Posts Tagged ‘James Comey’

The Thinker

Much worse than Watergate

Our Chinese curse of living in interesting times continues. These days are truly extraordinary, although it may be hard for many Americans to see it. Our republic hangs in the balance on what happens over the next days, weeks and months.

It’s easy even for me to get caught up in the political drama of the moment, most recently the #ReleasetheMemo controversy. What’s harder to see is the big picture and how our republic is becoming increasingly tenuous. We are moving quickly toward an authoritarian state.

The #ReleasetheMemo controversy, with the said memo now officially released, allowed Republicans and Trump to release highly classified information to make the most tenuous possible case that the FBI and Justice Department is out to get Donald Trump. (A curious case to make since it is a department full of Republicans and has always had Republican FBI directors.) Releasing this memo also exposes sensitive intelligence sources and methods, which the Justice Department has said may result in people getting killed. You would think that this would give those approving this memo some pause, but not at all. Trump broadcast his approval of the memo even before even reading it. It’s not clear he actually has read it, as he has zero attention span.

How crazy is this conspiracy theory? Let Chuck Todd, host of NBC’s Meet the Press explain it:

Why Trump would do this is obvious: he’s trying to escape justice. It is now abundantly clear that minimally he and many on his team have obstructed justice. It’s also abundantly clear that Russia has the goods on him. Trump admitted as much after he fired former FBI director James Comey: he said it took the Russian heat off him. He wants to make this whole “Russian thing” go away.

The memo gives him the pretext to remove Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein oversees the Mueller investigation. Mueller’s report will never see the light of day if Rosenstein is gone and Trump’s own lackey is in charge. So I expect Rosenstein will soon be fired. Mueller doesn’t have to be fired, but Trump will probably require his replacement to fire him anyhow. Trump will not allow himself to be held accountable for his actions. He never has and never will. Escaping justice is all he cares about.

A side effect though would be to make the Justice Department partisan and for it to lose its independence. Think about what this means. The Justice Department and the FBI in particular are our primary means of enforcing the law of the land. If they didn’t do this, you don’t have justice. At best you get very selective justice.

And Congress, at least almost all Republicans in Congress, are all for this. That was the whole point of #ReleasetheMemo. Congress is supposed to execute oversight of the Executive Branch. What we got now is just the opposite: Congress is aiding and abetting the White House and abdicating its role in oversight, in particular its oversight in making sure the Justice Department operates impartially.

So for the first time ever both Congress and the Administration don’t want the Justice Department to actually impartially administer justice. I was about fifteen when Watergate broke, and this didn’t happen during Watergate. It’s true that Democrats controlled Congress, but once Republicans realized the scope of Watergate they worked with Democrats to hold Nixon accountable. Now it is just the opposite.

This should not be surprising. Republicans are just following through on a long-executed playbook. Their goal is to end democracy and our republican government. In 2016 we not only elected Trump, but we also disenfranchised millions of voters. If these voters could have voted most likely would have kept Trump out of office. Republicans worked overtime to reduce the share of minorities and poor people who were allowed to vote. They aggressively purged voter roles.

Of course it’s not just limiting voting that Republicans worked at, but also at populating the judiciary with conservative judges, “strict constructionists”. So we pretty much have one party control now: Republicans control Congress, the White House and effectively the Judiciary, at least the Supreme Court. In Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down much of the Voting Rights Act, we watched conservative justices aid and abet the process of disenfranchising voters. One of Trump and Congress’s major tasks has been to put more conservatives in the judiciary by filling openings denied to Barack Obama during his presidency.

When you have a Justice Department that won’t administer justice; when you have a White House actively trying to keep the Justice Department from administering justice and setting it up so that it can’t do so in the future; when you have a Congress aiding and abetting by blocking the administration of justice; and when you have a court system that increasingly won’t uphold justice uniformly, you have a complete perversion of our form of government.

You have in effect removed the checks and balances from our system of government. We end up with a republican form of government in name only. Moreover, we set the conditions for authoritarian government instead.

That’s what we are up against at the moment. In the past I had faith in the American people to rectify the problem, which hopefully they will do in this year’s midterms. But our voting system is badly frayed due to gerrymandering and voter suppression. Depending how the Supreme Court rules in two gerrymandering cases it is considering this year, it could make our voting system even more disenfranchising. And we are also deeply polarized voting for our tribe rather than in the best interest of the country.

It’s abundantly clear that Republicans only want the “right” person to vote, which largely means only “white” people. We have a president who is openly racist. We have a Republican Congress that is pretty much the same way. The #ReleasetheMemo controversy shows just how far extreme Republicans will go on this issue. They will put party before country, not just a little bit but by taking a mile instead of an inch. There is no bridge too far for them as long as they can hold on to power. Democracy and republican government don’t mean anything to them. They are not patriots.

All this is going on right under our noses but it is hard for many of us to see the full scale of the wreckage they are unleashing. True patriots will of course protest and work hard to change this. Republicans though have gotten so skilled at manipulating the system to favor only them that it’s unclear if anything short of a new revolution can actually restore democracy. Arguably, we don’t have it anymore.

The Thinker

One year of Trump: it’s beginning to look a little Stormy (Daniels) out there

It’s hard to believe we are a year into the Trump presidency already. In one sense Trump has succeeded: he has kept the conversation on himself. It’s what he wants from a presidency since if you are a narcissist this is how you measure success.

Trump does have a strength of sorts: he intuitively knows when to spin toward another topic when something in his life becomes too uncomfortable. Like sheep the media go along because they are always looking for something new and shiny to report, and his Twitter feed provides plenty of this kind of fodder. So when he decides to rant about Hillary Clinton again that becomes their topic of focus, rather than whatever brouhaha he was being criticized about.

A year of a Trump presidency has however clarified a lot of things. He is exactly the man we Democrats said he was during the campaign. In many ways he’s proven worse that our worst fears. The one area where he has (so far) assuaged my fears was that he did get us into a new war. Trump seems to realize that this is a red line he should not cross, mainly because it will come back to bite him bigly. But it is consistent with a man who is 100% bluster.

During the filming of The Apprentice he fired people right and left. That was all for show. The show was entirely scripted. In real life Trump doesn’t fire anyone, at least face to face. Basically Trump is a coward. He wanted his White House Counsel to fire Bob Mueller, the special counsel looking into potential crimes against him. When his counsel refused to do it on threat of resignation, he backed down. Reince Priebus (his first chief of staff) was fired with a tweet while he was out of the White House. Former FBI director James Comey was fired with a letter hand carried by an assistant to his office. Trump was so clueless he had no idea that Comey was on the west coast. So at least we now know that Trump is like the Wizard of Oz: just a man behind the curtain generating a lot of smoke.

It’s also clear that we have a man-child as our president. The best analogy I can come up with is that Trump is a grown up version of Calvin (from the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes.) In some ways though Calvin is more mature. Trump never left his terrible twos. This makes him utterly transparent. Just as a parent can read their child’s inner mind effortlessly, so can the nation read our president with ease. The only ones having trouble at it are those who voted for him. They see things like greatness in him that simply doesn’t exist. And they will excuse any behavior rather than face their own cognitive dissonance that they voted for this wreck of a man.

For example, there’s the latest Stormy Daniels controversy. It’s clear that Trump had an affair with the busty porn star about the time Melania gave birth in 2006. Trump of course denies it all. But there are three curious aspects of this affair that let you know it’s real:

  • In the Intouch Weekly interview, Stormy’s says they had sex, but not “porn sex”, just the unprotected kind. More tellingly in the interview she related Trump’s fear of sharks, something no one would know who had not spent a lot of time with him.
  • There is the picture of the two of them together.
  • The most damning proof is that when the allegations came out, Trump’s lawyers immediately issued a disclaimer from Stormy Daniels denying the affair. That’s right; Trump’s lawyers had this on file ready to issue the moment it came out.

No matter. His supporters and particularly the evangelical community seem happy to excuse him of this infidelity, one of many. They’ve excused plenty of other stuff too completely at odds with the morals they claim to follow. They are convinced the Lord is working in mysterious ways with Trump.

Trump has the attention span of a gnat and can’t remember a key point hammered in by an aide just minutes earlier. He constantly changes his mind because he can’t remember what his position used to be. The Washington Post documented more than 2000 lies and misstatements in his first year in office alone. Trump’s default response is to lie and he does it effortlessly and without thinking. He clearly does not feeling guilty about it. He doesn’t feel either guilt or shame. He can’t be trusted about anything, which is why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says negotiating with Trump is like negotiating with Jello.

Trump though can be mendacious. He’s a pretty effective agent of chaos. He consistently appoints people uniquely unqualified for the positions they serve, but who are nonetheless capable of crippling institutions in their charge. This is because Trump is good at finding reprehensible people, as it takes one to know one. In general his appointees show contempt for the institutions they serve, dislike the people in their agencies, work to pervert its missions they are supposed to champion and are prone toward corruption. Some agencies are better than others at resisting the will of their new leaders. The courts are proving reasonably effective at restraining the worst of Trump’s impulses. Unquestionably though our constitutional system is under immense strain.

It’s also clear that Republicans don’t care about rule of law, at least when they are in charge. Whatever means are necessary to achieve their ends are fine by them. So they certainly won’t be impeaching Trump. I figured they probably would a year ago, but then I had more confidence in the integrity of Republicans than they have shown. It will take a wave election in 2018 to hold Trump accountable, and it’s clear that Republicans are pulling out all stops to discount their likely losses.

We can at least hope but not expect that 2018 will be less crazy than 2017. Given Trump’s track record though it’s a wan hope at best. So keep those seat belts buckled, passengers.

The Thinker

Trump is likely to meet the 25th amendment

Like most of America, it’s hard for me to turn my eyes away from the disastrous Donald Trump presidency. On May 19 I noted that every day of his presidency was worse and more unbelievable than the day before. Here it is June 7, and it’s still if not more the case. Tomorrow the excessively sober former FBI Director James Comey gets his turn to openly add to the huge pile of evidence that Trump obstructed justice. Comey’s initial statement is already online. My wife plans to pop some popcorn and watch it live.

Trump is everywhere and most lately has been infecting my dreams. As a classic narcissist, Trump is probably happy about this. The details of the dream are a little sketchy, but somehow I’m in a room with Donald Trump. Like Trump with Angela Merkel (who in his trip the other week told Trump eleven times he can’t negotiate a trade pact with Germany, but only the European Union) I find myself keep saying the same stuff to him and it just does not register.

How does this end? On May 29, I said it wasn’t going to end well, and that’s truer now than ever. I am more convinced than ever that he won’t see out his term, but I am less convinced that he will resign hastily and testily. While that has been his pattern, Trump seems to be going into full bunker mode. Nothing is more precious than his insatiable ego and his conviction that he can never do wrong. You can see it in fine display with his weird tweet the other night where typoed a new word: covfefe. Any other human being would follow it up with a tweet that, oops, he mistyped. Trump misspells all the time, but simply can’t admit this baffling typo so he tried to make a joke out of it. He can’t admit that he has any human frailties. Darn it, he meant to use covfefe and it’s your problem if you don’t understand it.

Trump has already passed Nixon’s “smoking gun” test. This was the evidence that ended in his resignation. Trump has admitted that he fired Comey in part because of “this Russian thing”, which clearly meant Comey investigating potential links between the Russians and his campaign. By all reasonable and lawyerly standards, Trump has obstructed justice, which independent special counsel Robert Mueller will doubtless charge Trump with in time. Trump wanted Comey to drop any investigations into his short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. He pressed others in positions of power to do the same thing.

Why did he do it? Here’s the scary part. Nixon did it because he was mendacious. Nixon knew better but assumed it would remain a little Oval Office secret. But Nixon went to law school. Trump’s education consists of a bachelor’s degree from Wharton. One hopes he had a civics class or two in school, but obviously not much of it took hold. Trump asked these inappropriate and illegal questions mostly because he didn’t know he shouldn’t. Of course this is the way you do things, was probably what amounted to his rationalization. I’m the president. I am in charge. What I say goes. The idea that the president is accountable to the law and the constitution seems to never entered his brain, even though he swore to do both when he took the oath of office. He doesn’t get this. Frankly, he doesn’t understand the job he signed up for.

Trump was qualified to be president only in the sense that he was native born, age 35 or older and got a majority of votes in the Electoral College. He is clearly not mentally qualified to hold the office though because he has shown no competence in faithfully serving the office.

Which is why I now think his most likely exit will be via the 25th amendment. Republicans will find it convenient not to impeach him as long as it is in their political interest not to do so. Considering that so many of their constituents voted for him there’s plenty of incentive to overlook his dangerous eccentricities via impeachment and conviction. Republicans are tribal in nature. More than ninety percent of them will vote for any Republican on the ticket, no matter how bad or unqualified they happen to be, which proved true in the last election despite Trump’s known problems and temperament. Nixon found out that things do change very quickly. If consensus develops that Republicans in Congress realize they (and their jobs) are better off with him gone, the will should be there. My brother is betting October 15, 2017 is that date. We’ll see.

Me, I’m now betting on the 25th amendment solution. The amendment, adopted in 1967 and amended in 1992 basically says the president can be temporarily removed from office if the vice president and at least half of the cabinet agree that he is unable to discharge his duties. There is plenty of evidence to this already. For example, he’s more than four months into his administration and his government is about 5% staffed. To my way of thinking you are certainly unable to discharge the duties of the presidency if you just don’t understand what they are. If you aren’t aware that your job is to enforce the law as it exists, you cannot faithfully discharge the duties of the presidency. If you aren’t smart enough to know that you can’t ask the FBI director to compromise his required independence from Executive Branch coercion, you can’t discharge your duties. These of course are but a few examples that show that Trump is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the presidency.

It’s also the way Republicans can get rid of his toxic presidency with the least political damage. Which is why I believe that there are already all sorts of backdoor conversations going on amongst Trump’s cabinet and Vice President Mike Pence on whether, but more likely how and when to take this unprecedented step. Trump can of course declare that no inability exists. Congress gets 21 days to decide if Trump is incapable of discharging the duties of presidency adequately. A vote of at least two thirds of both the House and the Senate would remove him from office and we’d have President Pence.

Mental health experts could certainly be called to testify. It would not be hard to make a case that Trump’s excessive narcissism is a mental illness, one probably that cannot be cured, and the illness affects his ability to discharge the duties of the presidency. They could even call Trump to testify in his own defense. Just ask him a few fundamental questions about the duties of the president. There is plenty of evidence already that makes an airtight case. Republicans could use this as the cover they need because it’s irrefutable.

For the sake of the nation we can only hope this happens sooner rather than later.

The Thinker

Do we have a constitutional crisis now?

Last November before Donald Trump assumed office I opined that it wouldn’t be long before we had a constitutional crisis. It wasn’t a hard call to make and I was hardly alone is predicting how his administration was likely to unfold. Tuesday’s abrupt firing of FBI Director James Comey though seemed to suggest to many that our constitutional crisis has at last arrived.

Since taking office, Trump has fired three prominent officials with Comey being the latest. All firings relate to potential collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. First up was Sally Yates, who Trump fired on January 30th. She was the acting Attorney General at the time, a holdover from the Obama administration but actually an acting Attorney General for a time during the Bush administration. She had the dubious job of running the department until Jeff Sessions was confirmed.

We learned from her testimony last week that less than a week into the Trump administration she urgently warned the White House counsel that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, had lied to Vice President Pence and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. She was fired supposedly for refusing to defend Trump’s executive order on immigration in court but that it came days after this warning to Trump’s counsel seems more than coincidental.

Next was Michael Flynn. He lasted until February 13; eighteen days after Yates first discreetly sounded the alarm. There were so many red flags around Flynn even before he joined the White House it’s amazing that Trump would be so clueless as to pick him. He had failed to register as a foreign agent even though he earned millions working with Russian interests in areas as sensitive as Russian infiltration into eastern Ukraine. President Obama fired him for bad judgment while director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Moreover Obama specifically warned Trump not to hire him. Now we also know that Sally Yates warned the White House as well. Interesting.

And now it’s FBI Director James Comey’s turn. He was fired allegedly because of his handling of the Clinton emails, handling that Trump specifically approved of and cheered on during the campaign. A long report by the Washington Post yesterday makes clear that Trump’s real motivation was that Comey was looking into connections between Trump and the Russian government. He wanted Comey to be looking into White House leaks instead. We also learned yesterday from the Post that Comey had petitioned the Justice Department for additional resources for the probe shortly before being fired.

So there have been three prominent firings by Trump so far and all were key actors involved in exposing potential Trump-Russian connections. It’s getting hard for anyone to credibly claim these actions don’t amount to obstruction of justice. This is why Democrats in particular want an independent special prosecutor to thoroughly investigate these allegations. Comey’s removal certainly slows any investigation. His replacement may stop the investigation altogether.

And who gets to nominate his replacement? Trump, of course, who will seek guidance from Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions was apparently instrumental in his firing, despite supposedly having recused himself from all matters related to Trump’s Russian connections.

What’s amazing is how brazen all of this is. Those of us with long memories will recall President Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. Nixon first ordered his attorney general Elliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, an independent prosecutor tasked to investigate Watergate. Richardson resigned instead. Nixon then ordered deputy attorney general William Ruckelshaus to do it, who also resigned. Next in line was Robert Bork (who was later nominated to be a Supreme Court justice). Bork did the deed and it probably cost him a seat on the court. A federal judge eventually determined that Cox’s firing was illegal. Just two weeks after the “massacre” Nixon resigned. No doubt many Americans are hoping Trump will follow Nixon’s timeline.

Nixon was at least politically savvy. One thing that is abundantly clear about Trump is that he is not. Moreover, with a few exceptions he’s populated his administration with people of similar disqualifications. The few with qualifications (Pence and Priebus) don’t seem to have the courage or ability to get Trump to weigh the political costs of his actions. This of course exacerbates Trump’s problems, giving the impression that he is digging his own political grave. His naivety is pretty staggering and he doesn’t seem to learn from his mistakes. Then there is the optics. The day after firing Comey he invited the Russian foreign minister, Russian ambassador and Nixon’s controversial secretary of state Henry Kissinger to the White House!

Forty years ago we weathered a similar crisis. It’s unclear whether we will this time. It all depends on the strength of character of key Republicans in Congress. In the 1970s Republicans were capable of putting country above party. The way these things usually evolve gives me hope, because when the politics of defending and excusing Trump become untenable for Republicans own reelection, tables can turn quickly. There is no consensus yet but doubtless many Republicans are weighing their own political calculations on when to jump ship. Forty years ago though districts were not so heavily gerrymandered. This suggests that there are more than two weeks left in a Trump administration.

It’s clear to me that by trying to make his political problems go away through firing people, Trump only makes them worse. If there were nothing to Trump-Russia connections then he would have no reason to be concerned, as nothing would tie him to it. Clearly though there is, which suggests to me that Trump eventually will suffer Nixon’s fate. Given his stubbornness, it may take impeachment, conviction and bodily removal by the Secret Service. In a way I’m hoping for the latter. Watching his bloated form being tossed outside the front gate of the White House would be quite a site for the ages.

The Thinker

Clinton’s Halloween electoral surprise

Yes, it was pretty surprising last Friday when FBI Director James Comey seemed to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Agents apparently found emails on a device used by former congressman Anthony Weiner, you know Mr. Sexting that may be related to the FBI’s probe of Clinton’s private email server. It surprised me on many levels:

  • That Comey thought this was worthy of announcing. None of the emails were actually from Clinton or originated on her server.
  • That they were found on Weiner’s device. My guess is that his wife at the time, close Clinton confidant Huma Abedin needed to do some remote office stuff, and borrowed his computer.
  • That Comey went ahead and made the announcement in spite of being warned by many in the Justice Department and from people on his own staff not to do so.
  • That he was apparently unmindful, or did not care, that doing so would open him to a violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from interfering with elections.

In any event, it was a well-timed Halloween surprise, and maybe that October surprise against Clinton that apparently Wikileaks didn’t get around to. It managed to dominate the news all weekend. It predictably had Republicans both outraged and cheering an anticipated political effect. A poll suggested that Trump was now leading Clinton in the crucial swing state of Florida. And of course Donald Trump was busy making false comparisons, ludicrously saying this was “worse than Watergate”. Umm, in what universe is the possibility that there might be some unknown and classified email related to the Clinton email investigation remotely similar to a constitutional crisis? It isn’t of course, but it does feed the Republican narrative that the secretive Hillary Clinton recklessly propagated classified email on insecure servers.

The real question is whether this will affect the election in eight days. Some polls show a tightening of the race. If you look at the polls though the tightening is easily explained: Republicans who had qualms about Donald Trump are coming home. The same is true with Democrats, which is why Green Party candidate Jill Stein’s modest numbers are also dropping. So the polls are now showing Clinton with a 3 to 5 percent advantage over Trump, kind of where we were six months ago.

Undoubtedly there are some truly undecided voters out there and this may push them closer toward Trump and away from Clinton. There are so few of these though that it really makes little difference and by themselves they can’t sway this election. It does make some swing states less swingy, possibly erasing Clinton’s advantages in Ohio and Florida. What it doesn’t look likely to do is fundamentally change the dynamics of the race. To change it a whole lot of Democrats have to dump Hillary and that’s unlikely to happen. And that’s unlikely because this is a national election and turnout is likely to be high.

Trump can hope this demoralizes Democrats so they don’t vote but more likely it will enthuse the anti-Clinton Republicans who otherwise can’t stomach Trump and were planning to sit this one out. He’s also pretty clearly hoping that he can get his people to show up in minority neighborhoods to intimidate Democratic voters. BTW, by openly calling for this a federal judge may keep in place a consent decree against the Republican National Committee in place since the early 1980s when Republicans last tried this tactic. It is scheduled to expire next year.

So there is small chance that this will do much to change Hillary’s election, but it may make the electoral win smaller. It may energize Republicans and demoralize Democrats, suppressing the vote in legal ways, which could have some bad consequences for Democrats, perhaps not winning the Senate and making fewer gains in House races. This would make it much harder for President Hillary Clinton to govern.

However, all the absentee and early voting already underway mitigates this. By some estimates 20% of voters have already voted. If you are worried about intimidation at the polls, early voting is the way to avoid it, as many minority voters are discovering. Comparing early voting patterns this year with 2012 generally shows more Democrats are voting early than Republicans. Among them: me. I voted last Tuesday because I will be traveling on Election Day.

Clinton was always unlikely to trigger a wave election. A week ago it was looking that way because Trump kept digging his hole further, leaving him with only core supporters voting for him. A wave may still happen, but now it’s looking more like a 5-8 point Clinton win, still very impressive, assuming there are no more newsworthy events to rock either campaign. Clinton should easily top 300 electoral votes. I suspect she will be closer to 350 than 300. We’ll see soon enough.


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