Saturday, June 10, 2017

"U.S. government cannot be trusted so long as Trump is president." - Ezra Klein

Pundit Ezra Klein, one of the founders of, hit perhaps the most important point about Jim Comey's testimony.    For background, remember that Comey is the hero of that scene where he stood up against the power of President George W. Bush's Chief of Staff and his Legal Counsel in the hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft -- and, as Acting AG himself, refused to sign an illegal order they were trying to get the seriously ill and medicated AG to sign.

James Comey is not a weakling, cowed by power -- which makes even more convincing what he revealed of the power of Donald Trump's intimidation.   Klein calls this "the simple, chilling takeaway of James Comey's testimony. . .  .  It is separate from the legal question of whether Trump obstructed justice, or the political question of whether congressional Republicans care even if he did."

Klein says, further:  "[Trump] is a man who lies constantly, who values loyalty over integrity, who has little understanding of nor respect for the values and restraints that people in power impose on themselves to keep from misusing their positions, and who intends to use both his powers of hiring and firing to stock the government with people who will serve him first and the country second."

Ironically, Klein points out that the parts of the testimony that Trump's "defenders are touting," as validation for Trump, are the very parts that most clearly illustrate the troubling qualities.   Both Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Diane Feinstein questioned Comey along the line of why he didn't stand up to the president and tell him what he was asking was inappropriate.

Comey's response is telling:   Rather than his usual, carefully thought-out answer, he was a bit vague, even uncomfortable:   Comey:   "I don't know.   I think -- as I said earlier, I think the circumstances were such that it was -- I was a bit stunned and didn't have the presence of mind.   I don't know. . .  I don't know if I would have said to the president with the presence of mind, "Sir, that's wrong."  In the moment, it didn't come to my mind.  What came to mind was, "Be careful what you say . . . .  Maybe other people would be stronger in the circumstance.  That's how I conducted myself.   I hope I'll never have another opportunity.  Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better."

This is the same man that another writer called "an unruffled professional . . . a masterful performance" regarding his overall testimony.   Yes, that is Comey's usual level of mastery.  But I suggest, as does Klein, that rattling even James Comey, says more about Donald Trump than about Comey.

Republicans have seized on this to try to  discredit Comey.   If Trump's request was so terrible, why didn't he rise up in indignation or quit on the spot?   But Ezra Klein suggests "another way to understand this story:"

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Klein writes:  "[Comey] was elevated to that [FBI Director] position precisely because he had proven himself unusually able to resist political intimidation. . . .  [He was] one of the hardest civil servants to intimidate.   But when trapped in a room with the president of the United States, and when his job and all the good he believed he could do in it was dangled before him, even he felt the pressure.  To his credit, he didn't crack.  But he felt it, just as Trump knew he would.

"This story is not exculpatory for Trump.  It is damning for him, and unnerving for us.  It is a reminder of how much harm the wrong man can do if he wields the power and prestige of the presidency unethically. . . . The picture Comey paints of Trump is grim -- and so is the picture Trump paints of himself."
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In answer to Sen. Mark Warner's questions about why he began taking notes on his meetings with Trump, Comey mentioned three things:  Trump repeatedly tried to meet with him alone;  they were discussing unusually sensitive topics;  and "I was honestly concerned he might lie about the nature of our meetings."

Stop and consider that:   The FBI Director thought he couldn't trust the President of the United States to meet with him without lying.   And he was right.   Trump has already changed his story several times about their meetings.

Perhaps even more troubling, is that the quality that Trump says he admires the most is "loyalty."    Even loyalty over integrity.   In his testimony, Comey quotes Trump as having told him:   "I need loyalty.  I expect loyalty."   Klein's article continues:

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"There is no doubt which answer Trump wanted from Comey, and after realizing he wasn't going to get it, Trump fired Comey. . . .  Imagine that it wasn't Comey who Trump had invited to dinner,  but a candidate for the FBI directorship who shared Trump's values, and was more focused on his advancement than his integrity. . . .  In that case, we might never know the conversation had happened, but the FBI would now be serving Trump, rather than the American people. . . .

"[Trump] holds an office that gives him vast power for intimidation, patronage, and reprisal.  We know he is a man who will use that power to serve his own ends.  We know the people who survive in Trump's employ will be those who carry out Trump's commands.  We know he is a man who will fire those, like Comey, who refuse his requests. . . . 

"This is day 139 of Donald Trump's administration, and it is clear that he is dangerously unfit for the role.  The question is whether Republicans will admit it to themselves, and if so, what they will do about it. . . .  The country needs more from them right now than excuses for behavior that they know is wrong."

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That is Ezra Klein.   I agree with all that he writes.   Tomorrow, I will share extensive quotes from a New York Times op-ed that likens the situation Comey was in at that one-to-one dinner to what a woman employee experiences with a predatory boss who tries to intimidate her.


Friday, June 9, 2017

Comey's testimony had no bombshells; but no good news for Trump, either.

Former FBI Director James Comey testified in open hearing for three hours Thursday morning.   Reconvening for an afternoon closed session, the Senate Intelligence Committee spent several more hours hearing from Comey.

The short answer is that we already knew from leaks most of what he testified to, and he brought no new bombshells to the hearing itself, although there may be some in the classified session.   However, there is plenty in what we already knew, which was confirmed by a written testimony from Comey released Wednesday night by the Committee.   Here are some highlights:

1.  In several one-to-one meetings and phone calls initiated by the president, Comey felt definite and inappropriate pressure from Trump concerning the ongoing investigation into Russia's involvement in our electoral process and any possible cooperation with members of the Trump campaign.   On one occasion, Trump repeatedly pushed to get Comey to pledge his personal loyalty to Trump.  Others included pressure to "let go" of the Flynn investigation.   Even though he did not use words that in themselves constituted an order, the context and the situation made for intense pressure to do the president's bidding.
   Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) illustrated this coercive kind of request by analogy:  If someone holds a gun to your head and says, "I hope you will see your way clear to let go all your money," you don't take that as just a gentle suggestion.  The abuse of power seemed confirmed when Trump fired Comey after not receiving the cooperation he sought -- and later when Trump said in a TV interview that it was the Russia investigation that he was thinking about when he made the decision to fire Comey.

2.  The president's private lawyer has already held a press event to present the president's defense.   He uses the letter of the law to declare that there was no pressure and therefor no obstruction of justice.    He also declared Comey's reassurance to Trump that he was not personally under investigation to completely absolve Trump, even though Comey was clear that he was speaking only as of the time he made those statements.   And, as one commentor brought out, the usual pattern is to go after the little guys first, and their testimony will lead you to the higher up, bigger guys later.   So Trump is not off the hook.  Trump's lawyer also distorted many other things and said some things that were literally not true.

3.  Comey's live testimony itself, like Sally Yates, is almost as important as the facts.   Each of them is such a great witness, who conveys integrity in such a way as to erase any doubts about the truth of their testimony.  As's Dara Lind said about Comey:  "That image -- an unruffled professional, speaking on behalf of no one but himself and prompted by nothing but his own sense of right and wrong -- is the one Comey projected throughout the hearing.  It was a masterful performance."   [More on this tomorrow.]

4.  Even before today, several legal scholars, including Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe, were willing to say that the evidence, if true, is sufficient to make the case for obstruction of justice against Trump.   But that's a long way down the road.    We'll have to wait for Bob Mueller to complete his investigation.

5.  Some think it won't be the obstruction of justice that brings Trump down as much as the money trail.   Mueller is pursuing that as well.   In fact, he has recently added a new investigator to his team, one who is known for his expertise in cases of illegal money transactions.

Prepare for a long, long soap opera.   Let's hope the country survives long enough and that it ends soon enough to repair the damage.


Thursday, June 8, 2017

A lot happens in four days . . .

There's no way to catch up on all that has happened in these last four days -- or in any random four days since Donald Trump took office in the White House.   So I'm going to throw in a few choice bits and then briefly cover the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing today.

1.  Everybody has been advising Trump to hire a personal lawyer to defend him in the Russia investigation.   Reportedly he was turned down by at least four of the big name Washington lawyers, one of whom reportedly had this pithy explanation:   "He doesn't pay, and he won't listen."    Chris Hayes (MSNBC) reported on at least three past instances where Trump's own lawyers had sued him for non-payment for their services.

2.  Thanks to the New York Times columnist David Brooks for this.  Trump's top advisers H. R. McMaster and Gary Cohn co-authored an essay in the Wall Street Journal, which described President Trump's world view thus:   "The world is not aglobal communitybut an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”   Brooks elaborates, saying that, in this view, "selfishness is the sole driver of human affairs. . . .  It implies that cooperative communities are hypocritical covers for the selfish jockeying underneath. . . .  [It] explains why the Trump people are suspicious of any cooperative global arrangement, like NATO and the various trade agreements. It helps explain why Trump pulled out of the Paris global-warming accord. . . .  In this worldview, morality has nothing to do with anything.  Altruism, trust, cooperation and virtue are unaffordable luxuries in the struggle of all against all. Everything is about self-interest."

President Obama's National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, countered with a New York Times op-ed essay, "To Be Great, America Must Be Good," in which she took the exact opposite stance.   Rice lamented not only the humanitarian crippling that will result from, say, the 30% cuts for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, but also the abdication of our world leadership position -- including our moral leadership and emphasis of human rights.   By failing to affirm our mutual defense commitment in NATO's Article 5, and by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, the U.S. sends a signal to the world that is already having an effect in places like Egypt and Bahrain who can rightly assume that we won't bother them about how they treat their own people, when they jail journalists and assassinate dissidents.   That goes for Putin, too.

3.  Remember that $110 billion arms sale deal Trump bragged about signing with the Saudis as one of the great successes of his trip?   It seems that he was a little premature in his boasting.    There are no contracts, only letters of interest or intent.   Things the Saudis might be interested in buying over time;   but they didn't actually promise to buy anything.  It's now being widely said:   "The Saudis played Trump like a fiddle."

4.  Columnist Maureen Dowd is usually a bit too snarky for my taste, but I do enjoy her barbs that skewer the high and almighty -- including her recent reference to Trump as having "cemented his image as the high-chair king."

5.  Four top national security officials testified (or, rather, didn't testify) for the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, prior to James Comey's much-anticipated testimony on Thursday.   The four were:  Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence;  Adm. Mike Rogers, head of the National Security Agency;  Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General;  and Andrew McCabe, Acting FBI Director.  They all declined to give any testimony in this open hearing about any conversations with President Trump.   Senators did elicit confirmation that the president had not invoked executive privilege to prevent their testimony and that the substance of the testimony was not itself classified;  nor had Special Prosecutor Mueller asked them not to.   It was more that they all felt constrained for other reasons not to testify in an open hearing but indicated that they would in closed session.

Those last two points were especially the stance of Coats and Rogers, who come at it from a counterintelligence perspective.   But Rosenstein and McCabe (from Justice and FBI) seemed more concerned not to interfere with Special Counsel Mueller's investigation.   I'm sure we'll hear much analysis about what this means.   One thing I had read beforehand was that not revealing anything substantive that Trump said might suggest not wanting to mess up a criminal investigation.   Some post-hearing pundit analysts suggested that, since Coats and Rogers work directly for the president, they could simply be protecting their jobs.  No one suggested that they would not ultimately testify.  It was obviously frustrating to the senators not to get any answers today;  but from an investigation-junky's perspective (like me), that possible meaning just adds to the anticipatory interest.


PS:   The immediate background to the hearing was that the morning Washington Post had just published its latest leak-based article, quoting a source saying that Coats had been approached by Trump, who asked him to intervene to stop the Russian investigation.   Sen. John McCain ruefully pointed out the irony that the morning paper had described Coat's meeting with Trump in great detail, but Coats wouldn't himself talk about it to the senate committee charged with oversight of the agency he heads.

PPS:   The Comey hearing begins at 10 am on Thursday.   You can watch it live on one of the CSPAN stations;  and several of the cable channels are planning to carry it live as well.   CSPAN will be just straight filming, start to finish;  the cables will have their commentators and commercials as well.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Trump's "appalling character" in his tweets on the London bombing

It's hard to take a break when the news continues unabated and irresistible.   So I'm taking a break from my "break" just long enough to share this editorial from Washington Post opinion writer Jennifer Rubin.  It's about President Trump's response to the bombing in London (a few days old, but still relevant).

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"The stoic determination and decency of the British people and their leaders were on full display in the hours after the latest horrific terrorist rampage. The Brits fought back. . . .  The police acted with lightning-fast precision, killing the three assailants within eight minutes of the emergency call.

"Meanwhile — and it pains me to write this — our president acted like a clod, a heartless and dull-witted thug in sending out a series of tweets. He . . . first retweeted an unverified, unofficial Drudge headline about the unfolding terrorist attack. Then he aimed to bolster his Muslim travel ban (which is not supposed to be a Muslim travel ban). 'We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,' he tweeted. 'We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!' . . .   

"After receiving blowback for that obnoxious missive, he tweeted out, 'Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there – WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!' But then he decided to slam the mayor of the city attacked, who had calmly warned his fellow Londoners: 'Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed.'  

Trump took the second part out of context and responded viciously, 'At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!' (The mayor, of course, was telling them not to be alarmed by the heightened police presence.) Trump was not done, however, inanely tweeting, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!”

"One is prompted to ask if he is off his rocker. But this is vintage Trumpimpulsive and cruel, without an ounce of class or human decency. His behavior no longer surprises us, but it should offend and disturb us, first, that he remains the face and voice of America in the world and, second, that his fans hoot and holler, seeing this as inconsequential or acceptable conduct. . . . 

"Sure, Trump’s policies and rhetoric are incoherent and based on a tower of lies. Far worse, however, is his appalling character, which accelerates the erosion of democratic norms and social cohesion a diverse democracy requires. . .

"The London attacks bring out the best in Britain and in Western leaders on the European continent; it brings out the worst in Trump and his followers. The former protect the soul of Western civilization; the latter drive a stake through the animating ideas that make America special."

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Besides the character and decency argument that Jennifer Rubin so aptly makes, there is the disturbing fact that the president of the United States is also making stupid tactical mistakes,  First, he obviously thinks he has a political advantages by using the attack to bolster his travel-ban and guns-everywhere approach.   

Rather, his comments will probably doom his travel ban case before the Supreme Court.   Despite the efforts of his staff to "fix" the executive order so that it doesn't quite shout that it is an anti-Muslim ban, Trump himself has just confirmed that it is.

In my editing here, I left out some of his rhetoric;  but in this and other tweets, he laments the fact that they "watered down" the revised ban and should have left it as it was in the first.   He repeatedly refers to it as a "travel ban" and does everything but calling it a Muslim travel ban.

In one on his tweets, he wrote this:  “People, the lawyers and the courts can call it whatever they want, but I am calling it what we need and what it is, a TRAVEL BAN.”

Then there's the question:   Why is he picking a fight with the London mayor?   Two reasons come to mind:   (1)  The mayor is Muslim;   (2)  Trump is always looking for some way to insert himself into any situation and declare his superiority in some way.    He has nothing here except to take a phrase out of context and pretend to criticize the mayor for not being tough enough on terrorists.   But that collapses when you read what Mayor Sadiq Kahn actually said.

Here's another disturbing possibility:   Reportedly Trump tweeted the comment about the mayor's statement just after listening to Fox News.   It's quite possible that he was relying only on Fox's own distortion of the quote.    Realize what that means:   "The President of the United States relies on Fox News, rather than his own intelligence agencies, for his information about a world crisis.