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Comey Still Won’t Go Away

Try as you might, there’s nothing to find in the news these days except President Donald Trump’s firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. A Cable News Network reporter tried to do a story on the Republicans’ proposed health care legislation, which was a big deal not long ago and is apparently still something that might happen, but the first question to a couple of politicians was about how Comey’s firing might affect the bill’s chances in the Senate, so of course the conversation never got around to anything else.
There are other things going on with the federal government, too, but for the moment the first thing to ask about almost any of them is how they’re affected by all this Comey business. The Democrats sense an opportunity to use the issue to thwart almost any Trump proposal, and Trump has been seemingly ¬†intent on gold-plating it for them. All the endless stories mention in passing that Trump is entirely within his legal rights to fire an FBI director for any old reason, and briefly acknowledge that both Democrats and Republicans have had their own reasons for wanting to do so over the past election year, but thus far the White House has struggled to make a convincing case of its own.
The official “you’re fired” letter from Trump himself said it was because of the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a newly-hired deputy attorney, who found Comey’s public comments regarding an investigation into the e-mail practices of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton late in the campaign had undermined the public’s faith in his ability, and the was the line that all the obviously unprepared spokespeople parroted the next two days. Those poor spokespeople had to respond to video montages of candidate Trump praising Comey’s “guts” for those same statements, though, and explain why Trump was suddenly so offended on Clinton’s behalf after leading so many rallies in chants of “lock her up,” so the first couple of news cycles went badly. They steadfastly insisted that the president had no choice but to accept the conclusion of that newly-hired deputy attorney general, and of course insisted that it had nothing to with the fact that Comey was heading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government’s meddling in the election.
Trump doesn’t seem the type to follow a newly-hired subordinate’s lead, though, and the Attorney General had promised to recuse himself from anything having to do with the Russian investigation that Comey was heading, and the idea that Russia had nothing to do with it was always going to be a hard sell. Thus Trump found himself sitting down with the National Broadcasting Corporation’s Lester Holt on Thursday and saying, in between frequent interruptions, that “Oh, I was going to fire regardless of recommendation,” and that “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Russia and Trump is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election they should have won.'” He also described Comey as a “grandstander” and “showboat,” and the late night comedy show jokes about Trump describing anyone by those terms pretty much wrote themselves.
He also stated his ardent desire for a thorough and independent investigation of the Russia thing with Russia and Trump, but people will draw their own conclusions about that based on who he picks as Comey’s replacement. One hopes the Trump team will have a exceptionally strong pick and a better-planned public relations roll-out for that story, which is likely to be all that’s in the news for a while, if we’re lucky.

— Bud Norman

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The Second Day of the Comey Firing

Tuesday’s big story about President Donald Trump firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey inevitably led to a lot more stories on Wednesday. None of them made anyone look very good, but on the whole Trump seems to have had the worst of it.
There’s a strong case to be made for the firing of Comey, whose erratic performance over the course of a crazy election year outraged Democrats and then Republicans and then Democrats again, but that was lost in the blizzard of new bulletins. The New York Times reported that Comey’s firing came shortly after he requested more resources for an ongoing investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election and its possible collusion with Trump’s campaign, The Washington Post reported that Trump was furious that Comey hadn’t corroborated his “tweeted” claim that President Barack Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Tower, and everybody was reporting that some prominent Republicans were also declining to come to Trump’s defense.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration struggled to amount a defense of its own. White House press secretary Sean Spicer was spotted hiding from reporters behind some bushes before offering a few answers that suggested he hadn’t been expecting Tuesday’s announcement or Wednesday’s revelations, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attributed Comey’s firing to the “atrocities” he’d committed while investigating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mail practices, and occasional spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s first response to a montage of candidate’s Trump’s effusive campaign trail praise for how nicely Comey had handled the matter was to remind her questioner that Trump won Michigan. They all rightly noted that most Democrats were eager for Comey to be fired until Trump did it, but it’s hard to believe that Trump did it for the reasons the Democrats wanted, and at this point there seems plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
Trump himself, who only had an ill-timed meeting with a high-ranking Russian official on the daily schedule, spent much of Wednesday “tweeting” schoolyard taunts against his Democratic critics. He responded to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer by “tweeting” that “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer stated recently, ‘I do not have confidence in him (James Comey) any longer.’ Then acts so indignant.” After Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal appeared on a cable news show offering his own criticisms, Trump responded that “‘Richie’ devised one of the greatest military frauds in U.S. history. For years, as a pol in Connecticut, Blumenthal would talk of his great bravery and conquests in Vietnam — except he was never there. When caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness … and now he is judge & jury. He should be the one who is investigated for his acts.”
Trump is inarguably right about Schumer’s past criticisms of Comey, but Schumer is surely entitled to “tweet” back a taunt about Trump’s past praise, although we’d advise to him avoid any insulting nicknames. Trump’s also inarguably right that Comey was caught lying about his service record seven years ago, and although we don’t recall him “crying like a baby” he did indeed offer an apology that the voters of his state apparently accepted, and as much as we also dislike the guy we can’t see why a further investigation is now warranted. In any case, making these Democrats look bad doesn’t Trump or his decision to fire Comey look any better. The only “tweet” that made an affirmative case for firing said “Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Democrat and Republican alike. When things calm down, they will be thanking me.”

That’s not a bad summation of the case, which requires more characters than “tweeting” allows to be persuasively made, but it’s hard to imagine when things might calm down over the next four years or anytime in the coming millennia when everyone will be thanking Trump for anything. Trump’s most die-hard supporters will dismiss anything from “The New York Slimes,” but the paper’s report has four on-the-record congressional sources, including a Republican, hasn’t been denied by anyone at the White House, and anyone who isn’t a die-hard Trump supporters will likely find that it raises some interesting questions that Trump and his spokespeople will have trouble answering. The talk radio hosts and their listeners will dismiss anything from “The Washington Compost,” but even they won’t believe that Trump wasn’t angry about Comey not going along with wiretapping claim, or mind if that was a reason for firing, and everyone else will note that nobody has come forward to corroborate those damning “tweets.” Some of the Republicans who are distancing themselves from the matter are running for re-election in jurisdictions where Trump is not popular, and given the latest national polls more are likely to follow.
Still, Trump was inarguably within his legal rights to fire Comey, and did have reasons for doing so that all those Democrats had previously agreed with, and it might yet work out for the best, and it’s also possible that Trump or someone speaking on his behalf will effectively make those arguments. If he thought the decision would be immediately met with bipartisan praise he was clearly wrong, though, and if he thought it would put an end to all that chatter about the Russians meddling in the election and the Trump campaign being somehow involved he was even more wrong. The next news cycle is going to involve a lot of explaining, and the one after that will also be troublesome.
Up next is Trump’s nominee to replace Comey, and whoever that turns out to be is going to be subjected to such severe scrutiny he or she is unlikely to come out of it looking pristine. If he or she seems the least bit interested in revisiting Clinton’s e-mail practices or entirely dismissive of the idea that Trump’s campaign might have been involved in Russia’s role in the past election that’s going to be a public relations problem for Trump, and if they aren’t that’s yet another problem. All those questions about Russia won’t go away until they’re definitively answered, which will require answers from someone who’s somehow untainted by all of this and has been given access to all the tax returns and financial disclosures and immunity-granted testimony that might involved, and at this point we can’t imagine who that person might be.

— Bud Norman

Comey’s Firing Is So Damned Complicated

Pretty much all the news these days is reported through the prism of President Donald Trump versus the Democrats, which makes the big story about Trump firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey pretty damned complicated for just about everyone. Over his long and mostly distinguished career Comey has been a villain to both the right and left wings of American politics, and during the last couple of undeniably disastrous years he’s played both roles from month to month, so by the time he got fired no one seemed to like him.
As a young rising U.S. Attorney Comey was frequently promoted by the administration of Republican George W. Bush by vigorously investigating the pardon that Democratic President Bill Clinton had scandalously granted the con man and big-time Democratic campaign contributor Marc Rich and other matters dear to Republican hearts, then clashed with the Bush administration over surveillance matters and so endeared himself to the subsequent administration of Democratic President Barack Obama that he wound up running the FBI. In that capacity he wound up heading an investigation into the highly dubious e-mail practices of former Obama administration Secretary of State and sudden Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and at that point things got even more damned complicated.
In the middle of the messiest American presidential election ever the FBI director held a press conference to announce that he was not recommending criminal charges against the Democratic nominee, which deeply disappointed all the Republicans, but he also noted that the Democratic nominee had been darned careless about national security and plausibly implied that Republican-appointed prosecutors might have found a case against her, which the Democrats could still spin as a win but didn’t fully satisfy them. As the election grew nearer Comey had another press conference to announce that the investigation was back on after some of the Democratic nominee’s classified e-mails had been found on the laptop of close aide’s notorious sex-fiend husband, who had been targeted in a separate and even tawdrier investigation, and although Comey again fell short of recommending a prosecution and the Republicans were again disappointed that no charges were filed the Democratic nominee is still plausibly able to blame her loss to the likes of Trump on Comey’s 11th hour revelations.
All of which makes Comey’s firing pretty damned complicated, for everybody involved, but it’s actually even more complicated than that. Over at The Washington Post the front page headlines explains that “Democrats hate James Comey. But they hate the fact Trump fired him even more,” and all sorts of Republicans should have similarly conflicted feelings. The deputy attorney general who joined in with several other high-ranking officials in calling for Comey’s firing wrote that “Almost everyone agrees that the director has made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that united people of different perspectives,” and although that’s true enough the Republicans also have plenty to worry about.
Any president is perfectly entitled by law and precedent to fire an FBI director for any old reason, although they have rarely done so, and given all the grousing that both Republicans and Democrats have lately been doing Comey it’s hard for anybody to argue that there’s insufficient reason now, which should get Trump through the next 24-hour news cycle, but of course it’s more complicated than that. Trump’s catchphrase “you’re fired” letter to Comey thanked him for his many mostly distinguished years of public service and included his personal thanks for the three separate occasions when Comey said that Trump wasn’t under FBI investigation, but the previous day’s big story was the testimony of a fired acting attorney general and a former national intelligence director that it would divulge classified intelligence to deny that there are also ongoing investigations into people closely involved in the Trump campaign regarding the Russians’ plausibly alleged meddling in the election, which also plausibly played a part in the outcome. That’s enough for the Democrats to peg a story or two on, and they’re bound to last past the next 24-hour news cycle.
Trump should weather the inevitable storm about the firing without any damage to his poll numbers, but who he hires as a replacement will be subjected to the most extreme scrutiny by almost everyone except his most loyal supporters. If the nominee seems eager to revisit the Clinton charges even after she was sentenced to the hell of losing to the likes to Trump that will invigorate most Democrats, and if he or she ¬†seems uninterested in the ongoing investigation about Trump’s associates and their dealing with the Russians who do at this point seem have meddled in the election on Trump’s behalf, we expect Trump will suffer yet another 24-hour news cycle or more.
However it turns out, from our vantage point on the political sidelines we’ll be among the few wishing Comey a happy and blissfully boring retirement. Most of his long career was distinguished, with all of his bi-partisan offenses against both Republican and Democratic sensibilities being arguably justified, and as awful as he’s undeniably been to almost everybody over the last couple of years we can’t think of anyone who’s come out of that dreadful timespan smelling like a rose. We wish well to anyone who replaces him, too, but we’d warn him or her that after such an awful election its going to be damned complicated.

— Bud Norman

Who’s Bugging Who?

There’s all sorts of consequential politics going on these days to keep a president busy, what with repealing Obamacare and replacing it with Trumpcare and passing a thus-far unpopular budget and whatnot, but that’s all pretty dry stuff and involves a lot of math. Which makes it all the harder to turn one’s gaze away from the far juicier ongoing allegations coming from all directions about all sorts of international espionage and high-tech skullduggery and assorted movie-worthy twists. Monday alone provided enough plot twists to fill up several sequels.
The already convoluted plot plot started way back during the past presidential election, when Republican nominee Donald Trump was praising the strength of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s leadership and shrugging off the occasional extra-judicial killing and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign was taking a hit from some embarrassing e-mails that had been suspiciously hacked, and suspicious sorts started wondering if that was entirely coincidental. The resignation of Trump’s campaign manager after business ties to a Russia-friendly Ukrainian were revealed and the resignation of a foreign policy advisor for similar reasons did nothing to quell the suspicions, and neither did Trump’s still-unreleased tax returns, and although he nonetheless became President Donald Trump the news hasn’t helped much. His already-controversial National Security Advisor had to resign after a few days on the job because he’d lied to the Vice President about having been in contact with Russian officials, his already-controversial Attorney General recused himself from any role of a potential investigation into the matter of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian officials after similar revelations, and the late night comics and other conspiracy theorists have been having a ball with it.
Trump, of course, has been doing the counter-punching he so boastfully prides himself on. On an early morning a couple of weeks ago he “tweeted” a series allegations that past President Barack Obama had tapped his phone lines at Trump Tower, which, if true, would truly be worse than the Watergate scandal that Trump mentioned. That was immediately followed by a “tweet” ridiculing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s paltry ratings on “The Apprentice,” the reality show Trump starred in prior to his presidency, but the president still stands by his allegations. His press secretary has since explained that Trump had taken care to put quotation remarks around “wire tapped” to emphasize that he didn’t literally mean that Obama had tapped his wires, and occasional spokeswoman and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway further explained that he could have meant that Obama was spying on Trump through the Trump Tower microwave oven, and of course the late night comics have been having even more of a ball with it. Subsequent “tweets” and presidential interviews have promised that would proof would be forthcoming, and that his Republican allies in Congress would provide it through hearings, but so far that has not happened.
Trump still has plenty of supporters in the comments sections of all the internet stories about all of this, and is still cheered on by some old-time Republicans who should know enough to at least hedge their bets with some skepticism, but Monday provided another public relations beating. Those Republican allies in Congress have thus far admitted they don’t have any proof to back up Trump’s allegations, and on Monday they invited Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey to testify that the allegations are untrue and that the Department of Justice has authorized him to say so, and that he was also authorized to says investigations of Russia’s meddling in the past election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign was ongoing, and in the absence of any classified documents that a president could unilaterally un-classify that was bound to be Tuesday’s big headline and the punchline of all the late night jokes.
The more determined Trump apologists will continue to explain how a “deep state” shadow government is still doing the bidding of Obama, and they’ll be quite right that Obama’s administration tapped so many phones and did so many shadowy things over eight years that you can’t put anything past them, and we’ve seen enough Hollywood movies to always be suspicious about those intelligence agencies, but such old-school Republicans are ourselves still expect some proof. All those intelligence agencies and their more boring bureaucratic colleagues are clearly opposed to Trump for reasons different than our own, all the leaks lately have clearly served their agenda, and there’s still some reason to keep most classified information classified, but for now we’re still waiting for proof of Obama’s worse-than-Watergate behavior and something in the way of usual financial disclosure to assure us that Trump’s seeming Russophilia is just bad ideology and not something to do with the global business empire that Trump still owns.
Which is a shame, as far as old-fashioned Republicans such as ourselves are concerned, because Obamacare really does need to be repealed and there’s still some hope that the old-fashioned Republicans left in office will be able to come up with something too imperfect for any hyperbole but at least better than what we’ve got. We find a lot to like in that unpopular budget proposal, too, and would even be cheering if a Republican president had the extra amount of guts to take aim at the popular entitlement programs that are driving the national debt to eventual bankruptcy. Fiscal solvency and other matters requiring hard choices and hard math are always a hard sell, and all the harder when you squander your credibility with claims that are never proved and only cast further lingering suspicion on yourself.
Trump’s supporters can also rightly note that none of his critics’ have yet proved their most damning allegations, but at this moment in the news cycle the claims are at least as plausible as that story about Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad being in on the Kennedy hit and President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War that Trump was never for, or that one about Obama being born in Kenya that Trump took credit for putting to rest, and these days it all a needless distraction. At this point we want Trump to put up or shut up, disprove his conspiracy-minded critics with full financial disclosure and an independent investigation, then lay off the “tweets” and get on with all the boring but consequential stuff.

— Bud Norman