Not Really a Game

There are old news hands like Chris Wallace – the son of Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” – once the moderator of “Meet the Press” on NBC but, since 2003, the solid guy at Fox News. Fox can point to him – “Look, we have a real journalist!”

That may make up for the unbalanced and seemingly racist Bill O’Reilly – now gone – or the angry all-things-Trump guy, Sean Hannity – still there – or even the smarmy Tucker Carlson. Megyn Kelly jumped to NBC, and MSNBC – home to Rachel Maddow and all sorts of liberal folks – gave Greta Van Susteren her own show – but Fox News still has Chris Wallace. He’s an old hand. He’s been reporting on everything that’s been said and done in Washington for four decades. He’s seen it all. He’ll put things in perspective. He’ll get everyone over there to calm down.

Chris Wallace has seen everything, but he hadn’t seen anything like Donald Trump, or anything like what had just happened – “I just find it one of the most astonishing weeks that I’ve ever covered in this town.”

He’s still trying to deal with it:

Speaking with Shepard Smith Friday, the Fox News Sunday anchor offered his stunning take on the developments of the past week – from James Comey’s firing as Director of the FBI on Tuesday to Friday afternoon’s White House press briefing; a briefing in which, when asked by Jeff Mason of Reuters, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did not deny the presence of recording devices in the Oval Office.

“When I heard that exchange today between Jeff Mason, White House reporter, and Sean Spicer speaking from the podium in the briefing room for the President of the United States, it took my breath away,” Wallace said.

Still, he’ll put things in perspective:

That was what in Watergate they called a non-denial denial. He was asked specifically, is there a recording device in the Oval Office of the President of the United States? He said, ‘I have nothing for you on that.’ He could have said no. He could have said yes. He said I have nothing for you on that. That is a non-denial denial. Look, it may just be that the President is trolling the press corps, and saying, work yourself into a frenzy about this and it turns out it nothing. But why would he do that? Why would he want to decrease the credibility which is already in question of this White House and comments made from that podium? It seems to me that you’re playing a very dangerous game with the currency of the credibility of the President of the United States.

Donald Trump puzzles him:

Every step he’s taken this week has cut into the credibility of this White House, the trust of the people inside the White House, and clearly I think the trust that the American people pay to this President and to his White House staff. I’ve never seen anything like it and I find it very troubling and troubled. I just don’t understand the game that they’re playing – because it isn’t a game.

Wallace skipped a lot too – Sally Yates, the acting attorney general as Trump took office, testifying Monday that in the first days of the Trump presidency she went to the White House and told them that Michael Flynn, the new national security advisor, had been compromised by the Russians – he could easily be blackmailed – they had the goods on him. He might not be a Russian agent, but he could be used. The White House sat on that for eighteen days, and finally fired him – but Trump keeps saying he’s a fine fellow anyway. The day after Yates’ public testimony about this Trump fired Comey – but said it had nothing to do with Comey being in charge of the investigation into the Trump campaign and its possible ties to Russia mucking up our election – possible collusion. Trump said he fired Comey because he screwed up everything about Hillary Clinton’s emails. The next day he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador – the guy no one should have been talking to during the transition – and barred the press from the meeting. The only photos came from the Russian news agency that was allowed in – shots of the three of them yukking it up. Putin had requested the meeting. The shots, in all the newspapers around the world, sent the message Putin wanted sent. Trump was their man. They’d captured him – and the next day Trump dropped all pretenses about what he was doing. In an interview with Lester Holt he said he fired Comey because of the Russia stuff – it was all a hoax cooked up by Democrats because they were embarrassed at losing the election. The Russians might have done nothing. It could have been the Chinese. It was all nonsense and he’d put an end to it.

He’d already fired Yates. Comey had to go – and then more details emerged. He’d asked Comey for his absolute loyalty. Comey said all that Trump would get was absolute honesty. Trump said he made no such demand. Those who had spoken to Comey said he did – and this was at a private dinner at the White House and might have been taped. That led to Trump’s threat – “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

That’s what Wallace was talking about. Were there tapes? The White House wasn’t saying. They wanted everyone to assume there were – and keep on assuming that. That’ll keep people in line.

That’s thuggery, thuggery that depends on never releasing those tapes. They might show that Trump did demand absolute loyalty from Comey, to him, not to the FBI or to the Constitution or any of that – but no one will ever know. Trump is saying that he can prove the Comey is a liar – but he won’t, for now. Let people assume what they will, and the beauty of this is that there may be no tapes at all – but there could be. The White House will never say. The White House wins this one – unless Congress demands the tapes, by subpoena. That’ll never happen. Republicans control the House and Senate. They’ll shrug – and Comey had better keep his damned mouth shut. He’s been warned.

Josh Marshall sees things this way:

What President Trump is doing here is openly threatening a private citizen against exercising the right to free speech that is his right as a citizen. We have seen for months that the President believes that the rather narrow obligations of confidentiality federal employees are bound by are somehow comparable to the kind of absolute confidences and loyalty he demanded and often got from employees as the head of a private company. But of course they are not.

And then there’s this:

One of the weirder things about Trump’s account of his dinner in which Comey was asking to ‘stay on’ is Trump’s tone and vocabulary in describing the encounter. The description has the feel of how the new owners of a company might meet with a company executive who was looking to keep his job. That is no doubt how Trump saw it. This conflation of the US government with a new company Trump has acquired runs like a golden seam through virtually everything that has happened in the last 100+ days.

That’s one possibility, but that’s not exactly how Trump framed this. Trump was implying that Comey came to him begging – like a dog – to be able to keep his job. It was pathetic. Trump said “we’ll see” – but Comey kept whining. No one likes a whiner – he had to fire him – but Marshall may be right about this:

The President is now publicly blackmailing Comey with “tapes” that are almost certainly fictitious. On the off chance they do exist and confirm Trump’s version of events rather than Comey’s they would probably land Trump in even more trouble since they would be taped evidence of the President seeking assurances of safety from an investigation and one of nation’s top law enforcement officers offering such assurances. That would be very bad for Comey but even worse for Trump. After all, Comey doesn’t have a job to lose. It’s purely a reputational matter for him now. As is so often the case, the President’s transgressions are hopelessly bound up with his nonsense and ridiculousness. We are all along for the ride.

Some people don’t like the ride:

President Donald Trump’s decision to publicly threaten his former FBI director sent shock waves through the political world on Friday morning, and some Congressional Republicans are already hitting the panic button about what this means for enacting their legislative agenda.

Some top Republican congressional aides are telling Axios’ Jonathan Swan that “there is widespread concern among Congressional leadership about Trump’s frame of mind” in the wake of the president’s decision to fire and then publicly attack and threaten former FBI Director James Comey.

“It has to stop,” said one source described as a senior Senate aide. “Never seen anything like this in my entire career.”

A House leadership source, meanwhile, told Swan that there is “a lot of anxiety” right now because Republicans “don’t know” about the “next shoe to drop.”

Among other things, the aides say they are concerned that Trump is keeping focus off the Republicans’ legislative agenda and on personal scandals of his own making.

“We need our asset out there every day barnstorming for tax reform, health care,” the Senate aide explained.

Instead, the congressional GOP is watching in horror as Trump careens from one crisis to another, and they tell Swan that they’re alarmed at Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ seeming inability to stop Trump from imploding.

That’s the general problem:

A CNN panel on Friday debated why President Donald Trump has behaved so impulsively over the past week when it comes to the firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Their conclusion? The president is simply out of control – and there’s no hope of reeling him in.

Real Clear Politics editor A. B. Stoddard told the panel that she was stunned at how badly Trump had botched the Comey firing, and said that it demonstrates that there’s no one in the White House capable of getting Trump to check his impulses.

“This becomes a firestorm of whether or not Trump is tampering with an investigation and obstruction of justice and risking impeachment,” she said. “This is all illustrative of the fact that no one can stop President Trump. No one can say pause for 36 hours, let’s think about the consequences of running your mouth to Lester Holt, or tweeting Rosie O’Donnell on the same day. No one can stop this.”

Stoddard reiterated that all of the supposedly calming influences in the White House – from Vice President Mike Pence to son-in-law Jared Kushner to even First Daughter Ivanka Trump – seem powerless in the wake of the latest chaos.

“No one can talk sense into him,” she said. “Not Vice President Pence. Not Reince Priebus. Not Steve Bannon. Not the kids. Nobody.”

That’s depressing, and so is this:

President Trump threatened Friday morning to end White House press briefings, arguing that “it is not possible” for his staff to speak with “perfect accuracy” to the American public.

Trump’s comments come after his description of his decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey in an NBC News interview Thursday flatly contradicted the accounts provided earlier by White House officials, including Vice President Pence, exposing their explanations as misleading and in some cases false.

In a pair of tweets sent Friday, Trump suggested he might do away with the daily press briefings at the White House and instead have his spokesmen communicate to the public only via “written responses.”

That’s a threat too, but maybe not:

The explanations for Comey’s firing from the Trump White House have shifted repeatedly since the move was announced late Tuesday afternoon, undermining the credibility of Pence as well as White House press secretary Sean Spicer, principal deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway.

On Friday, Spicer told reporters that the president was “dismayed” at the focus on the accuracy of statements delivered by his spokesmen.

“The president is an active president. He keeps a very robust schedule,” Spicer said. “I think sometimes we don’t have an opportunity to get into see him and get his full thinking.”

“There are times you read a story where someone is trying to pull apart one word one sentence… and make it a gotcha thing,” he added.

That focus on accuracy is a real bother, isn’t it? Still, Trump later had an idea:

“We don’t have press conferences, we just don’t have them, unless I have them every two weeks and I do them myself,” Trump said. “I think it’s a good idea.”

He would:

Trump slammed the daily White House press briefings as having “a level of hostility” that is “very unfair.” He also offered praise for press secretary Sean Spicer, but didn’t commit to Spicer’s job being secure.

“He’s a wonderful human being. He’s a nice man,” Trump said. “He’s been getting beat up.”

But when asked if Spicer was safe in his job as press secretary, Trump demurred, saying “he’s been there from the beginning.”

Trump’s suggestion to cancel press briefings was met with criticism from members of the media who regularly attend the briefings. CNN anchor John Berman responded to Trump’s suggestion by saying instead, Trump could just “cancel lies.”

Chris Wallace was saying the same sort of thing over at Fox News, and Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former foreign policy adviser to John McCain and Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, on the right-hand side of things, is more comprehensive:

If the controversy over the firing of James Comey, the FBI director, has done anything, it has confirmed my decision on Nov. 9 to leave the Republican Party after a lifetime as a loyal member.

The Republican Party was once the party of small government, free trade, traditional values, of principled foreign policy leadership and, most important of all, adherence to the Constitution. Republicans spent decades fulminating against activist judges like Earl Warren and activist politicians like Barack Obama, claiming they were undermining the founders’ vision of limited government.

And then, the party sold its soul to the soulless charlatan who now occupies the Oval Office and makes a mockery of every one of the party’s principles.

They made a deal with the devil:

Republicans have turned away from this uncomfortable truth by telling themselves that Donald Trump is an imperfect but necessary vessel for their agenda. Sure, he’s clownish and boorish, but hey, he has appointed a great Supreme Court justice. (I had one conservative friend tell me that Neil Gorsuch’s appointment justified the entire Trump presidency.) Sure, he doesn’t believe in anything, but he will repeal Obamacare, cut taxes and increase the military budget. Isn’t it worth overlooking a few crazy tweets in return for this conservative policy nirvana?

If that is all that Mr. Trump demanded, and if he actually delivered results, the answer might be yes.

That, however, is not the answer:

Like other conservatives, I care about tax cuts and military spending increases. But I care even more about the rule of law – the only thing that prevents our country from going the way of Venezuela, Russia or Zimbabwe.

In office less than four months, Mr. Trump has already undermined the rule of law in myriad small ways. He allowed his daughter and son-in-law to work in the White House in arguable violation of an anti-nepotism statute. He did not divest himself of his business holdings and did not release his tax returns. His sons have continued pursuing deals with jillionaires closely linked to unsavory foreign regimes. He and his daughter have accepted valuable trademark protections from China. His son-in-law’s family sought to trade on their connections to sell American citizenship to rich Chinese.

But all of that is inconsequential compared with the flagrant assault on the rule of law represented by the firing of the FBI director. The initial cover story for this act was Mr. Comey’s improper conduct last year in publicly discussing the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. But that masquerade crumbled when the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo laying out legitimate concerns regarding Mr. Comey’s actions last year, contradicted the White House’s suggestion that he had initiated the firing. Mr. Trump now says he was determined to dismiss Mr. Comey before he received Mr. Rosenstein’s recommendation, rendering the initial White House explanation “inoperative.”

For Boot, that was the final straw:

While the president has the authority to fire the FBI director, to do so under these circumstances and for these reasons is a gross violation of the trust that citizens place in the president to ensure that the laws “be faithfully executed.” If this is not a prima facie case of obstruction of justice – an impeachable offense – it’s hard to know what is.

Republicans would understand this and say so if these actions were taken by President Hillary Clinton. But when it comes to President Trump, they have checked their principles at the Oval Office door.

A few Republicans in Congress (about 40 out of 290) expressed concern or asked for an explanation of Mr. Comey’s firing. But only six have called for an independent investigation, and just one for a special counsel. The Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate supported Mr. Comey’s shameful dismissal.

If this Republican stone-wall holds, Mr. Trump may get away with the most egregious abuse of presidential power since Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre in 1973. In those days, too, most Republicans reflexively rushed to the president’s defense.

Yes, here we go again:

Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than fire the independent counsel, Archibald Cox. Six Republicans joined all 21 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee to move articles of impeachment. Republican senators like Howard Baker were relentless in demanding, “What did the president know and when did he know it?” And when the end came in 1974, three Republicans – Senator Barry Goldwater, the Senate minority leader Hugh Scott and the House minority leader John Rhodes – went to the White House to tell Mr. Nixon he had lost the support of his party.

Are there even three principled Republicans left who will put their devotion to the Republic above their fealty to the Republican Party?

I fear the answer to that question.

As Chris Wallace said, this is not a game. He’s never seen anything like it, and Gail Collins predicts more of this:

Donald Trump is going to meet soon with the pope. How do you think that will go? Maybe when Trump emerges, he’ll announce that Francis promised him canonization. Then the Vatican will deny it. Then Sean Spicer will hold a press conference in which he will explain that the president was simply working off a memo written by the deputy secretary of state.

Then a reporter will point out that the State Department doesn’t have any deputy secretaries yet. Then we will hear another complaint about “gotcha journalism.”

Look, it wouldn’t be any weirder than what we’ve been through this week.

Don’t bet on it. In this game all bets are off.

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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