Yes, That Stupid

With Donald Trump it’s two scoops a day. Yes, the President gets two scoops of ice cream with his chocolate cream pie while everyone else at the table gets just one – even James Comey – because he’s president and James Comey isn’t – but that’s a minor matter. It’s the news scoops that matter. Monday it was the Washington Post scoop – “President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State.”

This was a big deal – there was massive outrage and Republican silence – but these things always come with two scoops, and Brian Ross at ABC News thought he had one:

The life of a spy placed by Israel inside ISIS is at risk tonight, according to current and former U.S. officials, after President Donald Trump reportedly disclosed classified information in a meeting with Russian officials last week.

The spy provided intelligence involving an active ISIS plot to bring down a passenger jet en route to the United States, with a bomb hidden in a laptop that U.S. officials believe can get through airport screening machines undetected. The information was reliable enough that the U.S. is considering a ban on laptops on all flights from Europe to the United States.

The sensitive intelligence was shared with the United States, officials say, on the condition that the source remained confidential.

“The real risk is not just this source,” said Matt Olsen, the former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and an ABC News contributor, “but future sources of information about plots against us.”

Carelessness can be deadly, and then there was H. R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor:

When pressed by ABC News’ Jonathan Karl, McMaster would not say if Trump disclosed classified information. Trump said in a pair of tweets Tuesday he had the “absolute right” to share “facts” with the Russians.

But many in the counter-terrorism community say what the President did was a mistake.

“Russia is not part of the ISIS coalition,” Olsen said. “They are not our partner.”

Dan Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, now a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, agreed. In an interview with ABC News, he called the president and his team “careless,” saying that the reported disclosures demonstrate a “poor understanding of how to guard sensitive information.”

Shapiro was most concerned, however, that the president’s move could make Israel think twice about sharing intelligence with the United States, warning that it will “inevitably cause elements of Israel’s intelligence service to demonstrate more caution.”

McMaster, substituting for Sean Spicer at the daily White House press briefing, was putting a brave face on things – he’s a good soldier – but Sheera Frenkel at BuzzFeed had another scoop:

Two Israeli intelligence officials confirmed to BuzzFeed News Tuesday that Israel had shared specific intelligence with the US regarding ISIS plots to smuggle explosive laptops onto planes, and that it appeared that that intelligence had been shared with Russia without prior coordination.

The revelation that Trump had shared that intelligence with Russian officials was Israel’s “worst fears confirmed,” said one of the intelligence officers.

“We have an arrangement with America which is unique to the world of intelligence sharing. We do not have this relationship with any other country,” said the officer, who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity as he was not granted permission to speak to the press.

“There is a special understanding of security cooperation between our countries,” he said. “To know that this intelligence is shared with others, without our prior knowledge? That is, for us, our worst fears confirmed.”

The officer previously spoke to BuzzFeed News in January, when he said that Israeli officials had specific concerns about what Trump would share with Russian officials.

It seems that those earlier specific concerns were justified – now they know – and Donald Trump is about to visit Israel. McMaster handled the press briefing to explain that trip – and the Washington Post’s Sarah Posner sees disaster ahead:

President Trump is scheduled to depart Friday on his first international trip as president, with scheduled visits in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank, and the Vatican, followed by attendance at meetings of NATO in Brussels and the G7 alliance in Sicily. Talking to reporters this morning, national security adviser H.R. McMaster brushed off questions about Trump’s sharing of classified information with Russian officials, focusing instead on the trip’s purpose to “highlight the need for unity among three of the world’s great religions” and further “an agenda of tolerance.”

But less than two hours after McMaster spoke, the New York Times reported this afternoon that Israel is the ally whose intelligence Trump inappropriately shared with Russian officials. Although Israel would not confirm the report, it would, if true, vindicate the fears of Israeli intelligence officials who warned, even before Trump took office, that intelligence shared with the United States could be leaked to Russia, and potentially passed on to Iran.

There’s only one thing to do now:

Trump’s trip must be canceled. Our national security, our relationships with allies, and the security of the world are at risk due to the president’s erratic behavior and inability to adhere to basic norms of both democracy and diplomacy…

Even for a capable president, Trump’s itinerary would represent an ambitious agenda. In Trump’s hands, though, it’s fraught with the perils of tweets, statements, misstatements, boasts or other inappropriate Trump outbursts that could trigger or intensify geopolitical and religious tensions. Beyond politics, the idea that Trump is capable of promoting even an iota of religious tolerance is almost too absurd to even address.

In short, the trip is a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Posner covers all the dire possibilities, but this is the most dire:

This trip is quite possibly the most ill-conceived misadventure in the history of American diplomacy. Trump, McMaster told us this morning, will give a speech in Saudi Arabia about Islam and religious tolerance.

It is virtually unfathomable that Trump, whose first months in office have been dominated by his (disguised) effort to keep Muslims out of the United States, could give a speech anywhere in the Muslim world on Islam and have it be well-received. Trump, after all, once told the Christian Broadcasting Network that the Koran teaches “a very negative vibe.”

Is Trump that stupid that he thinks no one remembers what he has been saying over and over again? Yes, but that’s part of a general problem:

It’s hard to imagine Trump exercising sufficient self-control to emerge from an eight-day trip overseas without incident. He can barely go 24 hours without incident under normal circumstances. The best way to prevent more Trump damage is to keep him home.

That will limit the number of scoops, or maybe not, because the New York Times had another scoop, confirmed and reported all over:

President Trump asked the FBI to drop its probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn and urged former FBI director James B. Comey instead to pursue reporters in leak cases, according to associates of Comey who have seen private notes he wrote recounting the conversation.

According to the notes written by Comey following a February meeting with the president, Trump brought up the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn and urged Comey to drop the probe in the wake of the national security adviser’s resignation.

Yep, Trump kind of ordered Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, or at least suggested he really should, implying that he could drop Comey if he didn’t – which Trump did – and it came down to this:

The conversation between Trump and Comey took place after a national security meeting. The president asked to speak privately to the FBI director, and the others left the room, according to the Comey associates, who, like other officials, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal internal discussions.

“I hope you can let this go,” Trump said, according to the Comey notes, which were described by the associates. Comey’s written account of the meeting is two pages long and highly detailed, the associates said.

Is Trump really that stupid? It seems he is:

The conversation described in the notes raises new questions about whether Trump may have crossed any legal lines into criminal behavior by pressuring the FBI to end an investigation.

“There’s definitely a case to be made for obstruction,” said Barak Cohen, a former federal prosecutor who now does white-collar-defense work at the Perkins Coie law firm in the District. “But, on the other hand, you have to realize that – as with any other sort of criminal law – intent is key, and intent here can be difficult to prove.”

The intent, however, can be inferred:

Comey’s account of the February talk made it clear that his understanding of the conversation was that the president was seeking to impede the investigation, according to people who have read the account or had it read to them. Comey’s notes also made it clear he felt that the conversation with the president was improper and decided to withhold details of it from the case agents working on the Russia probe, according to the associates.

According to the director’s notes, Comey did not respond directly to the president’s entreaties, only agreeing with Trump’s assertion that Flynn “is a good guy.” The notes also described how the president said that he wanted to see reporters in jail for leaks and expressed his dissatisfaction with what he viewed as the FBI’s inaction in pursuing whoever leaked his conversations with foreign leaders, according to Comey associates.

And then the dispute began:

A White House statement denied the version of the conversation described by those who had seen Comey’s notes, saying “the president has never asked Mr. Comey or anyone else to end an investigation, including any investigation involving General Flynn. This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the president and Mr. Comey.”

Democrats reacted sharply to the news, calling for Comey to testify about what he knows.

“If true, this is yet another disturbing allegation that the president may have engaged in some interference or obstruction of the investigation,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He said Comey “should come back to the Congress and share with us what he knows in terms of the president’s conversations with him on any of the Russian investigations.”

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said he was prepared to use a subpoena if necessary to get a copy of the Comey memo that has been described.

“I need to see it sooner rather than later. I have my subpoena pen ready,” he tweeted.

It seems the Republican from Utah turned on Trump, but Josh Marshall adds perspective:

I suspect we’re still a long way away from any big change at the top at the White House. Remember, there’s no such thing as an ‘impeachable offense’. Impeachment is ultimately – and I would say properly – a political determination. What anyone says is an impeachable offense has no real meaning unless and until a majority of members in the House say it is. And after that, a two-thirds majority has to convict the President in the Senate to remove him from office. What this amounts to is that President Trump needs to suffer a catastrophic loss of support within his own party to be driven from office. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that. You see anything like that? I don’t.

Just now as I write I see that Speaker Ryan has released a statement saying that the House Oversight Committee should request a copy of the Comey memo. Republicans aren’t close to abandoning Trump. But this is the first moment since he took office that they seem spooked about whether to defend him.

And Marshall adds this:

Republicans are now reportedly debating whether to push for an independent prosecutor or commission, two demands Democrats have made for weeks or months but which almost all Republicans have heretofore refused. They seem almost universally to be calling to see the Comey memos and hear from Comey himself as soon as possible.

That makes sense:

Wanting to hear more from Comey – either from his memos or his testimony – is an obvious position for Republicans since it covers all the possible bases and leaves freedom to maneuver as the situation becomes more clear. They’re not condemning or defending. They just want to hear more. They can interpret that as condemnation or defense later, as more facts reveal themselves.

The upshot of tonight, I think, is that Republicans collectively decided to get out of the way. They’re not attacking Trump. But they’re also no longer standing in the way or blocking more investigations. For now at least they seem to saying: you’re going to need to handle this on your own.

Getting out of the way is progress in this context, and Marshall says context is everything:

With the latest revelation – that President Trump straight up asked James Comey to end the Flynn investigation – this is starting to feel like a prize fight where one boxer just took three straight punches to the head. It’s hard to know how much longer this can go on. But I suspect the answer is this: a lot longer.

We talk a lot about smoke and fire. But this isn’t smoke. This is the fire. It’s not clear to me what more we need to know. The only question is whether we decide to put it out or just let it keep burning.

We may just let it keep burning:

President Trump fired the FBI Director – by his own account because he was upset about the investigation into his and his associates’ ties to Russia. We now learn he straight out asked the FBI Director to end the investigation into Michael Flynn three months ago. Last week he decided in the spur of the moment to share highly classified information with the Russian Foreign Minister.

Each of these revelations is startling, shocking, albeit at this point simply not that surprising. There are all sorts of safeguards and norms we have created to prevent or limit a President’s ability to transform the law into an instrument of his or her own personal prerogative, his or her own weapon. It is actually better to say that we have set up all sorts of metaphoric fences around such an act or transformation to prevent someone in authority from even getting close to doing something like this – there are policies, taboos, norms, all there to keep a President or other executives from getting close.

Firing an FBI Director while such an investigation like this is afoot is something like that, breaking a fence. In theory, the President has every right to fire an FBI Director. But doing so while such an investigation is underway has the look of trying to end the investigation. But in this case, asking Comey to end the probe itself doesn’t break one of the fences. It’s the thing itself. There’s no question of intent or misunderstandings. It’s the hand in the register. There’s just nothing more to know. It’s the thing itself.

The President isn’t just astonishingly crooked. He’s amazingly stupid. Unsurprisingly Comey kept a record.

Of course he did, but still, Marshall sees the Republicans doing no more than getting out of the way at the moment, hoping to come down on the right side of things, if there is one, eventually. That’s not exactly cowardice. That’s hedging your bets – so think of them as smart hedge fund managers. They hedge the bets because Trump is amazingly stupid, but that means that this will go on a lot longer.

Peter Beinart is more hopeful and offers this thesis:

The bad news is that Donald Trump is the most incompetent president in modern American history. The good news is that Donald Trump is the most incompetent president in modern American history.

That’s easy enough to see, in a bad-news good-news way:

He was too incompetent to understand his own health care bill, or accurately describe the direction in which the “armada” designed to intimidate North Korea was heading, or restrain himself from disclosing highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. But he’s also too incompetent – it appears – to destroy liberal democracy.

When Trump fired James Comey a week ago, many Republicans denied that he had done so to shut down the FBI’s inquiry into his campaign’s Russia ties. Trump, they said, could not have been that stupid. He could not have been stupid enough to believe that firing Comey would quash the Russia investigation.

But, increasingly, it appears that Trump was. Rather than building a high-minded pretext for firing Comey, Trump, according to the New York Times, invited Comey to dinner in January and demanded his personal loyalty. If that wasn’t incriminating enough, in February he baldly asked Comey to end the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Then, after Comey asked for more funding to investigate the Trump campaign’s Russia ties, Trump fired him – essentially asking the man he had handed a loaded gun to fire it at his head.

In the hours after Comey’s firing, the “Trump can’t be that stupid” caucus globbed onto Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s memo which offered justifications for Comey’s firing that did not reek of self-interest. But in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, Trump admitted that he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he made the decision to fire Comey, thus discarding Rosenstein’s fig leaf and exposing his political nakedness for all to see.

Thank goodness. The Kremlin, it turns out, is not the only institution able to outwit Donald Trump.

In short, Donald Trump loses and our institutions win:

In retrospect, it was predictable. During the campaign, Trump advertised his hostility to liberal democratic norms. But he advertised his incompetence too. He slandered judges for their ethnicity and vowed tax investigations into the publishers of newspapers that criticized him. But he also let Texas Senator Ted Cruz give a prime time speech at his own convention that did not include an endorsement.

As a result of his own ineptitude, Trump is politically weaker than he was on Inauguration Day even though the economy is stronger. And it’s harder to mount a populist assault on the rule of law when you’re not even that popular.

Yes, Trump can still do grave damage. Yes, he’s exposed the fragility of America’s system of liberal democracy. But that system has one key advantage: The people protecting it are good at their jobs.

And meanwhile, it was one too many scoops at the White House:

The Daily Beast spoke with nine current and former administration and law enforcement officials, most on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely.

Trump administration officials described the current state of affairs in the West Wing as expectedly chaotic and anxious – but having an almost “numbing effect,” as one described it – as White House staff and senior Trump aides frantically jumped from one crisis and negative news cycle to the next.

“I feel like running down the hallway with a fire extinguisher,” one senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast, in response to an inquiry regarding Tuesday’s developments…

“Every time I feel like we’re getting a handle on the last Russia fiasco, a new one pops,” a White House staffer told The Daily Beast on Monday evening. On Tuesday, after reports of the Comey memo began to circulate, the staffer revised that assessment: “I guess I was wrong about the timing,” the staffer said. “We can’t even wrap up one Russia fiasco before we’re on to the next one.”

A senior official in the Trump administration, who previously worked on the president’s campaign, offered a candid and brief assessment of the fallout from that string of bad press: “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely fucked.”

They’re wondering how Trump could have been this stupid, but if Peter Beinart is right, Trump’s amazing stupidity may save the nation – unless he gets all killed. He does have the nuclear codes. He’s always angry. He’s impulsive. He thinks everyone is mocking him – probably rightly now. He lashes out. He could nuke North Korea, or Norway, or Nebraska.

Is he that stupid? It might be best to just feed him some more ice cream. That seems to make him happy. Those are the scoops that may save us all.

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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