That Inevitable Constitutional Crisis

The man never held political office before. His grasp of how our government (or any government) works is a few steps below rudimentary. He has no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he has no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. He said they had, and starting with Mexico, we’d humiliate them all – and starting with Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted, and moving on to Crooked Hillary, he humiliated anyone who disagreed with him about anything at all. His tweets destroyed them. He was a winner. We’d all be winners, again, finally. He’d make America great again.

That was the general idea. He tapped into America’s deep pool of resentment of those who question us, and an even deeper pool of insecurity, that they might have good reason to question us. There’d be no more of that. No one would ever question us, or question him, ever again, and of course he won the election – and of course there’d be a constitutional crisis. His grasp of the Constitution is also a few steps below rudimentary.

Some things are inevitable. President Trump just fired the FBI director, James Comey, who revealed, in March, that the FBI had been investigating the Trump campaign since last summer – someone may have been working with the Russians to mess up things for Hillary Clinton. Trump had already fired Preet Bharara – the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York who was famous for prosecuting Wall Street executives, but who had also opened an investigation into the Trump campaign and the Russians. Trump Tower was in that man’s jurisdiction. He had to go, and Trump had fired Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, three days after she warned the White House about Michael Flynn. Flynn had lied to the FBI. Flynn had been compromised by the Russians. Flynn could be blackmailed – so Sally Yates had to go. Trump said he fired her because she wouldn’t support his odd travel ban. No one believes that now. But this was different. This was the head of the FBI itself.

On the other hand, this must have seemed the obvious thing to do. Trump’s a smart man – on October 20, 1973, President Nixon fired Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, and that ended that mess for Nixon. No one poked around anymore. Nixon didn’t have to resign. All investigations stopped. Nixon served his full second term. Everyone forgot about Watergate. Nixon’s second term ended in triumph. Everyone remembers that.

Someone must have explained that to Donald Trump. He bought it. His grasp of history may be that weak – but maybe now, Congress will name a new special prosecutor on these matters.

That may not worry him. This is a Republican Congress. Not one of them would vote for such a thing. So he’s safe, but Marc Fisher and Karen DeYoung point out that firing the head of the FBI can be hard:

Presidents who have been on edge about FBI investigations of their actions have sometimes pushed back hard, but more often they have stepped away from any direct effort to halt a probe.

Nixon’s relationship with the FBI’s first and most iconic director, J. Edgar Hoover, was particularly fraught, and in 1971, the president summoned Hoover, who had led the bureau and its first incarnation since 1924, to the Oval Office to relieve him of his duties.

“Nixon actually called him in for the showdown meeting and just couldn’t do it,” [then White House Counsel John] Dean said. “There were talking papers written. It was all set up. They’d been planning it for weeks. And then he chickened out.”

In private discussions with his attorney general, John Mitchell, Nixon said that Hoover “should get the hell out of there.” But at a later meeting with Mitchell, recorded on the White House taping system, Nixon hedged for fear that Hoover might have dirt on him: “We may have on our hands here a man who will pull down the temple with him, including me,” the president said.

In his memoirs, Nixon said that he had been surprised that “the acid of Watergate had dug so deeply into American society that the Saturday Night Massacre would be seen as a great constitutional crisis.”

There should have been no surprise there, but times change:

President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, at the recommendation of senior Justice Department officials who said he had treated Hillary Clinton unfairly and in doing so damaged the credibility of the FBI and the Justice Department.

The startling development comes as Comey was leading a counterintelligence investigation to determine whether associates of Trump may have coordinated with Russia to interfere with the U.S. presidential election last year. It wasn’t immediately clear how Comey’s ouster will affect the Russia probe, but Democrats said they were concerned that his ouster could derail the investigation.

Yeah, well, that was the point of the whole thing:

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Comey’s deputy, Andrew McCabe, would be the acting director of the FBI. As a presidential candidate, Trump explicitly criticized Comey and McCabe for their roles in the Clinton probe while at other points praising Comey for his “guts.”

“The president has accepted the recommendation of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general regarding the dismissal of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in the White House briefing room. The firing is effective “immediately,” he said.

So the deed was done, but this was odd:

Officials said Comey was fired because senior Justice Department officials concluded that he had violated Justice Department principles and procedures last year by publicly discussing the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Democrats have long argued that Comey’s decisions in the months and days before the election hurt Clinton’s standing with voters and affected the outcome, but the president and his closest advisers had argued that Comey went too easy on Clinton and her aides.

Just last week, Trump publicly accused Comey of giving Clinton “a free pass for many bad deeds” when he decided not to recommend criminal charges in the case.

Officials released a Tuesday memo from the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, laying out the rationale behind Comey’s dismissal and attributing it all to his handling of the Clinton case. Officials said Rosenstein began examining Comey’s conduct shortly after being sworn into office two weeks ago.

“The FBI’s reputation and credibility have suffered substantial damage, and it has affected the entire Department of Justice,” Rosenstein wrote. “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unite people of diverse perspectives.”

There’s an easier way to say all that. Comey was too nice to Clinton in July, when he refused to press charges on the email stuff, and too hard on her in late October, when he said there were more emails, and then, two days before the election, said never mind – there was nothing there, actually.

That should have satisfied both sides in this mess – Comey had made a mess of things – but both sides saw this as bullshit:

“The decision by a President whose campaign associates are under investigation by the FBI for collusion with Russia to fire the man overseeing that investigation, upon the recommendation of an Attorney General who has recused himself from that investigation, raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. The House committee is looking into Russian interference in the election.

Some Republicans were also concerned. “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also examining Russian meddling. “I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”

There were multiple calls by Democrats on Tuesday night for the appointment of a special prosecutor to lead the Russia investigation and take the matter out of the hands of Justice Department leadership.

Try to satisfy both sides and you satisfy neither, and there was this:

In a letter to Trump, Sessions said that he agreed Comey had to go.

“I have concluded that a fresh start is needed at the leadership of the FBI,” Sessions wrote. “I must recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey, Jr. and identify an experienced and qualified individual to lead the great men and women of the FBI.”

But in October – when Sessions was a senator supporting Trump, and Comey revealed less than two weeks before the election that he had reopened the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server – Sessions applauded the decision in an appearance on Fox Business Network.

“He had an absolute duty, in my opinion, 11 days or not, to come forward with the new information that he has and let the American people know that, too,” Sessions said at the time.

There was a lot of bullshit going around, but this may be the real dispute:

Several current and former officials said the relationship between the White House and the FBI had been strained for months, in part because administration officials were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia.

That pressure was described as conversational challenges to FBI leadership to pursue the source of leaks seen as damaging to the administration, the officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Although the FBI is investigating disclosures of classified information, the bureau has resisted calls to prioritize leak investigations over the Russia matter, or probe matters that did not involve leaks of classified or otherwise sensitive information, the officials said.

“The administration has been putting pressure on the FBI to focus more on the leaks and weren’t satisfied with the results,” said a former senior U.S. official familiar with the matter. A current official said administration figures have been “very aggressive” in pressuring the FBI.

Comey had to go. Comey thought the Russian connection was more important than finding the source of the leaks that had embarrassed Trump, and then there was this:

President Donald Trump’s administration spent at least a week before former FBI Director James Comey’s abrupt termination on Tuesday looking for a reason to fire him, according to reports by the New York Times and CNN.

The New York Times reported, citing unnamed administration officials, that senior officials at the White House and Department of Justice were at work “building a case” against Comey for at least the last week. Those officials also told the New York Times that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was ordered to find a reason to terminate Comey.

CNN’s Jeff Zeleny said it was “a very closely kept secret” at the White House.

“I am told only a handful of top advisers knew this was coming,” he said. “But I am told just moments ago that the President himself has been considering this, been thinking about this for at least a week.”

Zeleny said Trump “did not necessarily have the rationale” to fire Comey when he first began discussing the possibility “but then asked the attorney general and the deputy attorney general to look for that rationale and that explanation.”

In short, find a likely excuse that the president can use. Any excuse will do. The man has to go.

That won’t do, and Josh Marshall explains why:

In criminal trials there are certain actions defendants can take from which judges will tell juries they can infer guilt. In a political context, this is one of those moments. We are now hearing word from White House officials that the White House is stunned at the backlash at Comey’s firing. Didn’t Democrats think he was doing a bad job? We’re even hearing commentators speculate that maybe this may have been a huge miscalculation. The White House didn’t realize how big a deal this was. In the final analysis I think this will be judged a major miscalculation – just not in the sense they mean. Frankly, no one is that naive. It doesn’t wash.

There is only one reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the decision to fire Comey: that there is grave wrongdoing at the center of the Russia scandal and that it implicates the President. As I write this, I have a difficult time believing that last sentence myself. But sometimes you have to step back from your assumptions and simply look at what the available evidence is telling you. It’s speaking clearly: the only reasonable explanation is that the President has something immense to hide and needs someone in charge of the FBI who he believes is loyal. Like Jeff Sessions. Like Rod Rosenstein.

This is a very dark and perilous moment.

Dana Milbank isn’t so sure of that:

Trump, like Nixon, will fail, for a simple reason: The institutions he is assaulting daily are stronger than he thinks. His autocratic instincts have been checked every step of the way. Trump will, inevitably, be spanked again.

Trump has already been spanked:

He attempted a variant of the “Muslim ban” he spoke of during the campaign, ordering a halt to travel by people from certain Muslim-majority nations. He was shot down in court.

He ominously questioned the legitimacy of “so-called” judges because of the ruling and said they should be blamed for terrorist attacks, while his White House said his authority “will not be questioned.” The courts begged to differ; his revised travel ban, too, is snarled in court.

He recklessly escalated tensions with North Korea and with Iran and snubbed a key ally in Germany’s Angela Merkel. But cooler heads in the Pentagon and the State Department have calmed jittery allies and restored some measure of stability, conveying to them that Trump is not really in charge.

He injected himself into the French presidential elections with his praise for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen – and French voters rejected her by 2-to-1, following Dutch voters’ rejection of another far-right populist in the Trump mold.

He released a budget that slashed major government functions and domestic programs. But American public opinion has turned sharply against Trump, making it easier for Democrats to oppose him. In the spending bill that Congress passed last week, Democrats successfully repelled Trump’s border wall, deportation force and cuts to Planned Parenthood, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and more.

The plain truth is Trump’s clumsy assaults on democratic norms are being resoundingly rejected.

That means this is no time to panic:

Many of us feared during the campaign that Trump would be a threat to democracy, operating outside the Constitution, using demagoguery to turn white Americans against immigrants and religious and racial minorities. That hasn’t happened, though not for lack of trying on Trump’s part. His instincts are authoritarian, but the Trump presidency has been one pratfall after another. He has proved to be a blundering bully and an inept autocrat.

At a single White House briefing Monday, the questioning revealed all manner of disarray. Conservatives, one questioner noted, were worried that the White House is “woefully behind” in filling administration posts and judicial vacancies. The education secretary and other senior administration officials weren’t even aware of a signing statement Trump issued on historically black colleges. Trump’s political website had, until this week, called the travel ban a “Muslim” ban, even as the administration insisted it wasn’t. And 30 days into the 90-day period Trump’s opioid commission has to issue a report, no members of the commission have been named.

Now we may have the clumsiest moment yet of this presidency.

Ruth Marcus is not that hopeful:

Trump faced an unavoidable and escalating conflict in deciding Comey’s fate – a conflict that deepened with every presidential tweet dismissing the inquiry into Russian hacking and denigrating, explicitly or implicitly, the intelligence and law-enforcement agents who work for him. Tweets such as this, from Monday: “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?” Remind me, who was overseeing this alleged charade?

Indeed, the untenable nature of Trump’s conflict was encapsulated in his own dismissal letter to Comey: “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.”

Think about this, the sitting president of the United States announcing that he is not a crook – well, in his telling, not a suspected crook – as he fires the man who has been leading the investigation of his presidential campaign’s possible involvement with Russia.

The parallels to Nixon are too obvious, and Kevin Drum sees this:

The official story about Comey’s firing goes something like this. On April 25, Rod Rosenstein was confirmed as deputy attorney general. It takes him less than two weeks to put together a memo arguing that: Comey was wrong to usurp the attorney general’s prosecutorial authority. He was wrong to hold a “derogatory” press conference about Clinton. He was wrong three months later to claim that keeping quiet about the Huma Abedin emails amounted to “concealing” them. He shouldn’t have said anything on October 28. Rosenstein concludes by saying that everyone from the janitor to the pope agrees that this was obviously egregious behavior on Comey’s part. Within hours, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommends Comey be fired and Trump immediately announces Comey’s termination. Comey hears about it on TV.

Needless to say, there is precisely nothing new in any of this. As Rosenstein says, these criticisms of Comey have been obvious from the start, and Trump could have used them as justification for firing Comey at any time. But he didn’t. Until now.

That’s telling:

The difference between then and now, of course, is that then Comey was helping bury Hillary Clinton, and now Comey is investigating ties between Russia and Trump. So only now is it time for Comey to go.

So far, there are a tiny handful of Republicans who are “troubled” by Comey’s firing. Will they go any farther? Will any more Republicans join them? Or is everyone going to take one for the team and pretend that Comey really was fired because of badly he treated Hillary Clinton?

Matthew Yglesias says that’s an open question:

Democrats are out with statements calling for special prosecutors or for Comey to testify before Congress. Everyone is demanding that the next FBI director be someone who’s impartial and independent. That’s all well and good, and it’s all important, but it’s also all irrelevant beside the basic attitude of the Republican Party.

When Marine Le Pen entered the second round of the French presidential election as a Russia-backed far-right, xenophobic candidate, she met a wall of opposition from establishment center-right political figures who all endorsed her center-left opponent. Republicans, by contrast, spent the 2016 campaign being supportive of Trump and have spent the post-election era being sycophantic toward him.

It would be child’s play for a Republican Party that cared about the integrity of American government institutions to force Trump to comply with some basic ethics guidelines and undertake meaningful financial disclosures. Instead, Ivanka Trump is hawking a book from inside the West Wing and nobody has any idea what kind of sweetheart deals corporations or foreign governments with business before the US government are striking with the Trump Organization.

In exchange for turning a blind eye to Trump’s corruption, Republicans are getting a slate of conservative judges, a solid roster of business-friendly regulators, and, if they’re lucky, a giant tax cut for the rich and millions of people cut off from Medicaid benefits. The price, however, is obvious. The deeper you get in bed with Trump, the more tightly your fate is entwined with his. Some Republicans will decide they are overcommitted to Trump at this point, and they’ll fight on the lie that Comey was fired over emails.

For others, one hopes, this will be a wake-up call that Trump is a profoundly dishonest person but also a rather clever one. The comeback from the financial wreckage of his Atlantic City casino empire was incredibly slimy but involved a bravura display of low cunning. The fake rationale for firing Comey is, similarly, somewhat inspired. But sane Republicans should see the real meaning of this. Trump isn’t a policy savant, but he’s also not a dummy whom they are going to manipulate. He’s a snake whom they’ve taken into their home, and the sooner they do something about it, the better off we’ll all be.

There’s no reason to believe they will do something about it, and the noose tightens:

Federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records, as part of the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year’s election, according to people familiar with the matter. CNN learned of the subpoenas hours before President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.

The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI’s broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

The subpoenas issued in recent weeks by the US Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, were received by associates who worked with Flynn on contracts after he was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, according to the people familiar with the investigation.

Robert Kelner, an attorney for Flynn, declined to comment. The US Attorney’s Office in Alexandria, the Justice Department and the FBI also declined to comment.

What’s there to say? Wheels are turning. In 1973, firing Cox didn’t save Nixon, and firing Comey won’t save Trump. David Frum sees that:

Trump is impulsive and arrogant. His narcissistic ego needs to believe he won a great electoral victory by his own exertions, not that he was tipped into office by a lucky foreign espionage operation. He could well resent the search for truth, even without being particularly guilty of anything heinously bad. But we all now must take seriously the heightened possibility of guilt, either personal or on the part of people near him – and of guilt of some of the very worst imaginable crimes in the political lexicon.

Donald Trump has just allowed Americans to imagine that sort of guilt. Donald Trump has now actually encouraged Americans to take that possibility seriously. So, who in the White House whispered in Donald Trump’s ear that when Nixon fired Archibald Cox, Nixon saved his presidency? Who knew that he’d actually believe that? Something else may be going on here.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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