Thursday, May 11, 2017

What does Trump's firing of FBI Director Comey mean for the nation?

My news sources are swamped with stories about President Trump firing FBI director James Comey. This post is an exercise in trying to make a coherent story about that action. I will consider these questions. What happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? And what does it mean for the nation?

Scriber’s time-saving hint: If you think you already know the facts and have been keeping up with the news, try skipping to the last section on what all this means for the nation going ahead, “What is in store for the nation now?”

What did Trump do - and how?

The New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes the action in Comey’s firing and the look of power.

Four thousand people work for the executive office of the President. Thirty-five thousand work for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Protocols for communication between the two are well established. And yet, on Tuesday, after President Donald Trump decided to fire the F.B.I. director, James Comey, he had a letter printed out, dropped into a manila envelope, and carried to F.B.I. headquarters in the hand of his own longtime personal bodyguard, the fifty-seven-year old ex-N.Y.P.D. cop Keith Schiller. This Administration has a weakness for macho strutting … Even for this White House, though, Comey’s ouster was remarkably ritualized and medieval: a Corleone gesture, the loyalist sent across town with a letter in his hand.

So what was in the letter?

Much can be understood just from this passage from the letter sent from Trump to Comey. This is from the NY Times’ report, F.B.I. Director James Comey Is Fired by Trump.

“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau, ” Mr. Trump said in a letter to Mr. Comey dated Tuesday. White House officials refused to say anything more about the three occasions Mr. Trump cited.

There are two parts to that passage. If I were to have written such a letter, it would have been brief and devoid of extraneous detail. In my experience, unneeded elaboration gets you in trouble. But this is a lesson unlearned by our President. My version would be the one in italics above omitting “nevertheless.” The clause preceding it does nothing more than reveal Trump’s motives, namely that he is obsessed with the investigations into his Russian connections.

Wallace-Wells has an interesting closer on Comey’s firing:

The Administration has a weakness for macho strutting.
But the image of James Comey taxiing away in a plane after his firing,
holding secrets that even Trump wanted to know,
is the true look of power.

It was a strange note for the sitting President of the United States to strike, and a profoundly defensive one. Comey himself had been in Los Angeles, where he had gone to speak at an F.B.I. recruiting event, when he learned that he had lost his job. He made no public comments afterward, but news cameras tracked him as he rode in a car to the airport, got in a private jet, and then taxied down the runway, silent, holding secrets that even the President wanted to know. Now, that is the look of power.

… Comey has lost his job but not yet left the scene. He knows what is right now the most precious and guarded information in American public life: what the F.B.I. investigation has found.

Why fire Comey? And why now?

The New York Times: Days Before Firing, Comey Asked for More Resources for Russia Inquiry

WASHINGTON — Days before he was fired as F.B.I. director, James B. Comey asked the Justice Department for more prosecutors and other personnel to accelerate the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.

It was the first clear-cut evidence that Mr. Comey believed the bureau needed more resources to handle a sprawling and highly politicized counterintelligence investigation.

His appeal, described on Wednesday by four congressional officials, was made to Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, whose memo was used to justify Mr. Comey’s abrupt dismissal on Tuesday.

It is not yet known what became of Mr. Comey’s request, or what role — if any — it played in his firing. But the future of the F.B.I.’s investigation is now more uncertain than at any point since it began in late July, and any fallout from the dismissal is unlikely to be contained at the bureau.

If Trump knew of Comey’s request, and the reports I’ve seen make me think he did, then Comey’s request was but the capstone on a long-simmering sub rosa feud between the two. The details are described in the NY Times report which summarizes:

The dismissal ended the long-deteriorating relationship of Mr. Trump and Mr. Comey, who repeatedly collided publicly and privately. For Mr. Trump, a president who puts a premium on loyalty, Mr. Comey represented an independent and unpredictable director with enormous power to disrupt his administration.

"It is essential that we find new leadership for the F.B.I. that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission,” Mr. Trump wrote, a remark that particularly upset agents who saw it as an insult to them.

Whatever the reason for Trump’s action, it was not what would be typically called “for cause.”

F.B.I. agents were enraged by the firing and worried openly that Mr. Trump would appoint a White House ally to lead them. Mr. Comey was widely liked in the F.B.I., even by those who criticized his handling of the Clinton investigation. Agents regarded him as a good manager and an independent director.

That leads us back to Trump’s worries about the FBI’s investigations and Comey’s aggressive and independent management.

Steve Benen summarizes what makes it look like Trump is guilty of something, saying thatInnocent people don’t usually act the way Trump is acting. If Trump were entirely innocent, and the investigations into Russian influence on the election are going nowhere, would he be doing these?

Innocent people don’t try to end ongoing investigations.
Innocent people don’t try to divert blame.
Innocent people don’t take lash out at witnesses and/or try to block their testimony.
Innocent people don’t lie.
Innocent people don’t show signs of panic.
Innocent people don’t try to manipulate allies into making their problems go away.
Innocent people don’t try to suppress questions.

… Trump seems awfully nervous for a person who believes he’s in the clear.

And as we, but not Trump, learned from Watergate, only guilty Presidents fire investigators.

Here’s why from Jeffrey Frank at the New Yorker: Comey’s firing is - and isn’t - like Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre.

It is natural to compare the dismissal of Cox, and the refusal by Richardson and Ruckelshaus to do the deed, to the firing of James Comey, the F.B.I. director, carried out by Trump’s Attorney General, the all-too-willing Jeff Sessions, if only because the dismissals, in both cases, were accompanied by a powerful odor: of something being covered up, along with a fear that what Americans treasure most—the values contained in the Constitution, the idea that America is indeed a nation of laws—were being undermined by the very people entrusted with protecting those values. In the Nixon era, the corruption, encouraged by the White House, was aimed at perceived enemies of the Administration. In a time so short that it doesn’t quite deserve to be called the Trump era, the current corruption includes possible attempts by a foreign power, Russia, to influence and subvert an American election. The odor this time includes the curious behavior of Trump and others in reacting to reliable information that General Michael Flynn, Trump’s national-security adviser, had lied about his preëlection contacts with the Russians. Was Comey getting close to something more? That’s a natural suspicion in a time when conspiracy theories, many of them promoted by Trump and his followers, have become so commonplace.

On October 19, 1973, the former Nixon White House counsel John Dean pleaded guilty to conspiracy to cover up the Watergate affair, and agreed to become a witness for the prosecution—for Cox. On Tuesday, Dean reflected on the Comey firing and told my colleague Jane Mayer, “I’d have thought they’d have let the man walk out under his own power. But Trump, I guess, always has to play the strong guy.”

“By doing this, though,” Dean continued, “they’ve raised so many questions. How can you conclude anything but that Trump knows he’s got problems? … Every move they make keeps signalling ‘coverup.’

Dean continued, “If they think they can influence the Russian investigation by removing Comey, they are naïve. I learned from my own experience that *you can’t put in the fix by removing somebody.*”

What is in store for the nation now?

Brian Beutler writes in the New Republic about how Trump’s Firing of FBI Director James Comey Is a Moment of Truth for U.S. Democracy. This is not yet a crisis of legitimacy, but we are on the precipice of one.

Less than a month ago, President Donald Trump told Fox Business Network it wasn’t “too late” for him to fire FBI Director James Comey. At the time, I argued that while Trump was correct in a narrow, legalistic sense, “for all practical purposes it is almost certainly false—unless the White House believes that mass FBI resignations, or the appointment of a special prosecutor, or impeachment for obstruction, or some combination thereof, would be an improvement on the status quo.”

That thesis is about to be tested in dramatic fashion, because on Tuesday, Trump took the plunge and fired Comey without warning for allegedly mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. We are not yet facing a crisis of presidential legitimacy, but we are on the precipice of one that could be as bad as or worse than any in U.S. history.

No FBI director can or should be considered unfireable. FBI directors are just as capable of negligence, ethical breaches, and crimes as other public servants, if not more so. Comey painted so far outside the lines during the presidential election that the notion that he could or should be fired has crossed many minds over the past several months.

But most FBI directors don’t find themselves leading investigations of the presidents who have the authority to fire them, or serve under attorneys general who have recused themselves from those investigations. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s attorney general, reportedly helped to engineer this firing.

Likewise, there is no precedent for a president terminating an FBI director under nakedly false pretenses. Last year, Trump celebrated Comey’s campaign-season intrusions against Clinton as “bigger than Watergate,” and he may owe his presidency to those intrusions. That Trump now believes those intrusions were so improper as to warrant Comey’s scalp fails the most basic test of good faith.

Trump wanted Comey gone, so he latched on to a reason. Our best hope is that Trump reached this decision because he is erratic and knavish, rather than because he is placing himself above the reach of the law.

On the off-chance Trump’s decision to fire Comey is not a calamitously ham-fisted attempt to obstruct the Russia-Trump investigation, a few of the following things need to happen very quickly.

First, and most critically, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein can appoint a special prosecutor to oversee the Russia-Trump investigation. As Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters Tuesday night, “If Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein does not appoint an independent prosecutor, every American will rightly suspect that the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover-up.”

Second, Trump can nominate a new FBI director who isn’t comically conflicted or cronyistic, as so many Trump nominees have been. Or, to strain credulity, he can accept a nominee whom the chair and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee choose. One of Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin’s chief concerns is that a partisan FBI director will extinguish the Russia-Trump investigation. The more drawn out and partisan the process of replacing Comey becomes, the clearer it will be that Trump is setting out to corrupt the FBI, and that the new director will be expected to fall in line where Comey did not.

Third, Republicans in Congress can relent and establish a bipartisan joint investigative committee or (in veto-proof numbers) pass legislation establishing an independent commission with subpoena power. Likewise, should Rosenstein fail to appoint a special prosecutor, they can join Democrats in passing veto-proof independent counsel legislation.

If these things don’t happen, and I am less than hopeful they will, it’s hard to see how we don’t tumble down one of two dark paths.

One path: Trump, who has boasted of enjoying the overwhelming support of U.S. law-enforcement agents, sets about attempting to co-opt or weaponize the FBI, and his government begins to collapse. FBI and DOJ employees resign in large numbers. Leaks begin pouring out of current and former government officials with such volume as to make the first months of the Trump presidency look watertight. (Comey, if nothing else, has a flair for the dramatic.) Then impeachment proceedings begin.

Another path: Republicans in Congress continue to enable Trump’s assault on democracy and the rule of law. Democrats in Congress use whatever obstructive tools they have to register protest or force some semblance of normalcy back into the system. But Trump wins his first and largest assault on competing institutions since his presidency began, and the nation’s slide into authoritarianism begins in earnest.

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