars had already been indicted when Nixon was carrying 49 states against George McGovern.
When Howard Baker famously asked what the president knew and when he knew it, he was actually defending Nixon. Even when the end was near and many of Nixon’s closest advisers headed to prison, the smoking gun uncovered, 10 of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee still voted against impeachment. Of course, Baker did eventually go after the truth, as did others. And in the Saturday Night Massacre, Cox and Richardson and Ruckelshaus did become heroes for refusing Nixon’s orders. And Barry Goldwater did lead a group of three Republican to the White House to tell Nixon it was time for him to quit.
But in our speeded up times of 24/7 cable news and nonstop Twitter, Republican politicians are not exactly keeping up, and, as a rule, they’re certainly not standing up. Most have embarrassed themselves by a tepid response to what nearly everyone agrees was Russian interference in the 2016 election. And they continue to embarrass themselves by enabling Trump, by pretending that the Trump presidency is somehow normal and shouldn’t be challenged at every turn.
Maybe the most cliched Watergate saying is that the coverup is always worse than the crime. In this case, we still don’t know what the crime is or whether there is a crime at all. But the signs of a coverup are everywhere. And if the coverup is not worse than the crime, we’re in even worse trouble than I thought.
Photo via Steve Troughton, Flickr: Creative Commons
The story begins with a lie, as so many Donald Trump stories do. And while it’s hard to determine Trump’s biggest lie — cheering Muslims, Obama’s wiretapping, millions voting illegally — this one may be his least believable. And it also may be his most harmful — to him and to the country.
Not even the most ardent Trumpist could fall for the claim that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because he had been unfair to the woman Trump called Crooked Hillary. Just go to the tape. You can’t miss Trump’s repeated praise of Comey’s bungled handling of the Clinton email investigation.
And because no one could possibly believe Trump’s obvious lie, he has forced us to believe, or at least consider, the obvious alternative — that Trump fired Comey because the FBI director was getting too close in his pursuit of the case that Trump aides may have colluded with Russia during the 2016 election.
Because what else could it be?
You don’t know with Trump, of course. It could be anything or a lot of things. But what we do know is that a president fired the FBI director in the course of being investigated by the FBI. And we do know that whoever Trump chooses to replace Comey will have no more credibility than Trump does.
This is not what is supposed to happen in our country. And even though Trump has shown only a passing interest in democratic norms and an unsettling fondness for authoritarians, this is still America, which may explain why Comey was simply fired and not poisoned. But for those who worried that Trump’s presidency would be a threat to the American democratic project, this is exactly the kind of abuse of power they had feared.
I wasn’t sure that Trump still had the ability to shock us, but he apparently does. And for Trump, this could be one shock too many. Democrats are calling — well, howling is closer to the truth — for an independent prosecutor. And Republicans, in the day after their embarrassing showing at the Sally Yates hearing, may be forced to cave. With Trump’s credibility officially shot, everyone’s credibility is now on the line.
It was Trump who tweeted this on Monday: “The Russia-Trump collusion is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer charade end?” The next day, Trump fired the leader of the, uh, charade. There is no other way to understand this. But in case we missed anything, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders was out there saying it was time to end the Russia investigation. And Politico was reporting that Trump would yell at the TV for the cable networks’ continuing coverage of possible collusion.
The firing takes us back, of course, to Nixon and to the Saturday Night Massacre, but there are differences. As former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett once said, “Take Nixon in the deepest days of his Watergate paranoia, subtract 50 IQ points, add Twitter, and you have Trump today.”
Nixon was desperate. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox was ready to subpoena the Nixon tapes. But when Nixon wanted Cox fired, Attorney General Elliott Richardson refused. And the deputy attorney general refused. It was finally left — in one of history’s most satisfying footnotes — to then Solicitor General Robert Bork to do the dirty work.
Today, Trump has Jeff Sessions as his attorney general. Sessions, who has already had to recuse himself in the Russia investigation, reportedly helped cook up the Clinton email rationale. And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, confirmed just two weeks ago, basically planted the evidence. In double-quick time, the deputy wrote up a short treatise on Comey’s considerable mishandling of the Clinton emails and, in doing so, challenged those who had praised Rosenstein’s reputation for fairmindedness.
How could anyone have done a thorough investigation into Comey in two weeks? After all, it took Trump 18 days to fire Michael Flynn after Yates had told the White House that he could possibly be subject to blackmail by the Russians.
That’s the truth Republicans must now face. If you didn’t think Trump was out of control before, when he was simply blasting federal judges and trying to ban Muslims and calling Obama a sick and bad man, what can you think now? For Republicans, the question is where is today’s Howard Baker or today’s Elliott Richardson. Are they all in the same hidey hole with Cory Gardner as the chaos plays out all around them?
You can’t ignore the fact Trump was so inept in dismissing the FBI director that he gave away the game in the second paragraph of his bizarre letter to Comey: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
Trump never mentioned Clinton in his letter, of course. Instead, there was Trump’s insistence — also not very credible — that Comey had cleared him. Do you think Trump is in the clear in the Russia investigation? CNN has reported that federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas of Flynn business associates. And that’s just for starters.
Now that Comey has been fired, that favorite Watergate word — cover-up — is on everyone’s lips. And, in firing Comey, Trump has ensured that the calls for a special prosecutor will grow so loud that it will be hard for America’s most prominent TV news addict to hear anything else.
Photo courtesy of FBI, via Flickr: Creative Commons
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