Saturday, May 20, 2017

Breaking News: It feels like the dam is just about to break.

1.  Comey will testify in open session for the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 29th.

2.  Back during the campaign, sources have told CNN, Russians bragged that they had cultivated a relationship with Michael Flynn that would allow them to use him to influence Donald Trump.

3.  The New York Times reported more of Trump's Oval Office conversation with the Russians.   According to their sources, "Trump told Russian officials that he felt 'great pressure because of Russia' that he said was taken off when he fired FBI Director Comey."    Leaving aside the incriminating content, that is not the tone or the kind of language that you would use with foreign officials, unless you already had a collusive relationship with them.

4.  The Washington Post also had a shocker:   They reported that federal investigators are looking at a senior White House official as a "significant person of interest" who is "close to the president."  Speculation is that it's Jared Kushner, since he had an undisclosed meeting with the head of the Putin-controlled state bank.

5.  Sources say that Deputy AG Rosenstein is the one who told senators that the FBI investigation is now also looking into a possible cover-up.    They have a lot to work with, just in the news yesterday.

6.  Jennifer Williams has just written a piece for titled:  "The 'Muslim ban' president is about to give a speech on Islam.   In Saudi Arabia.   What could go wrong?"   It's being written by aide Stephen Miller, one of the architects of Trump's "Muslim ban," who also has a long history of espousing anti-Muslim views.   Right, what could possibly go wrong?

And the next day Trump goes to Israel.   And then on to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis.   Then G7 and NATO.  There are so many opportunities for a gaffe, a display of ignorance, an insensitivity.    What genius decided this was a good way to introduce Trump on the world stage?


More "cover-up" behavior from the WH

If these reports are correct, then I believe that Donald Trump has just acknowledged guilt over something, either himself or others on his behalf.

It was already a serious question of why Trump is acting like he is guilty, if he is not.   And why is he covering up, if there's nothing to hide?   (See recent blogs).

Trump's comments have been aimed at undermining the appointment of a special counsel.   And now "two people with knowledge of White House thinking" have told reporters that "Within hours of Mueller's appointment . . . the White House began reviewing the Code of Federal Regulations, which restricts newly hired government lawyers from investigating their prior law firm's clients for one year after their hiring. . . .  An executive order signed by Trump in January extended that period to two years."

Hmmm.   That's interesting.  Wonder why he signed that back in January?   An Executive Order has to be thought up and written for some reason.  What were they anticipating?

Mueller's former law firm, from which he resigned on accepting this appointment, represents Jared Kushner, who met with a Russian bank executive in December, and Paul Manafort, who we know is subject of a federal investigation.   Mueller was not himself involved with either of those clients.

Legal experts say that this rule can be waived by the Justice Department, but it is not known at this point whether that was done in setting up the appointment.  But Mueller is too smart not to have thought of this -- unless he possibly did not know about his firm representing Kushner.   That's unlikely, isn't it?

This adds weight to the speculation that the "person of interest" who is "close to Trump" is indeed Jared Kushner.

Stay tuned.

"Firing Comey Is Worse Than Breaking the Law" -- constitutional scholar and ethicist

Three sharp legal and ethical thinkers -- Laurence Tribe, Richard Painter, and Norman Eisen -- presented an interesting perspective on the firing of FBI Director Comey.  It appeared in USA Today over a week ago.   So much has come out since then, new blockbuster news every day;  but the underlying thinking is still relevant. 

"If President Trump’s shockingly sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey had violated some statute or constitutional provision, our judicial branch could easily have remedied that misstep. What the president did was worse. It 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. And thus no public official, high or petty, can simply fire those our system trusts to investigate and remedy that official’s possible bribery, treason, or other disloyalty to the nation.

"As virtually every observer not beholden to this president has recognized, the excuses offered in his “You’re Fired” letter to Comey were laughably pretextual. . . .  At this point, it is exceedingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president is seeking to cover up wrongdoing on his own part and/or on the part of various close associates; that he is prepared to lie to government officials and to the world about the reasons for actions evidently designed to perpetrate just such a coverup; and that the wrongdoing the president is seeking to conceal 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.

"Whether the president’s clumsy and seemingly ill-thought-out steps will backfire is impossible to predict. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had promised to recuse himself from all Justice Department matters involving Russian interference with our election, but waded right into the middle of the decision to discharge Comey. Perhaps Sessions will step aside while Rosenstein attempts to redeem himself for his role in the pretense that Comey was fired over missteps in the Clinton email probe. The deputy attorney general could do it by appointing an independent special counsel.     [which he has now done]

"But the constraints under which such a special counsel would have to operate under current law, and the constitutional subservience of any such counsel to the president as head of the executive branch, are a prescription for a replay of an ugly drama: President Nixon fired two attorneys general before finding someone (Robert Bork) willing to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox — only to be pressured into appointing another special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who ended up being as determined and unshakable as Cox.

[RR note:   This was written before the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel was made.   The stellar reputation of Mr. Mueller is such that discharging him would be so fraught politically -- in addition to the fact that Trump could not simply fire Mueller directly;  he could order Rosenstein to fire him, and he could refuse to do so.   Then Trump would have to fire Rosenstein -- just like the Nixonian Saturday Night Massacre.   In short, it's possible, but Trump is unlikely to survive it.]

"The other main path is through Congress. Lawmakers are obviously unprepared just yet to initiate impeachment proceedings, but they may be coming closer to creating a bipartisan select committee to carry out the investigation Trump was evidently determined to keep the FBI from conducting. Indeed, even without a new committee, just three Republican senators joining with Democrats can give subpoena power to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into what some are calling Russiagate. Then at least one possibly credible body not subject to the president’s discharge power would be on the hunt for the real story of why Trump fired the main investigator on his trail and precisely what he has been trying to hide.

"In the end, the most important task is to credibly track down the details of the global financial entanglements that have ensnared this administration from the outset, and that have led to litigation against Trump under the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution. That is likely the key to unlocking the mystery of what underlying conduct is so terrible that the Trump administration is willing to tie itself into knots and disgrace itself on the world stage to conceal its conduct.

"Given the bizarre unwillingness of the president to say anything unflattering about Russian President Vladimir Putin, and given his readiness to keep Michael Flynn on as national security adviser for a full 18 days after being warned that Flynn could be subject to blackmail by Putin and his thugs, the truth could lie in what Donald Trump Jr. described in 2008 as all the “money pouring in from Russia,” which he said makes up "a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets … in terms of high-end product influx into the U.S.”

"The most troubling scenario is that the money is closely tied to the Putin government itself and is part of a web of reciprocal relationships between Trump and Putin, which included a collaborative effort to place Trump in the Oval Office.
It hardly needs saying that this explanation, if true, would necessarily lead to the impeachment, conviction and removal of President Trump — assuming the requisite political backbone on the part of the House and Senate. Let us fervently hope that it need not come to this, and that some more innocent explanation will emerge for the truly bizarre developments of the past 100-plus days and counting."

Laurence Tribe is the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. Richard Painter, vice chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School, was chief White House ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007. Norman Eisen, chair of CREW and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, was the chief White House ethics lawyer from 2009 to 2011. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Opportunity . . . and huge risk

An unnamed Republican strategist discussed with HuffWorldPost the opportunity and the huge risks of President Trump's upcoming trip (leaving Friday) to meet with Saudi, Israeli, and Palestinian leaders.   He will meet with NATO leaders, a G7 group, and with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

The strategist said, "“This is their time to shine, to show Americans and the world that the White House isn’t becoming a circus of errors.”

The flip side of that is that it is also a risky time that might, instead, show Act III of the White House circus.   Trump has such a paltry understanding in depth of the complexity of international affairs -- and here he will be talking about virtually half of the world's problems in one trip.   

Further, his limitations make it difficult for staff and experts to educate him.   Staff speak about him as you would a child with learning disabilities.   He won't (or can't) read briefing books, with his five-minute attention span.  He insists on one-page summaries and then thinks he knows all he needs to know, crediting his brilliance with allowing him to absorb it all quickly.   Then he goes out and makes stupid mistakes that an entry-level staff aide would not make.  Staff describe how they make sure to include his name as often as possible in written briefs, since he tends to read only paragraphs that mention his name.

Frankly, if this is all true -- and there is no evidence to suggest it is not -- then I believe this is enough in itself to invoke removal from office under the 25th Amendment that justifies removal on the basis that a president is unable to carry out the duties of the office.   The problem:   the VP and a majority of his cabinet members have to say so, and it's got to get a lot worse before that happens.


"Impeccable" choice for special counsel.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has appointed veteran lawyer and former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel for the case of Russian interference in our electoral process, the possibility of collusion by the Trump campaign associates, and other related matters that may come up during the investigation.   He has a broad commission to follow the evidence where it leads.    He can issue subpoenas and will be able to bring indictments.  FBI staff  currently working on the investigation will continue working on it, and Mueller will be able to bring in others as needed.

Mueller was originally chosen to head the FBI in 2001 by President George W. Bush for a 10 year term.   When his term ended, then president Barack Obama asked him to extend his tenure for another two years, in order to ensure continuity in law enforcement while two other heads of related agencies were changing at the same time.

Mueller's appointment has evoked nearly universal praise and even excitement -- "a breath of fresh air" is how one person described it.  Several highly involved people have said that they could not think of a better choice.   "Impeccable" is a word often heard, both to describe the choice as well as Mueller's qualifications and his integrity.

The White House was not notified until after Rosenstein had signed the letter of appointment, and a heads-up call to the White House was made less than an hour before the public announcement.

A statement soon after the announcement from Trump said: "A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."

However, a later tweet sent out by Trump called the appointment of a special counsel "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history."


Thursday, May 18, 2017

What's to be done about Trump?

Liberals and progressives have considered Donald Trump unsuited to be president from way back during the campaign.   Some of his opponents in the Republican primary said the same thing.  But now we're getting a broader range, even some Republicans in congress who talk about it in private.  Sen. John McCain, who has already called for a select committee to investigate, said on Tuesday night that "it's reaching the point where it's of Watergate size and scope."

Even before the latest debacles, the conservative writer and radio host Erick Erickson, of "RedState" fame, wrote for his "The Resurgent" blog that he usually takes Trump stories with a grain of salt that get overblown by the liberal media.   But then he continued:

"What sets this story apart for me, at least, is that I know one of the sources . . . [who is] solidly supportive of President Trump, or at least was . . . .   But the President will not take any internal criticism, no matter how politely it is given.  He does not want advice, cannot be corrected, and is too insecure to see any constructive feedback as anything other than an attack.

"So some of the sources are left with no other option but to go to the media, leak the story, and hope that the intense blowback gives the President a swift kick in the butt.   Perhaps then he will recognize he screwed up.  The President cares vastly more about what the press says than what his advisers say . . . .

"I am told that what the President did [leaking to the Russians] is actually far worse than what is being reported.  The President does not seem to realize or appreciate that his bragging can undermine relationships with our allies and with human intelligence sources.   He also does not seem to appreciate that his loose lips can get valuable assets in the field killed. . . .

"This is a real problem and I treat this story very seriously because I know just how credible, competent, and serious -- as well as seriously pro-Trump, at least one of these sources is."

Let me repeat for emphasis:   This comes from Erick Erickson, a conservative radio host and blogger, who knows one of the sources of the leak about Trump spilling secrets to the Russians and who has been a big Trump supporter -- who now is painting a negative picture of the president from an insider position.

Another, even more chilling description comes from another conservative, the respected New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who had already written three days before about Trump's unfitness for the presidency;  but he concluded at that time that, since Republicans in Congress had already made their peace with his deficiencies, they were not likely to do anything about it, unless he did something much worse.

Now, he has done something much worse.  Douthat wrote again, exerpts below, for his New York Times column.

"The presidency is not just another office.   It has become . . . a seat of semi-monoarchical political power . . . and the final stopping point for decisions that can lead very swiftly to life or death for people the world over. . . . 

"One needs some basic attributes:  a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control. . . .  Trump is seemingly deficient in them all. . . .

"There is . . . a basic childishness to the man who now occupies the presidency.  That is the simplest way of understanding what has come tumbling into light in the last few days:   The presidency now has kinglike qualities, and we have a child on the throne.   It is a child who blurts out classified information in order to impress distinguished visitors.   It is a child who asks the head of the FBI why the rules cannot be suspended for his friend and ally.   It is a child who does not understand the obvious consequences of his more vindictive actions -- like firing the very same man whom you had asked to potentially obstruct justice on your say-so.

"A child cannot be president.   I love my children;  they cannot have the nuclear codes.  [Douthat then explains why he thinks impeachment is not appropriate, because he does not believe that Donald Trump is capable of understanding what he has done wrong.   Rather, he recommends removal from office under the provisions of the 25th Amendment.]

". . . .  It is an argument, instead, for using a constitutional mechanism more appropriate to this strange situation. . . which allows for the removal of the president if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet informs the Congress that he is 'unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office' . . . . 

". . . his incapacity to really govern, to truly execute the serious duties that fall to him to carry out, is nevertheless testified to daily -- not by his enemies or external critics, but by precisely the men and women whom the Constitution asks to stand in judgment on him, the men and women who serve around him in the White House and the cabinet.

"Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press.  (And I assure you they say worse off the record.)   They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him . . . .

"It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security;  it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him.   And all this, in the fourth month of his administration."

These are two voices from the conservative ranks.   Not enemies, not liberals, not partisans trying to score points.   These are from the same political party that elected Donald Trump president.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Trump engaged in cover-up; but of what?

[This was written for Tuesday morning, before the news that Trump had revealed highly classified information to the Russians, and before the news of Comey's notes (see post below) saying Trump asked him to "let the Flynn investigation go" -- both of which pushed this aside.  But the news of both those events only add to the urgency of the larger concerns here.]

Eugene Robinson wrote in the Washington Post what is now becoming a logical assumption:  "The only way to make sense of [last] week’s stunning events is to conclude that there is something that President Trump desperately wants to hide."

Robinson goes on to discuss what criminal prosecutors call a witness "displaying consciousness of guilt," i.e. "acting in a way no innocent person would act."   He includes Trump's refusal to accept the conclusion by our entire intelligence community that Russia was behind the DNC email hacking.

Then there's the whole Michael Flynn affair that made him vulnerable to blackmail by foreign powers -- evidence that Sally Yates took to warn the White House Counsel.   Trump waited 18 days to do anything, allowing Flynn to continue to participate in meetings where the nation's most sensitive national security secrets were discussed, and then fired Flynn only after it became public knowledge.  And then, four days later, Trump fired Sally Yates.

Robinson covers other connections between Trump and Russians (Carter Page, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner).   Robinson says it's possible some of these were nothing more than courtesy calls.  And then there was Trump adviser J.D. Gordon, who finally admitted to being the one who insisted at the GOP convention that one item in the platform be changed, so that it favored Russia over Ukraine.  How many suspicious links with Russia does it take to begin to look like evidence?

And then there's Trump himself.   Something is building up that hasn't leaked fully yet, but we know that the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes division is involved.   Trump had his tax lawyer write a letter saying that he had no income from Russian sources over the past 10 years.   That is completely meaningless, because in the global world of secret money laundering, money is passed through several name-free shell companies to conceal sources.

And why was Trump so eager to get Comey's reassurance -- on three separate occasions -- that he is not personally under investigation?  Every one who knows Comey insists that this straight-arrow paragon would never answer such a question, no matter what Trump claims.   It seems pretty clear about these two men that Comey cannot tell a lie, and Trump cannot tell the truth.   So who ya gonna believe?

Even if Comey said something that Trump twisted in his own mind to be reassuring, it means nothing anyway.  In this type of investigation, you go after the little guys first, get their evidence on those above, and go up the chain to the top guy after you have some evidence.

We could go on.    Trump's public statements of admiration for Vladimir Putin as a strong leader.  His older son's statement years ago about "a flood of Russian money boosting the Trump Organization's fortunes."  The fact that no New York bank will lend Trump money except one that has strong ties to the Russian state bank, the head of which was personally chosen by Putin, had a meeting with Jared Kushner within the past year. 

And Trump's meeting in the Oval Office with the Russian Foreign Minister and the same Ambassador Kislyak that Flynn, Sessions, and Kushner had so many meetings with.   And the fact -- coincidence? -- that this highly unusual Oval Office meeting took place, unannounced and barred to U.S. media, the morning after Trump fired Comey.

Let's remember that the firings of Comey and Yates were preceded several months ago by the firing of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, who had jurisdiction over the area where the Trump Organization is located.  This same office handles most of the cases involving international financial crimes like money laundering.   Recent leaks strongly suggest that there was, probably still is, an investigation ongoing that involves Trump and possible involvement in the past in money-laundering through his real estate and casino businesses -- two businesses where large sums of money can be concealed, laundered, and moved around to conceal who is doing what with shady money.  We know that great gobs of cash have been used by Russian oligarchs to buy condominiums from Trump properties, and sales can be concealed by setting up shell companies.

So Trump has now fired three prosecutors who were overseeing investigations involving him.

I'll end with Robinson's conclusion to his article:
"If Trump wanted to end this scrutiny by firing Comey, he may have had the opposite effect. Ask yourself one question: Have you ever seen a coverup with no underlying crime? Neither have I."


Tuesday, May 16, 2017

NEWS: Another day, another scandal

The New York Times reported Tuesday afternoon that James Comey kept a paper trail of contemporaneous notes he made after each meeting with the president.   This one concerns a meeting on Feb. 14, 2017, one day after Michael Flynn was fired and about two weeks after that one-on-one dinner during which Comey says Trump asked him for a pledge of loyalty.  (He proably has notes on that one too.)

Comey says that, following an Oval Office meeting that included VP Pence and AG Sessions, the president asked Pence and Sessions to leave so he could have a one-on-one meeting with Comey.   During that private meeting, Comey claims that 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.”   Comey says that he simply agreed that Flynn is a good guy, but he made no comment about the investigation itself.

From the words we have, it was more like a wishful suggestion;  he did not order it;  he did not threaten him if he did not.    On its face, it does not rise to the level of attempt to obstruct justice, even though it definitely felt like an attempt to influence the investigation.   So Comey made his notes, told a few select close confidantes, but kept it from those involved in the investigation so as not to influence their work on the case.

As part of an accumulation of actions and failures by this president, however, it adds to the growing weight that should eventually lead Republican House members to set impeachment procedure in motion.

Why did Trump ask Pence and Sessions to leave?   That is the most convincing evidence that Trump was up to something he didn't want known.   The next step is for Comey to testify, in an open hearing, as he prefers, and to present his notes and discuss the whole experience.

The White House has denied Comey's account of what happened in that meeting.  But there is no question that Comey did write those contemporaneous notes.  It is consistent with FBI practice, and with Comey in particular.   I'd believe Comey over Trump, ten times before breakfast.


Trump defends his dangerous disclosure

President Trump, in defensive mode, took to his twitter to explain and hit back at critics.   And, in doing so, he missed the point.  Here is what Trump's tweeted:

"As President, I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety.  Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism."

To which Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, responded:

"Mr. President, this isn't about your 'rights,' but your responsibilities.   You could jeopardize our sources, relationships and security."

Turning to a comedian, here's Steve Colbert's advice:
"I want to say something directly to President Trump, if he's watching:
  You're a bad president.   Please resign."     
The crowd went wild.

More on Trump's breach of intelligence.

This is a supplement to the post from last night at 8:34 on the breaking news that President Trump last Tuesday, in meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Ambassador, casually revealed some "code-level" intelligence to the Russians.

This is of major concern because it may be possible for them to reverse-engineer the information and figure out the source of our intelligence partner who supplied the information.

As usual, Rachel Maddow had quickly assembled several experts in various capacities to help us understand the details.   "Code-level" intelligence is an extremely high level of sensitivity, above "top secret."   It means that not just anyone with top secret clearance can have access;   one has to have access to a special code that limits access even within our own government.  It would likely not be shared with our allies, much less adversaries.

According to Reuters, the Washington Post article "states clearly only that Trump discussed an Islamic State plot and the city where the plot was detected by an intelligence-gathering partner.  Officials worried that this information could lead to the discovery of the methods and sources involved.

That is what Trump so casually and blithely tossed off to impress his Russian guests -- but which they can take home with them and figure out the source.   As was pointed out, some of our interests in Syria overlap with Russian interests;  but some do not, where Russia is allied with Assad.  So this could be damaging to our source and location -- and it will give great pause to all the hundreds of other intelligence-sharing partners we have around the world that we depend on to help us avert threats and achieve objectives.  Lives depend on keeping these sources safe;  and we promise them that we will not share it.    Trump refuses to pay attention to his briefings -- or he would know this.

Rachel summed it all up in words very close to these, which I tried to take down verbatim:

"This is the first presidency in which the president is under counterterrorism investigation while being president;  who then fired the FBI Director investigating him;   and the day after that he hosted Russian officials in the Oval Office and gave them incredibly sensitive and damaging intelligence information that they were not entitled to have;   and he hosted them in the Oval Office at the personal request of Vladimir Putin, which he says he didn't feel he could say no to."

Think about that for a while.


Monday, May 15, 2017

NEWS FLASH: Trump betrays state secrets

[With minor additions to the Monday 8:34pm post.]

The Washington Post (boy, have they been busy breaking news) reported late Monday afternoon that "current and former US officials" had said that, during his Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyev last Tuesday, President Trump revealed some highly classified information that could jeopardize a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.

What I understand is that this is information provided to us by a partner source, and that its being leaked by us puts those sources in jeopardy as well as potentially drying up that source of intelligence for us in the future.   The report, written by the Post's Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe, states that the intelligence-sharing arrangement with the source was "considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government."

As another put it, Trump "revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies.  As another put it, if you or I had done this, we would be in jail.   But the president is authorized to declassify anything at any time, and he can do it just by talking about it to someone without security clearance.    So what he has done is not illegal for him.

That's hardly the point, however.   Even if not a criminal offense for the president, it's got to be something that would be considered in impeachment proceedings.   I do not think it's likely that Trump even realized what he was doing.   I think he is just so clueless he didn't realize the implications of what he was saying.   And that's equally dangerous.   According to reports, he was boasting to the Russians about "what great intelligence" he gets, and then mentioned this as an example.

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster was in the room and has said that the Post story is false "as reported."  He gave a carefully worded statement, saying that no "intelligence sources or methodswere discussed.   But "sources and methods" were not what was claimed in the Post story, as several reporters have noted.  That still leaves room for classified and sensitive information to have been lea ked to Russians who know how to make use of it -- as well as reinforcing their awareness that Trump is someone they can manipulate, often referred to as "a useful idiot."

I might also point out that McMaster is still an active duty general (which required a waiver for him to serve in what is usually a civilian role as NSA), so Trump is his commander-in-chief and can order what he is to say. They're trying to put a good face on this for public consumption, but it's not working.

But the White House is obviously concerned,   The president's assistant for homeland security and counterterrorism called the CIA and the NSA to notify them;  and that portion of the internal memos was striken from the record.'

But who will strike it from the minds of the Russian team, which included the two officials mentioned above, plus two aides and a photographer?  Photographs were promptly shown on Russian state propaganda television, which is the only reason we know about the meeting, since US media was barred from it.

Here's my take on this:   This is going cause a lot of damage -- first, to the US in our counterterrorism partner relationships.   Not just the partner who supplied us with this particular information -- but all of our intelligence partners, all over the world, who provide vital intelligence for us, will be wary of sharing sensitive material to the US after this, as long as Trump is president.  He is a loose cannon who might betray allies without even meaning too -- or perhaps even that too.

It should, it must, wake up the Republicans in Congress who have been overlooking how dangerous this clueless, childish president can be.     He needs more adult supervision than he's getting.   And House Republicans need to begin collecting such data to prepare for impeachment proceedings.


Special prosecutor/Independent commission? What's the difference?

Several terms are being tossed around about the way forward in the investigation of the Trump campaign and any connections with Russia:   special prosecutor, select congressional committee, and independent commission.   These can be confusing, and they have varying advantages and drawbacks.

First, what we have now:
   a.  FBI investigation.   The FBI is relatively independent -- and famously insistent about maintaining that.   It answers to the Department of Justice and the Attorney General, both appointed by the president.   So, even the FBI is ultimately somewhat subject to the president's pleasure -- as shown with his firing of Comey -- although it could be politically very dangerous for him to abuse that authority.   That is ground zero right now.

   b.  House Intelligence Committee and Senate Intelligence Committee.  Each committee is conducting (more or less) its own investigation, although the House committee got derailed when its chair, Rep. Devon Nunes seemingly became Trump's patsy in a concocted scheme to "find" fake evidence to support Trump's goofy claim of Obama's "wiretapping" Trump Tower.   With a new chair now, supposedly that investigation is getting going again.
       The Senate investigation seems to be moving along now, having issued some subpoenas.   They seem to be focusing on "following the money trail," specifically Donald Trump's money trail.   (More about this in a later post.)

   c.  Senate Subcommittee (of the Justice Committee) on Crime and Terrorism, chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham.   This is the group that Sally Yates testified for.

   d. House Committee on Oversight and Government Regulation.   This committee could look into some of this, but Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) deferred to the House Intelligence Committee's work -- that is, before he suddenly and suspiciously decided to resign.  Rumor says he may be going to Fox Five as a news commentator.

What about turning it over to an independent investigator?
   The argument for doing this is that the others all have the risk of becoming influenced by political biases.  The FBI is less so, but we've just seen that it is not completely independent from the president's influence and the hiring and firing of its director.    The degree to which it is independent rests with the character and determination of individuals, not on the statutory structure.   So what options are there for greater independence?    What follows is a summary of what Vox News ( prepared to explain just this question.

   a.  Special prosecutor/special counsel.   Following the Watergate scandal, a law was passed setting up a mechanism for the appointment of a special prosecutor that would be independent of the Justice Department and the president.   A three judge panel, chosen by the Chief Justice of SCOTUS from among those justices on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, would appoint this special prosecutor.   Unfortunately, congress allowed this law to expire in 1999 without renewing it.
      So currently, a "special counsel" would simply be chosen by the Attorney General -- except that AG Jeff Sessions has recused himself from any cases involving the Trump campaign because of his own involvement with that campaign.   So the appointment would be made by the new Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein, appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate with bipartisan support.    Just two days ago, Rosenstein said that he did not see the need at this point for a special counsel but that he would be open to it in the future.
     Rosenstein has been on the job as Deputy AG for just over two weeks.   During confirmation hearings, and by reputation, he impressed senators with his integrity, professionalism, and his reputation for independent dedication to the truth.
    However, since then, Rosenstein got drawn into the firing of Comey.   Here's how that came about.  Rosenstein did genuinely disapprove of the way Comey had handled the Clinton email case.  So, when Trump called him and AG Sessions in to discuss Comey, Rosenstein told him;  and Trump asked him to put it in writing.  He wrote a three page critique, which did not include a recommendation about termination.   But Trump then included this critique with his letter firing Comey;  and Trump wrote in his cover letter that he was following the "recommendation" to remove Comey as FBI Director.
     Reportedly Rosenstein resented having the firing blamed on him, when in fact he had made no recommendation;  and he threatened to resign -- which may be what then led to the change in the story that Trump was telling.  [NOTE:  This was reported by the Washington Post, but Rosenstein has denied it's truth.]  But it is troubling that Trump might be able to manipulate him again in the future.   A special counsel in the FBI would still be answerable to Rosenstein and ultimately to Trump.   If the appointment were still made by judges, as in the expired law, this would be much better.   As it is, the degree of independence depends on the individuals involved.  As long as Trump is one of them -- with ultimate power -- that's not good enough.

   b.  An Independent Commission.   This would follow the pattern of the 9/11 Commission, made up of experts in appropriate fields (often former Attorneys General or retired judges, for example) -- who are not current members of Congress or Department of Justice.  It is created by an act of Congress and signed by the President;  and it would be bipartisan, perhaps as with the 9/11 panel with co-chairs, one Republican and one Democrat.  It would have subpoena powers, but it's purpose would be to investigate and write a report.   It would not have direct enforcement powers;  and indictments would have to come from their recommendations to the Justice Department.   Thus, it's focus is fact-finding, not primarily criminal investigation and prosecution.   This is more of a long backward look at what happened to devise policies to prevent repetitions.  It's not so good at tracking down guilty people still in power and charging them.

   c.  A Special Congressional Committee.   This would be a special committee, made up of members of congress, for the sole purpose of investigating the Trump/Russia case, with subpoena powers.   How it would differ from the two Intelligence Committees already operating is that this special committee would only deal with this one case, and it would dissolve when its report was completed, while the Intelligence Committees are ongoing and have many other things to be investigating at the same time.

So what is needed?   The key issue to me is that, whatever the structure, what we need most is vigorous, independent investigation, not subject to being overruled or limited by the interested parties.   In this case that would primarily be Donald Trump and his White House associates.

Perhaps Rosenstein is correct to wait a bit.   Let's see who is appointed as the new FBI Director.   If that person has a reputation for being independent, for standing up to power, and for being a good leader -- then let's see where that goes.   We could always have another investigation later -- as was true with the 9/11 investigation.


Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Queen drives her own Jaguar

Captured taking a spin after church last Sunday in her green Jaguar, the 91 year old Queen Elizabeth is said to be the only person in England allowed to drive without a license.   She frequently enjoys taking family for spins in her Land Rover.  I guess the Jag must be the Sunday car.

What a wild and crazy week we've had on this side of the Atlantic.  This picture of a resolute queen, steering her way home, calls to mind that maxim of World War II Brits:   "Keep calm, and carry on."   Maybe we should all try it.

[photo by Ben Stansall, Getty Images.]