Saturday, May 13, 2017

The mess Trump's made of "Comey-gate"

Head-spinningly dysfunctional, the Trump White House piles one self-inflicted disaster on top of another, each more damaging than the last.   Right now, the press is dealing with Comeygate, a subset of Russiagate.  Underlying the importance of all is the threat to our democracy, our balance of powers, and the very Constitution itself.    Here's what some pundits are saying:
A distinguished trio of legal and ethical scholars, Laurence Tribe, Richard Painter, and Norman Eisen, (USA Today).
". . . What the president did . . . . was a challenge to the very premises of our system of checks and balances precisely because it violated no mere letter of the law but its essential spirit. No one, not even a president, is above the law. . . . 

", , , [I]t is exceedingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is seeking to cover up wrongdoing . . . ; that he is prepared to lie . . . to perpetrate just such a coverup;  and that the wrongdoing . . . is nothing minor or of merely tangential relevance to his office but, on the contrary, may involve collaboration with our Russian adversaries in attacking our democracy at its core."

From an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, President Trump gave his version of a dinner meeting with FBI Director James Comey shortly after the inauguration.  Trump told Holt that Comey requested the meeting to let him know of his wish to continue in his job.   Trump says he asked Comey during the dinner conversation whether he (Trump) was personally under investigation, and Comey told him he was not.  Trump also said this exchange occurred twice more, in two subsequent phone calls;  and both times he asked, Comey told him he was not the subject of investigation.  That's Trump's version.

From speaking with associates of Comey, who feel free to speak on his behalf now that he is no longer with the FBI, Michael Schmidt of the New York Times reports Comey's version:  One week after Trump's inauguration, Comey was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner with the new president.    During that dinner, which appears to be the same one Trump referenced, Comey told his close associates that Trump asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty to him.  Comey explained to the president that the country would be best served by an independent FBI and Justice Department.   He told Trump that he would pledge his honesty, but he would not pledge loyalty to him in the conventional political sense.  Trump was not happy with this answer and later pressed him further for a pledge of loyalty.  Comey would go no further than giving his "honest loyalty."

James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, has identified himself as one that Comey confided in about that dinner invitation -- because Comey was uneasy about it.   He referred to it as "being summoned" to the White House and did not want to go but felt he had to.   Clapper said Comey did not want to create the appearance of compromising the integrity of the FBI.   Schmidt also quotes other sources Comey talked with as saying it would have been totally out of character for Comey, as well as FBI tradition, for Comey to talk with a president about whether he was being investigated.   None of them think the president's version is credible.

Oh, and by the way, this is the first I've heard this:   Schmidt reports that this dinner was held on January 27th, the night after Acting AG Sally Yates warned the White House Counsel about Michael Flynn's vulnerability to blackmail by the Russians.   What interesting timing for the president to request a pledge of loyalty from his FBI Director.


From Alex Ward at Vox News:  In the Lester Holt NBC interview, Trump essentially admitted that he had "fired Comey over the Russia investigation."   He also acknowledged asking Comey on three different occasions whether he was personally being investigated, and (according to Trump, although it's a dubious claim) that Comey had told him he was not.   Trump has retaliated by calling Comey a "showboat" and a "grandstander" on national television;  and he sent out a tweet that Comey had better hope that there is not a tape of their conversation, a not so thinly veiled threat.

Arguably, there are grounds here for charging that the president's firing Comey and threats constitute obstruction of justice and abuse of power -- which could be enough for impeachment.

Jim Hoagland at the Washington Post wrote that:  "The Trump presidency now poses an existential threat to many of American's most vital institutions.  He has tried to tear down to his own tawdry level the intelligence community, the FBI, the media and the federal judiciary"

Dean of American senior journalists, Dan Rather, who covered the Watergate scandal, wrote this:  "Future generations may mark today as one of the dark days in American history, a history that may soon take an even more ominous turn.   President Trump's sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey . . . should concern every American.  The independence of our law enforcement is at the bedrock of our democracy."

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