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Sometimes There Is Such a Thing as Bad Press

Donald Trump Jr. has been a big name in the news for the past few days, getting even more ink and airtime than his presidential eponym, but he’s surely not relishing the attention. All the stories have been about a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer closely linked to the Kremlin, and over the past few days they’ve become progressively worse.
It all started with a New York Times report on Saturday that Trump Jr., along with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his then-campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with the aforementioned Kremlin-linked lawyer, Natalia Veselnistkaya, at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016. The Trumps’ most staunch defenders usually dismiss anything in “The New York Slimes” as “fake news,” which is often a plausible defense, but in this case the meeting was corroborated by a statement from Trump Jr., which described the meeting as a discussion about lifting a Russian ban on its orphans being adopted by Americans, but “did not address whether the presidential campaign was discussed.” Given that Trump Jr. had previously denied any meetings with any Russians during the campaign, and that he and those two other top Trump campaign aides and that Kremlin-linked lawyer would have been the only four people talking about the Russian adoption issue at the time, it looked bad.
On Sunday The New York Times reported that the campaign was indeed discussed at the meeting, and that in fact the reason for it was to hear some promised information from the Kremlin-linked lawyer that the campaign might use against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, which looked worse. This blast of “fake news” from “The New York Slimes” cited five unnamed sources, three of them described as White House advisors, but it was also corroborated by a more forthcoming statement by Trump Jr.. In the statement, Trump explained that the promised dirt wasn’t delivered, that the conversation somehow turned to talk about the Russian adoption issue, and at that point he ended the meeting. “It became clear to me,” he wrote, “that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting.”
On Sunday The Washington Post piled on with a story that the meeting had been arranged by a music publicist named Rob Goldstone, who represents a Russian pop star named Emin Agalarov, whose wealthy family is Kremlin-linked and has also done business with the Trumps. There was no statement from anyone named Trump in the story, but the deal to put the Trump name atop a Moscow tower had been publicly acknowledged by both parties. That’s not proof of anything nefarious, of course, but it also looks bad.
On Monday The New York Times was back on top of the story with a report that Goldstone had e-mailed Trump Jr. prior to the meeting to say that the promised dirt on Clinton was coming direct from the Kremlin as part of its efforts to help the Trump presidential campaign. There was no corroborating statement from Trump, whose newly-hired lawyer has probably advised him not to say anything, but if the e-mail does exist and the subpoena-powered special counsel gets his hands on it that will look even worse yet.
All the president’s spokespeople have done their best make it look better, but they’ve had a tough time of it. The original claim was that no one in the Trump campaign ever had any contacts with any Russians during the race, but since then a national security advisor has resigned and an Attorney General has recused from the whole matter and that son-in-law and past campaign chairman are both under investigation for their now-admitted meeting with Russians during the race, so that’s been abandoned. The next claim was that all the meetings were perfectly innocent, either momentary social encounters at cocktail parties or discussions by campaign associates in their other political or business capacities or high-minded talk about such non-campaign related things as Russians adoptions, but now Trump Jr. has admitted that at least on one occasion the campaign was quite willing and eager to talk with a Russian who might provide to help Trump win the election.
Trump Jr. is for now sticking to his story that he had no idea the Russian he met with had any ties to the Kremlin, and that he and two of Trump’s other closest advisors took time out of a busy campaign schedule to welcome her to Trump Tower with the hope she was getting her promised dirt from a clean source, but even if you buy that it still doesn’t make him look good. For now everyone Trump is insisting that no matter what went down the president didn’t have the slightest idea that his son and son-in-law and campaign chairman were having at a meeting a Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer, but even if that’s true it doesn’t make him look any better.
For the moment the White House and its media allies are insisting that the bigger scandal is that fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, who was fired because of his investigation of all the Russia stuff, had leaked classified information along with a much more widely noted claim that Trump had implicitly tried to quash an investigation about that national security advisor who had resigned over some undisclosed contacts with Russians. The president “tweeted” about how it was “Totally illegal!,” his indefatigable spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway kept trying to bring it up during her inquisitions on the cable news, and that was what all the right-wing radio talk shows we heard on our drive around town wanted to talk about. Their source is a report in The Hill, which is an inside-the-beltway establishment paper that also relied on unnamed sources for its scoop, but if they’d read all the way through they’d have noticed it only said some of Comey’s memos were classified, did not allege that the one he long ago admitted he leaked was one of them, and even in the worst case it isn’t nearly so juicy as what The New York Times and The Washington Post have been coming up with the past few days.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who has been filling in for a while for the conspicuously absent White House press secretary Sean Spicer, even tried to claim in an another camera-free pressing briefing that it was more scandalous that people had leaked information about the Trump campaign’s effort to acquire leaked information from a Kremlin-linked lawyer. Three of those unnamed leakers were reportedly White House advisors, the denunciation basically confirmed the leaks, and Trump Jr.’s written statements to the press corroborated the worst of it, so it hardly seems a winning argument.
The already emerging next claim is that so what if the Trump campaign sought the help of the Russians to win the election. During the campaign Trump said he hoped the Russians would leak any of the e-mails they might have hacked from Clinton, and although he later said he was just joking it wouldn’t be at all surprising to hear him say that so what if he wasn’t joking. There’s already talk in the Trump-friendly media about past Democratic efforts to get opposition research information from foreign governments or meddle in their elections, much of it provably true and some of it unproved but plausible, and as understandably cynical a nation as ours might just buy the argument that, c’mon, everybody does it.
We hope not. Whatever nefarious scandals the Democrats might have gotten away with in the past — and we’re sure there have been damned more than just a few — that doesn’t mean a Republican should get away with working with a business-connected foreign adversary to influence an American presidential election. So far there’s no definitive proof it happened, but by now we can’t take seriously anyone’s claim that there’s no basis for suspicion, and we’re hoping that the press and the congressional investigative committees and the special counsel will eventually let us know one way or another.

— Bud Norman

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A Morning in Washington and an Evening in Wichita

Unless you had the good fortune to be in Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday, where the all-time great gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples was wowing a vast and varied River Festival crowd under a starry sky on the banks of the Arkansas River, the big story of the day was probably the fired Federal Bureau of Investigation’s testimony before a Senate committee about that Russia thing with President Donald Trump and Russia. Much of it had already been leaked weeks ago and then confirmed by Wednesday’s written statement, but it was something to see a longtime public official coming right out and saying under oath and live on all four broadcast networks that the president is a liar, and by the end it was all the talk.
There was some new stuff, too, including James Comey’s admission that he leaked information to The New York Times through a law professor pal about his private conversations with the president, and Flynn’s claim that the president said he hoped the FBI’s investigation of the president’s recently fired National Security Advisor would wind up without any charges, and asked for the director’s loyalty. That was a big talking point on the conservative talk radio shows, who were more outraged about the leaking part than any of the rest of it, but we don’t expect that argument will resonate far beyond their audiences. Trump’s lawyer, the same guy who handled his divorces and bankruptcies, tried to impugn Comey’s testimony by noting that the leak occurred before the presidential “tweet” about possible White House that was given as the reason for the leak, which was reported as a fact on one of the conservative talk radio shows we heard on the way to the concert, but our reading of the published record suggests he was wrong about that.
Comey testified that “lordy” he hopes there are White House tapes to back up his sworn testimony and contemporaneous memos and administration officials who can back up corroborating details such as the president ordering everyone else out of the room prior to one uncomfortable meeting, so a lawyer more seasoned in these political matters might not have brought that up. Trump’s lawyer’s other big argument was that Comey confirmed Trump’s claim that he had been assured on three separate occasions that the president was under an individual criminal investigation, but by now it’s pretty clear that the FBI as well as the House and Senate Committees and a special counsel are investigating the heck out of Trump’s campaign and some very, very close associates. He also seemed pleased that Comey had confirmed there was no o evidence the Russians electronically altered any voting machines, but nobody ever said they did.
Having a longstanding public official testify on live television that the president is a liar is a public relations as well as legal problem, especially when more than 60 percent of the country had already concluded he was a liar on election day, which included a significant number of people who voted for him rather than his similarly distrusted Democratic opponent, so even the most seasoned lawyer would have his hands full. Trump claimed in a famously against-his-legal-interest interview with the National Broadcasting Corporation that he never asked Comey for a pledge of loyalty, although he immediately added that “It wouldn’t be a bad question to ask,” and that he never said anything that could possibly be interpreted as a request for leniency to Flynn, but by now no one finds it hard to imagine him saying either thing. Trump’s most strident critics will find it characteristically unethical and heavy-handded, and his most stance supporters will consider it just the kind of tough tactics against the hated establishment that they voted for.
There were plenty of intriguing questions that went unanswered, too, but the senators apparently learned more in closed session that followed. Questions that could not be answered without divulging classified information included: What Comey knows about the sanctioned Russian bank that the president’s son-in-law met with during the transition; was the FBI able to confirm any of the salacious allegations in a leaked dossier compiled by a British intelligence agent; does Flynn remain a central figure in an ongoing investigation concerning the Russians and the Trump campaign; was he aware of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the government that have not been acknowledged by the White House; several questions regarding recused-from-the-Russia thing Attorney General Jeff Sessions; and does Comey have reason to believe that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government.
That’s a lot to ponder, but fortunately there was no time for all that when Mavis Staples was in town. The grand dame of gospel and soul is 77 years old, 67 years removed from her first classic recordings as the prodigy daughter of all time great gospel guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples and lead singer of The Staples Singers, but we can testify that she’s as good as ever. She had a crack band and a couple of perfectly simpatico backup singers, her voice was full of the spirit and her joyous charm was irresistible. Her set dipped into that deep gospel vein that began her long career, slipped into the funky and danceable social justice soul songs that landed her top of the pop charts and continued her family’s ministry, and occasionally dipped into some surprisingly cutting-edge blues and rock ‘n’ roll.
She did such expected hits as “Come Go With Me” and “I’ll Take You There,” and although we were disappointed she didn’t do “Sit Down, Servant” or that spooky death song “I’m Coming Home” she did do “Wade in the Water” and added plenty of other heartfelt gospel and shouts of the savior’s name to the show, and it was a much-needed boost to our soul. We kept running into dear friends who aren’t so attuned the spirituality of Mavis Staples, but they all know good music when they hear it, and they shared our bliss in a very heartening way.
She also did a memorable rendition of “Shake a Hand, Make a Friend,” and at that point several thousand Wichitans seemed on very friendly terms with one another on a perfect summer evening on the banks of the Arkansas River. These annual River Festival crowds are a remarkable bunch, full of tattooed south siders in wife-beater t-shirts and east side corporate family guys in Bermuda shorts and polo shirts as well as housewives and hipsters from all over, all in search of turkey legs and Pronto Pups and bouncy houses for the kiddos and zip rides across the river for the teenagers and cheap entertainment for all. Lots of very fat people, no shortage of attractive young lasses in slutty short shorts and fashionably retro summer dresses, and all the race and class and gender and intersectionality a multicultural studies major could hope for.
We stood next to a woman in a hijab and her westernized-looking kids at a table where a guy was daring people to cover a red square with five smaller discs, had a pleasant interchange with a pretty young black woman whose view we had inadvertently blocked, and chatted briefly with a muscle-bound cop about how great the show had been. There were a lot of cops, too, probably a continued consequence of a few years back when they had a block party a little too far east on Douglas and close enough to the bars it went bad, but they all seem happily bored. Everyone was getting along, people were shaking hands and making friends, and there was great American music on a great American night.
The River Festival rolls on through Sunday, when they have the big fireworks finale, and they’ve got the estimable musical talents of Randy Newman scheduled for tonight, so if you’re in the vicinity of Wichita we urge you drop by and shake a hand and make a friend. Our best guess is that the president is a liar, and most of the country seems to agree, including a lot of the people who voted for him, and so was his arguably worse Democratic opponent, but we can testify that there is still great American music on great American nights out there.

— Bud Norman

Swimming in a Flood of News

The news comes at a fast and furious rate in the age of President Donald Trump, but Wednesday’s pace was downright discombobulating. Some bigger than usual bombshells about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia came not from anonymous sources somewhere in the bureaucracy but rather from four under-oath high level figures, here in Kansas the more conservative sort of Republican economic philosophy took a hard hit, and just to the south the University of Oklahoma’s longtime football coach unexpectedly up and quit.
The most attention was paid to the written testimony of fired Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey, which confirmed all those previously anonymously-sourced stories that Comey says Trump had expressed a hope that the FBI would relent in its investigation of Trump’s fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and had asked for a pledge of loyalty to the president. As far as Trump’s most strident critics are concerned that’s sufficient for an impeachable obstruction of justice charge, which seems a bit of an overreach, for now at least, and Trump’s staunchest supporters are claiming vindication by Comey’s admission that he had indeed assured Trump on three separate occasions that the president wasn’t being investigation as an individual, as Trump had noted in Comey’s termination letter, which is not likely to make anybody but other staunch Trump supporters feel good.
Comey will provide oral testimony and answer questions from Republicans and Democrats today, and Trump’s staunchest supporters should be ready with some better arguments. All of the broadcast networks will be televising the Senate hearings live, just like in the Watergate days, and the bars in Washington, D.C., are opening early and offering such specials as “covfefe cocktails” for the expected audience, and the story Comey will tell is far more fascinating than anything that’s going on in the pre-empted soap operas.
Comey’s seven pages of written testimony, apparently backed up by some very contemporaneous notes he’d written on the way home from his encounters with the president, include some novelistic but believable details.
He recalls a moment during a private presidential dinner when “the president said, ‘I need loyalty. I expect loyalty.’ I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.” Comey later recalls that “Near the end of our dinner, the president returned to the subject of my job, saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, ‘I need loyalty.’ I replied, ‘You will always get honesty from me.’ He paused and then said, ‘That’s what I want. Honest loyalty.’ I paused, and then said, ‘You will get that from me.’ As I wrote in the memo that I created immediately after the dinner, it is possible we understood the phrase ‘honest loyalty’ differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further.”
Today’s rating-grabbing telecast will likely include further literary flourishes, along with Republicans and Democrats and Trump’s most strident critics and staunchest defenders understanding the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but our guess is that Trump should ready himself for another bad news cycle. Comey’s recollections are apparently backed up by provably contemporaneous notes, and all the dialogue does seem to have a certain verisimilitude about it, based on what we’ve seen of Comey and Trump. Although Comey has infuriated Democrats by announcing an investigation of the Democratic nominee during the late stages of the campaign and infuriated Republicans by failing to lock her up, at least his bipartisan honesty has never been questioned, while Trump has undeniably been caught in some whoppers. Even if the public does accept Comey’s version of events it’s still an overreach to make an obstruction of justice case, given the different interpretations of “honest loyalty” and almost anything else Trump says, but it’s going to be hard to make Trump look good.
You might not have seen it floating by in the flood of news, but The Washington Post had also reported in a mostly-anonymously-sourced story that Trump had also asked a couple of other top-notch national security types to push back against that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and two of them gave under-oath testimony to that pesky Senate committee. National intelligence director Dan Coats and Admiral Michael Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, both denied they had ever been asked by anyone to do anything untoward, but when the questions got more specific they declined to answer, and at one point Coats freely admitted he didn’t have any particular legal basis for not answering. Even the Republicans seemed peeved by the arguable contempt of Congress, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, taunted by Trump as “Little Marco” during their primary duel, made some good points.
All that is obviously getting in the way of Trump’s infrastructure and health care reform and tax reform agenda, and the tax reform part of the agenda took way out here in Kansas. Enough establishment-type Republicans joined with the Democrats to override the staunchly anti-establishment Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a tax increase, which pretty much brings to an end the tax-cutting program that Trump is proposing. Economics is a complicated science, and there’s an argument to be made that the Kansas economy wouldn’t have thrived any better under the tax-and-spend schemes that have harmed so many blue states, but the Brownback tax cuts inarguably haven’t produced the economic growth that was promised and we’ve even lagged behind the Obama-era overall economy, and the state’s school and social service funding were getting down to the bare bones that alarm even such old-fashioned Kansas Republicans as ourselves, so of course even the national press is gloating. The old-fashioned establishment sorts of Republicans around here arguably acquitted themselves in the matter, but Trump shouldn’t count on them having his back in the coming news cycles.
It was such a busy day we’re still not sure why Bob Stoops relinquished control of that OU Sooners football team, which looks to have another exciting and maybe even championship season coming up. Over the years he’s infuriated Sooners fans with some inexcusable bowl game losses and then delighted them with some chapionship-trophy-hoisting upsets, but he’s got Kansas State ties and seems a decent sort of fellow and after 18 years he’s leaving his successor a much better team than the one he inherited, so we wish him well in his future endeavors.
As for all the rest of these characters in the news these days, we’re wishing all them and all the rest of us our best.

— Bud Norman

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

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