Getting the Jump on Trump

There’s been a lot of reporting that President Trump is frustrated and defiant and spoiling for a fight. It’s James Comey. He fired this guy. Now this guy will talk – he’ll say that Trump asked him if he could lay off Michael Flynn and the whole Russia thing.

Yeah, yeah – the FBI is supposed to be independent. Comey is supposed to investigate shady stuff – even stuff involving the Russians and the Trump campaign – but the FBI is part of the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice reports to the president. He’s their boss. He’s Comey’s boss. He’s allowed to fire his ass – and he did. The guy wouldn’t take a hint. Trump will destroy this guy with a tweetstorm.

That’s what everyone expects, a morning of rage-tweets from Trump when Comey finally testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee – a sneer and scorn when Comey says this, and a sneer and scorn when Comey says that – on and on, point by point. The networks covering the hearings will show the tweets in the scroll at the bottom of the screen – Comey says this, Trump tweets that. Trump’s base will love it. They know he doesn’t take shit from anyone. Everyone will know he doesn’t take shit from anyone. He’ll win – big time.

Trump’s lawyers and everyone else in the White House has told him not to do that – but none of them have stopped him yet. No one stops him, except James Comey may have stopped him. He got the jump on Trump. He released the details of his testimony early. He already made his points. The hearing will be those senators asking for details and clarification. Trump will be a day late, and the damage is already done:

Fired FBI director James B. Comey said President Trump told him at the White House “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty” during their private dinner conversation in January, according to written remarks from Comey offering a vivid preview of his testimony Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In seven remarkable pages of prepared testimony, Comey describes a president obsessed with loyalty and publicly clearing his name amid an FBI investigation of his associates, and the FBI director’s growing unease with the nature of the demands being made of him in their private conversations.

This is not good:

Since firing Comey last month, the president has denied reports that he sought a pledge of loyalty from the FBI director amid a Justice Department probe into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian operatives. Comey’s written remarks do support another Trump claim – that the FBI director repeatedly assured the president that he was not personally under investigation.

But overall, Comey’s testimony portrays Trump as a domineering chief executive who made his FBI director deeply uncomfortable over the course of nine separate private conversations, beginning with their first meeting in early January before Trump was sworn into office. In that conversation, Comey warned the president-elect of a dossier that was circulating with unsubstantiated allegations against him and his advisers.

The details of the conversations as described by Comey are likely to further fuel the debate over whether the president may have attempted to obstruct justice by pressuring the FBI director about a sensitive investigation.

There are a ton of details, already widely discussed, before Trump could tweet a damned thing. Comey disarmed him, while at the same time, that same committee caused Trump expected trouble. That’s how Jennifer Rubin sees it:

Again and again today at the hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers refused to answer direct questions as to whether they had been asked by the president to interfere with the investigation into possible collusion with Russia. In response to Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Angus King (I-Maine), they said they did not feel “pressured” and/or “directed” but declined to say whether they were asked. FBI acting director McCabe also refused to say if he had conversations with former FBI director James B. Comey about his conversations with the president. And then Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein refused to explain how and why Attorney General Jeff Sessions un-recused himself and whether he understood his memo would be used to fire Comey.

None of these witnesses invoked executive privilege or national security. They just didn’t want to answer. King finally blew up – scolding Rogers that what he “feels” isn’t relevant. He demanded to know why Rogers and Coats were not answering. He demanded a “legal justification” for not answering, and the witnesses did not supply any.

A day early, Trump’s troops made him look bad. They’d admit nothing, but for this:

Coats strongly hinted he would share information, just not in public, and that he would cooperate with the special prosecutor.

That’s ominous for Trump, but Rubin is still not a happy camper:

As time goes on, even men as respected as Coats, Rosenstein and Rogers – who hardly can be described as cohorts of Trump – seem to have become afflicted with a peculiar desire not to tell the public what is going on. They clearly don’t want to get fired as Comey was. Are they afraid of that eventuality? If so, they are, contrary to their protestations, being cowed, intimidated in the performance of their duties.

All of these witnesses, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other White House officials act as if they work for the president, not the American people. This is unacceptable in a functional democracy and would, if perpetuated, do serious damage to our democratic system. They need to tell the truth, the whole truth. Transparency and honesty cannot be optional for members of the executive branch. We will see if Republicans in Congress exhibit the same level of outrage as do Democrats. If not, they will be revealing their own willingness to defend the president and refusal to wholeheartedly perform their duties as required by their oaths.

They ended up looking like Trump’s tools, and then there was what Comey previewed:

Comey writes with almost novelistic detail about his interactions with the president, describing a call on Jan. 27 around lunchtime inviting him to dinner.

“It was unclear from the conversation who else was going to be at the dinner, although I assumed there would be others,” Comey wrote. “It turned out to be just the two of us, seated at a small oval table in the center of the Green Room. Two Navy stewards waited on us, only entering the room to serve food and drinks.”

The president began the conversation, Comey wrote, by asking him whether he wanted to stay on as FBI director, “which I found strange because he had already told me twice in earlier conversations that he hoped I would stay, and I had assured him that I intended to.”

The president replied, according to Comey, that lots of people wanted his job and “he would understand if I wanted to walk away.”

Comey’s instincts, he wrote, were that both the setting and the conversation “meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.”

The guy should be a novelist, or maybe a screenwriter:

The president then made his demand for loyalty.

“I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed,” Comey wrote. “We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.”

When prompted again on the subject of loyalty, Comey said he replied, “You will always get honesty from me.”

Fade to black. It’s perfect, and Josh Marshall sees this:

James Comey will not accuse President Trump of obstruction of justice but rather approach the hearing purely as a fact witness. This strikes me as wholly unsurprising. It really would not be any witness’s place to draw such conclusions, even if they were in the business of drawing those conclusions in their normal line of work. …

Comey of all people wouldn’t be the one to draw such conclusions. ‘Just the facts, neither fear nor favor, no vendettas, just bringing you the truth’ is entirely James Comey’s shtick. Calling it a ‘shtick’ doesn’t mean it’s not true. But that’s exactly what the Comey Myth would call for.

Marshall thinks Comey may be saying this:

I’m not going to say he robbed the bank. I’m going to say what I saw, which is that he came into the bank with the gun, demanded the money and then left in the getaway car. But it’s not my place to draw any conclusions. But if my warning about what I’m not going to say gives you a conceptual model through to understand what I will say, I guess that’s not the end of the world.

That’s devastating, but Marshall says everyone knows what has been going on:

It seems clear that President Trump spent his first months in office making repeated attempts to end the investigation into Russia and his campaign. He asked Comey repeatedly to stop the probe, to pledge his loyalty. He asked the heads of the other major intelligence agencies, the DNI, CIA Chief, and NSA Chief, to publicly discredit the investigation and also to intervene with Comey to end the investigation. He eventually fired Comey, by his own account, to end the Russia investigation. It is hard to imagine what more he could have done to impede or end the probe. It also seems clear that it must have been widely understood among the President’s top advisors that Trump was doing everything he could think of to end the probe.

And the details of what Comey released early only add to Trump’s problem:

Trump’s invitation for Comey to come to dinner at the White House came the day of the dinner was the same day Sally Yates made her second visit in two days to the White House giving White House Counsel Donald McGahn a “heads up” about Mike Flynn. Published reports say that McGahn briefed Trump about these visits and their contents immediately. It seems quite likely the Yates “heads up” was the trigger for the invitation.

That makes sense, as does this:

Repeatedly in the second half of the document, Trump keeps hitting up Comey about how the Russia probe is making it hard to make deals for America. But his specific asks are not to end the probe – though they could quite plausibly be read that way. They are specifically to publicly exonerate him. He even appears to have told Comey at one point that if there were some bit players who did stuff with Russia basically, whatever, that’s their problem.

It’s always all about him, and Charles Blow says it is hard to calculate the grievousness of the wounds that James Comey’s testimony will inflict on Donald Trump:

If you believe the Comey statement, you must take away from it that Trump is a liar, a bully and a criminal. You must take away from it that Trump has a consuming need to be surrounded not only by loyalists but also by lackeys. You must take away that Trump is brand obsessed – his own brand – and that anything that besmirches that brand must be blunted. You must take away that Trump knows nothing of decorum and propriety and boundaries. You must take away that this is the most comprehensive and compelling case thus far that Trump did indeed engage in obstruction of justice.

Trump already lost and no good will come of this:

The supreme irony here is that Trump was apparently not under investigation at the time, but his reactions to the investigation itself and his raging narcissism may have put him at the center of an even more ominous investigation.

I don’t know if the president will ever be charged with a crime. I don’t know whether he will eventually be impeached… But I am absolutely sure that the picture emerging of Trump’s predilections and peccadilloes reaffirms and strengthens my view of him: He is thoroughly unfit for the office and a stain on this nation and the world. Trump should not be in a mansion with white columns, but in a cell with black bars.

Nicholas Kristof echoes that:

Trump’s behavior is reminiscent of what tin-pot despots do. I know, for I’ve covered the overthrow of more than I can count.

So let’s not get mired in legal technicalities. Whether or not it was illegal for Trump to urge Comey to back off his investigation into Russia ties to Mike Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser, it was utterly inappropriate. What comes through is a persistent effort by Trump to interfere with the legal system. There’s a consistent pattern: Trump’s contempt for the system of laws that, incredibly, he now presides over.

That’s serious stuff:

To frame the Comey testimony, consider the staggering comments this week of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence until early this year.

“Watergate pales really, in my view, compared to what we’re confronting now,” said Clapper, a former lieutenant general with a long career in intelligence under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. He added: “I am very concerned about the assault on our institutions coming from both an external source – read Russia – and an internal source – the president himself.”

As Clapper suggested, Trump has been undermining the institutions and mores that undergird our political process; whether or not his conduct was felonious, it has been profoundly subversive.

Kristof adds an explanation of subversion:

Apart from Comey and the Russia investigation, Trump has systematically attacked the institutions of American life that he sees as impediments. He denounced judges and the courts. He has attacked journalists as “the enemy of the people,” and urged that some be jailed for publishing classified information. He has publicly savaged Democrats and Republicans who stand up to him.

More broadly, Trump has ignored longstanding democratic norms, such as that a presidential candidate release tax returns and obey certain ethics rules. He flouts conventions against nepotism. And perhaps most fundamentally, he simply lies at every turn: Politicians often spin and exaggerate. They even lie in extremis to escape scandal. But Trump is different. He lies on autopilot, on something as banal as the size of inauguration crowds…

So as we watch Comey testify, remember that the fundamental question is not just whether the president broke a particular law regarding obstruction of justice, but also whether he is systematically assaulting the rule of law that makes us free.

E. J. Dionne is on the same page:

It’s not surprising that Trump’s warmest words have been reserved for autocrats. They run things the way he likes to run things. No obnoxious media. No annoying political opposition. No independent judiciary. No need to show any concern about the people who work for you. Despots can make them disappear. It’s no accident that “You’re fired” is the phrase that made Trump famous.

In Trump world, everything is a deal, everything is transactional, everything is about personal loyalty – to him. What can I give you to make you do what I want? What can I threaten you with to force you to do what I want? Will you be with me no matter what?

In constitutional democracies, rules and norms get in the way of this sort of thing. Other institutions in government have autonomy and derive their authority from being at least partly independent of politics. The boss does not have absolute power.

This is how we should understand Comey’s extraordinary prepared testimony released on Wednesday in advance of his Thursday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Comey’s prepared testimony changed things:

There has been a lively debate among Trump critics about whether he’s dangerous because he’s inclined toward authoritarianism or because he’s incompetent. The Comey episode allows us to reach a higher synthesis in this discussion: Trump is incompetent precisely because he believes he can act like an autocrat in a constitutional democracy. This doesn’t work, and it makes him do stupid things.

This makes him tweet, and Benjamin Wittes offers this:

James Comey’s seven-page written statement, released by the Senate Intelligence Committee this afternoon in connection with Comey’s impending testimony tomorrow, draws no conclusions, makes no allegations, and indeed, expresses no opinions. It recounts, in spare and simple prose, a set of facts to which Comey is prepared to testify under oath tomorrow. Despite this sparseness, or maybe I should say because of it, it is the most shocking single document compiled about the official conduct of the public duties of any President since the release of the Watergate tapes.

Don’t mess with a guy whose profession is constitutional law, in fact, with Benjamin Wittes:

It’s hard to express to people who are not steeped in federal law enforcement just how inappropriate these inquiries are, particularly when they involve an investigation in which the President has such deep and multifaceted personal stakes. No, they are not illegal. The President, after all, has constitutional authority to ask for whatever information he wants from his subordinates in the executive branch. But of course, the President also has the authority to give the State of the Union address in Latin and have it consist entirely of obscenities directed at the Speaker of the House. To people who know the norms of federal law enforcement, the conduct described here is closer to that end of the spectrum of presidential behavior than it is to the normal range.

That means Wittes is impressed with Comey:

I will make three general observations based on this document alone.

First, Comey is describing here conduct that a society committed to the rule of law simply cannot accept in a president. Should the president have the authority to detain people at Guantanamo? Incinerate suspected terrorists with flying robots? Use robust intelligence authorities directed at overseas non-citizens? These questions are all important, but this document is about a far more important question to the preservation of liberty in a society based on legal norms and rules: the abuse of the core functions of the presidency. It’s about whether we can trust the President – not the President in the abstract, but the particular embodiment of the presidency in the person of Donald J. Trump – to supervise the law enforcement apparatus of the United States in fashion consistent with his oath of office. I challenge anyone to read this document and come away with a confidently affirmative answer to that question.

Second, we are about to see a full-court press against Comey. I don’t know what it will look like. But the attack-instinct always kicks in when a presidency is under siege. And Trump has the attack-instinct in spades even when he’s not under siege. It is important to remember what the stakes are here. They are not about whether Comey was treated fairly. They are not about whether you like him. They are not about whether he handled the Clinton email investigation in the highest traditions of the FBI or the Justice Department. They are not about leaks. The stakes here are about whether what Comey is reporting in this document are true facts and, if so, what we need as a political society to do about the reality that we have a president who behaves this way and seeks to use the FBI in this fashion. It is critical, in other words, that people not change the subject or get distracted when others try to do so.

And there’s that other matter:

Finally, it is also critical – though probably fruitless to say – that we eschew partisanship in the conversation. Tomorrow, this document will be the discussion text when Comey faces a committee that, warts and all, has handled the Russia matter to date in a respectable and honorably bipartisan fashion. It is not too much to ask that members put aside party and respond as patriots to the fact that the former FBI director will swear an oath that these facts are true – and was fired after these interactions allegedly took place by a man who then told Lester Holt that “when I decided to just do it [fire Comey], I said to myself this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story,” and boasted to the Russians the day after dismissing Comey that “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Then Wittes asks a simple question. Do we care?

Maybe we do:

U.S. bars are offering $5 Russian vodka drinks and “impeachmint” cocktails and free drinks with every presidential tweet to draw crowds on Thursday to watch fired FBI Director James Comey’s televised testimony to Congress.

Television “watch parties,” typically hosted for sporting events and awards shows, are planned at homes and bars across the country for Comey’s 10 a.m. EDT appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

During “the SUPER BOWL of Washington,” as it was billed by the Axelrad Beer Garden in Houston, the former director will testify that U.S. President Donald Trump tried to get him to scale back the agency’s investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“Join us for an early morning beer and engage in friendly debate with fellow patrons,” a post on the Axelrad Facebook page said. The bar also is serving a drink called the impeachmint.

No doubt a slice of peach is involved, and there’s this:

The Union Pub in Washington planned to buy patrons a round of drinks every time Trump, a frequent tweeter, makes a post on Twitter during Comey’s testimony.

Several bars in San Francisco will open as early as 6 a.m. PDT to allow patrons to gather for the testimony.

“It’s important for us to be well informed,” said bartender Darren “Buddy” Jaques at the Mix, where the TV will be tuned into the hearing.

That may not be what Benjamin Wittes had in mind, but it’s a start. Get the jump on Trump.

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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