Everyone knew that the presidency of Donald Trump would be an adventure. Those who voted for him expected an exciting adventure, where America changed for the better – for the forgotten people, the oppressed and formerly despised straight white Christian folks, who would be despised no more by those smug city folks with fancy degrees and their science crap and their stupid little Prius cars and their gay and black and Muslim and Mexican friends. Those who didn’t vote for Trump expected a different sort of adventure – a dark one with dragons. Living in an age of authoritarian blood-and-soil white nationalism is always an adventure. The knock on the door – people mysteriously disappearing – is an adventure too. So is living in an age where the government pretty much shuts down, to free up funds for a giant wall to keep the swarthy masses out and to fund an even bigger military to take care of everyone else in the world. This would be an adventure in cultural purity. Those always end badly – but Donald Trump did win the election. Those who didn’t vote for Trump had only one option. Face the dragons.
Elections, however, aren’t everything. No one expected, sixty days into the Trump presidency, that his FBI director, James Comey, would testify to Congress that Trump had made up that story about Obama wiretapping Trump’s phones in Trump Tower – or else Trump had been reading conspiracy theory crap and believing it, when he could have just called up any of our sixteen or seventeen intelligence agencies and just asked. They do report to him. Comey also mentioned that the FBI has been investigating – since last July – whether the Trump campaign had been working with the Russians in their impressive hacking and leaking of all that stuff from the Democrats’ servers that had made things far easier for Trump. Trump says that’s nonsense. His FBI director has been looking into it anyway. That’s only logical. National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers sat next to Comey, nodding in agreement. Trump was the one having the adventure now, with dragons. His own folks were slapping him down now, hard.
The Washington Post provides the details:
FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged Monday that his agency is conducting an investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in a counterintelligence probe that could reach all the way to the White House and may last for months.
The extraordinary disclosure came near the beginning of a sprawling, 5½ -hour public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in which Comey also said there is “no information” that supports President Trump’s claims that his predecessor ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the election campaign.
Comey repeatedly refused to answer whether specific individuals close to the president had fallen under suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, “so we don’t wind up smearing people” who may not be charged with a crime…
Actually he didn’t say much. There’s a long-standing investigation, still in progress. Trump, and everyone else, will find out what they find later – Comey suggested that might be August – but for now they haven’t folded up their tent. That implies more and more stuff keeps popping up, and it’s not bullshit, and this is dead-serious:
Comey also said he was authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the existence of the wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the electoral process.
That’s a warning to Trump. His attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, had to recuse himself – he helped run Trump’s campaign and there were all those meetings with the Russian ambassador that he forget to mention in his confirmation hearing – under oath. Oops. Sessions’ acting deputy approved the Comey warning. The election may be over, but this isn’t over.
That should scare the crap out of Trump. This could end his presidency, so there was special pleading, that didn’t get very far:
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, urged Comey to reveal if and when the bureau has information clearing any of its targets, and to do so as quickly as possible.
“There’s a big gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country, and so the faster that you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans,” Nunes said.
Comey said that the investigation began in late July and that for a counterintelligence probe, “that’s a fairly short period of time.”
And he noted that Trump has been a problem:
The hearing came amid the controversy fired up by Trump more than two weeks ago when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that President Barack Obama had ordered his phones tapped at Trump Tower.
“I have no information that supports those tweets,” Comey said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI,” and agents found nothing to support those claims.
He added that the Justice Department had asked him to tell the committee that the agency has no such information, either.
When the president is full of shit, investigations follow, and that wiretap stuff is the least of Trump’s worries:
Comey and Rogers both predicted that Russian intelligence agencies will continue to seek to meddle in U.S. political campaigns, because they consider their work in the 2016 presidential race to have been successful.
In an influence campaign that the U.S. intelligence community in January said was ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, hackers working for Russian spy agencies penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016, as well as the email accounts of Democratic officials. The material was relayed to WikiLeaks, the intelligence community reported, and the anti-secrecy group launched a series of damaging email releases that began just before the Democratic National Convention last summer and continued through the fall. The Russians’ goal was not only to undermine the legitimacy of the election process but also to harm Clinton’s campaign and boost Trump’s chances of winning, the intelligence community concluded.
“They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018,” Comey said. “One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful, introducing chaos and discord” into the electoral process.
They know all this. The FBI and all the intelligence agencies agree, and the top Democrat on the panel, Adam Schiff, didn’t help matters:
He ticked off a list of more than a dozen incidents, including former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page’s trip to Moscow and alleged meeting with Igor Sechin, a Putin confidant and chief executive of the energy company Rosneft; and Trump political adviser Roger Stone’s boasts about his connections to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Stone’s prediction that the emails of Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta would be published.
“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” Schiff said. “But it is also possible, may be more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated. … We simply don’t know, not yet, and we owe it to the country to find out.”
At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer stressed that an investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates doesn’t mean that there was any.
Sean Spicer did what he could:
“Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things,” Spicer said. “I think it is fine to look into it, but at the end of the day they’re going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had. There’s no evidence of a Trump-Russian collusion.”
So far there isn’t, so far, but McClatchy had an additional scoop:
Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories – some fictional – that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.
Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.
The bots’ end products were largely millions of Twitter and Facebook posts carrying links to stories on conservative internet sites such as Breitbart News and InfoWars, as well as on the Kremlin-backed RT News and Sputnik News, the sources said. Some of the stories were false or mixed fact and fiction, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bot attacks are part of an FBI-led investigation into a multifaceted Russian operation to influence last year’s elections.
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives.
Trump’s “chief strategist” Steve Bannon – his Karl Rove – used to run Breitbart News. The noose tightens.
Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker tell the tale this way:
On the 60th day of his presidency came the hardest truth for Donald Trump.
He was wrong.
James B. Comey – the FBI director whom Trump celebrated on the campaign trail as a gutsy and honorable “Crooked Hillary” truth-teller – testified under oath Monday what many Americans had already assumed: Trump had falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping his headquarters during last year’s campaign.
Trump did not merely allege that former president Barack Obama ordered surveillance on Trump Tower, of course. He asserted it as fact, and then reasserted it, and then insisted that forthcoming evidence would prove him right.
But in Monday’s remarkable, marathon hearing of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Comey said there was no such evidence. Trump’s claim, first made in a series of tweets on March 4 at a moment when associates said he was feeling under siege and stewing over the struggles of his young presidency, remains unfounded.
Comey did not stop there. He confirmed publicly that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and associates with Russia…
Trump was slapped down, and that could be deadly:
Questions about Russia have hung over Trump for months, but the president always has dismissed them as “fake news.” That became much harder Monday after the FBI director proclaimed the Russia probe to be anything but fake.
“There’s a smell of treason in the air,” presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said. “Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-boggling event.”
Of course, but it’s bad enough as it is:
The Comey episode threatens to damage Trump’s credibility not only with voters, but also with lawmakers of his own party whose support he needs to pass the health-care bill this week in the House, the first legislative project of his presidency.
Furthermore, the FBI’s far-reaching Russia investigation shows no sign of concluding soon and is all but certain to remain a distraction for the White House, spurring moments of presidential fury and rash tweets and possibly inhibiting the administration’s ability to govern.
This is deadly:
On the Russia issue, Trump and his aides were defiant Monday in the face of Comey’s testimony. Before Comey was sworn in at the hearing, Trump tried to set the tone with a series of early-morning tweets decrying the accusations of collusion with Russia as “FAKE NEWS” – being pushed by defeated Democrats and arguing that the real scandal is the leaking of sensitive information from within the intelligence community.
“Must find leaker now!” he wrote in one tweet from his personal account.
During Comey’s testimony, Trump offered live commentary on his official presidential Twitter account, pushing the argument that Russia did not influence the election.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer picked up the torch in the afternoon, trying in a contentious briefing with reporters to deflect attention from Trump’s false wiretapping charges while steadfastly refusing to admit any wrongdoing.
“I think we’re going to test the outer limits of the Trump ‘fake news’ cult,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist.
They may have reached that limit:
Spicer’s defense strategy was in part to distance Trump from the figures under investigation by the FBI for their ties to Russia. In Spicer’s telling, Paul Manafort was a virtual nobody, someone who “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”
Manafort was actually Trump’s campaign chairman and de facto manager for five months last year, from the end of the primaries through the summer convention and the start of the general election season.
No, you can’t make stuff up. There are archived news items and Google, and this:
Brinkley, who has published biographies of such presidents as Gerald Ford, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt, said of Trump’s start, “This is the most failed first 100 days of any president.”
“To be as low as he is in the polls, in the 30s, while the FBI director is on television saying they launched an investigation into your ties with Russia, I don’t know how it can get much worse,” Brinkley said.
Oh, there’s a way, and Glenn Thrush reports this:
President Trump began Monday as he has started so many other presidential mornings – by unleashing a blistering Twitter attack on critics who suggested his 2016 campaign colluded with the Russians.
By the afternoon the director of the FBI, James B. Comey, had systematically demolished his arguments in a remarkable public takedown of a sitting president. Even a close ally of Mr. Trump, Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the House Intelligence Committee chairman, conceded that “a gray cloud” of suspicion now hung over the White House by the end of the day’s hearings.
The testimony of Mr. Comey and that of Adm. Michael S. Rogers, his National Security Agency counterpart, will most likely enervate and distract Mr. Trump’s administration for weeks, if not longer, overshadowing good news, like the impressive debut of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, his Supreme Court nominee, on the first day of his confirmation hearings Monday.
But it’s the obsessiveness and ferocity of Mr. Trump’s pushback against the Russian allegations – often untethered from fact or tact – that is making an uncertain situation worse.
That’s the real problem, and everyone knows it:
Mr. Trump’s allies have begun to wonder if his need for self-expression, often on social media, will exceed his instinct for self-preservation, with disastrous results both for the president and for a party whose fate is now tightly tied to his.
“The tweets make it much more difficult for us as we try to build a case against these leakers,” said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican who sits on the Intelligence Committee. “We always have to be answering questions about the tweets – it puts us on defense all the time when we could be building a case for the president.”
And Mr. Trump’s fixation on fighting is undermining his credibility at a time when he needs to toggle from go-it-alone executive action to collaborative congressional action on ambitious health care, budget and infrastructure legislation.
Something must be done:
Over the past several weeks, Republicans in Congress and members of their staffs have privately complained that Mr. Trump’s Twitter comment on March 4 – the one where he called Barack Obama “sick” and suggested that the former president had ordered a “tapp” on his phone – had done more to undermine anything he’s done as president because it called into question his seriousness about governing.
The problem, from the perspective of Mr. Trump’s beleaguered political fire brigade, is that the president insists on dealing with crises by creating new ones – so surrogates, repeating talking points the president himself ignores, say they often feel like human shields.
Think of them as hostages of the man who tweets, and cannot stop tweeting:
Most politicians, perhaps any other politician, would have backed away from the Russia story, and left the defense to surrogates or unexpected validators like Mike Morrell, the former acting director of the CIA, who said last week that “there is smoke, but there is no fire at all” in the allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
But this president, a proponent of do-it-yourself crisis communications with boundless self-confidence in his capacity to shape the story, seems determined to hug his Russian hand grenade.
Monday morning began not with praise of Judge Gorsuch – or an exhortation of House Republicans to quickly pass a revamped Obamacare repeal – but with six protective-crouch tweets about the Russia investigation.
“The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign. Big advantage in Electoral College and lost!” Mr. Trump wrote shortly after dawn, using his private Twitter account.
Then, a few minutes later: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of classified information. Must find leaker now!”
As the saying goes, they have a madman on their hands:
People close to the president say Mr. Trump’s Twitter torrent had less to do with fact, strategy or tactic than a sense of persecution bordering on faith: He simply believes that he was bugged in some way, by someone, and that evidence will soon appear to back him up.
It won’t, and then what? And the FBI has been investigating possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and associates with Russia since last July. What about that?
Okay, that’s easy. Don’t do Vladimir Putin any favors for a few days, but even that is hard:
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to skip an April 5-6 meeting of NATO foreign ministers for a U.S. visit by the Chinese president and will travel to Russia later in the month, U.S. officials said on Monday, a step allies may see as putting Moscow’s concerns ahead of theirs.
Tillerson intends to miss what would be his first meeting in Brussels with the 28 NATO members to attend President Donald Trump’s expected April 6-7 talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, four current and former U.S. officials said.
Now, the obvious:
The decisions to skip the NATO meeting and to visit Moscow risked feeding a perception that Trump may be putting U.S. dealings with big powers before those of smaller nations that depend on Washington for their security, said two former U.S. officials.
Trump has often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Tillerson worked with Russia’s government for years as a top executive at Exxon Mobil Corp, and has questioned the wisdom of sanctions against Russia that he said could harm U.S. businesses.
And the reaction:
“It feeds this narrative that somehow the Trump administration is playing footsy with Russia,” said one former U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“You don’t want to do your early business with the world’s great autocrats. You want to start with the great democracies, and NATO is the security instrument of the transatlantic group of great democracies,” he added.
Any visit to Russia by a senior Trump administration official will be carefully scrutinized after the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation on Monday publicly confirmed his agency was investigating any collusion between the Russian government and Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.
That’s asking for trouble, and Michael Gerson sees this:
Aggression is growing along the westward reach of Russian influence and the southern boundary of Chinese influence. Intercontinental nuclear capacity may soon be in the hands of a mental pubescent in North Korea. In the Middle East, a hostile alliance of Russia and Shiite powers is ascendant; radical Sunnis have a territorial foothold and inspire strikes in Western cities; America’s traditional Sunni friends and allies feel devalued or abandoned; perhaps 500,000 Syrians are dead and millions of refugees suffer in conditions that incubate anger. Cyberterrorism and cyberespionage are exploiting and weaponizing our own technological dependence. Add to this a massive famine in East Africa, threatening the lives of 20 million people, and the picture of chaos is complete – until the next crisis breaks.
It is in this context that the diplomatic bloopers reel of the past few days has been played – the casual association of British intelligence with alleged surveillance at Trump Tower; the presidential tweets undermining Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his Asia trip; and the rude and childish treatment given the German chancellor. When President Trump and Angela Merkel sat together in the Oval Office, we were seeing the leader of the free world – and that guy pouting in public.
This will not do:
The spectacle of an American president blaming a Fox News commentator for a major diplomatic incident was another milestone in the miniaturization of the presidency.
An interested foreigner (friend or foe) must be a student of Trump’s temperament, which is just as bad as advertised. He is inexperienced, uninformed, easily provoked and supremely confident in his own judgment. His advantage is the choice of some serious, experienced advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell. But success in their jobs depends on Trump’s listening skills.
Mere incompetence would be bad enough. But foreigners trying to understand the United States must now study (of all things) the intellectual influences of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. His vision of a Western alliance of ethno-nationalist, right-wing populists against globalists, multiculturalists, Islamists and (fill in the blank with your preferred minority) is the administration’s most vivid and rhetorically ascendant foreign policy viewpoint. How does this affect the alliances of the previous dispensation? That is the background against which Trump’s peevishness is being viewed.
And there is the foreground:
Foreigners are seeing politics, not national security, in the driver’s seat of the administration. Tillerson was given the job of secretary of state, then denied his choice of deputy for political reasons, then ordered to make a 28 percent cut in the budget for diplomacy and development. Never mind that Tillerson has been left a diminished figure. Never mind that stability operations in Somalia and northern Nigeria – the recruiting grounds of Islamist terrorism – would likely be eliminated under the Trump budget. Never mind that programs to prevent famines would be slashed…
Foreigners see a Darwinian, nationalist framework for American foreign policy; a diminished commitment to global engagement; a brewing scandal that could distract and cripple the administration; and a president who often conducts his affairs with peevish ignorance.
Other than that, things are fine. But the man has been slapped down.
Now, if he would only stay down, or pull an early Nixon. It may be time to leave. Too much adventure is bad for everyone concerned. Let him play golf all day now. He likes that. That can be his adventure. The rest of us can then move on to other adventures, ones with good things when then end. This one can only end badly.