Trash in the Air

In the late seventies, at that prep school in upstate New York, part of the job was to teach an elective in creative writing – which can’t be taught. There’s no set of rules on how to be creative. Creativity can’t be taught. There’s nothing to learn. There’s nothing to teach, other than the obvious. Show, don’t tell. Write that the person smiles. Don’t write that he or she is happy. Let the reader see that. And avoid stupid stuff like the sympathetic fallacy – the dark and stormy night. The world doesn’t work that way. People can be desperately unhappy on sunny days. Adding dark skies and rain is a cheap trick, unless those dark skies and rain are deeply ironic. Irony is fine, of course, but don’t be lazy. Do the hard work to establish what’s really going on. Avoid cheap tricks. Avoid symbolism. Symbolism is cheap trick.

That worked. That kept all the usual preposterous adolescent posturing at a minimum, but sometimes the world does work “that way” – sometimes it provides painfully obvious symbolism all on its own. Sometimes it’s a train wreck:

One person was killed, and six were injured when an Amtrak train carrying Republican lawmakers to an annual party conference in West Virginia hit a truck here Wednesday morning.

None of the dozens of members of Congress aboard the train, or their accompanying family members and aides, were among the seriously injured. The person who died was one of three men in the disposal truck that had entered the railroad crossing.

This wouldn’t do in that elective in creative writing. Republicans were on their way to this year’s party conference and the party was already in trouble – thirty-eight house Republicans have announced they are leaving Congress so far. In some districts, stand with Trump and you lose. Trump is wildly unpopular. In other districts, disagree with Trump on anything and you lose. Go ahead, show some integrity, and save your soul, but his base will run you out of town. Thirty-eight house Republicans have decided it’s just not worth the hassle. There will be more. Republicans will probably lose the House, and they may lose the Senate too. The party was a train wreck before the train wreck.

And there was Trump’s State of the Union address – all sweetness and light about national unity – but it was all aggressive ethno-nationalism. It wasn’t more or less outrageous than the things the President says all the time. We need to radically reduce immigration into the United States – both legal and illegal – because if we don’t innocent children will be murdered. He tried to say that in a nice way, but he came off as nasty man pretending to be nice. He said he was a compassionate man. He’s also said he’s a “stable genius” of course. He can say anything he wants. That doesn’t make it true, so his State of the Union address was a bit of a train wreck.

Republican lawmakers were on their way to their annual party conference at a fancy resort in West Virginia to figure out what the hell was going on and what they were going to do about it. Their chartered train was barreling along, and then it hit a trash truck of all things. A massive train wreck with tons of trash flying through the air – the real world provided the symbolism. No good writer would dare be that obvious.

But the train wreck continued:

President Trump in December asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein if he was “on my team,” CNN reported Wednesday.

The president also pressed Rosenstein about the direction of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible links to the Trump campaign.

Rosenstein oversees the Russia probe and appointed Mueller to lead it last year.

Donald Trump can’t help himself:

The exchange is the latest instance of Trump demanding loyalty from senior officials at the Justice Department who are directly involved in the Russia investigation, a practice many say violates longstanding norms surrounding the independence of federal law enforcement.

Former FBI Director James Comey testified to Congress that Trump said to him during a January 2017 White House meeting, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

Comey also told lawmakers that the president asked him to go easy on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying to senior administration officials about his contacts with Russia.

Flynn was later charged by Mueller for lying to the FBI about his talks with Russians during the campaign and transition period.

Trump fired Comey in May – a move he later said was linked to the Russia probe, which he has repeatedly dismissed as a politically motivated “hoax.”

And there was this:

The president also reportedly asked Comey’s interim replacement, Andrew McCabe, who he voted for in the 2016 election. Trump has denied asking McCabe the question.

McCabe left his post as FBI deputy director last week under pressure from Trump and GOP lawmakers, who accused him of promoting anti-Trump bias at the top levels of the bureau.

Donald Trump doesn’t understand how things work:

Mueller is reportedly looking into Trump’s interactions with Comey and others to determine if Trump may have obstructed the investigation. There is growing speculation in Washington that Rosenstein will be the next Justice Department official to find himself in Trump’s crosshairs.

Donald Trump is his own train wreck, trying to show the world he obstructed justice and will continue to do just that. At Politico, Noah Bookbinder argues that trump’s Saturday Night Massacre is happening right before our eyes:

The FBI issued an extraordinary statement on Wednesday, pushing back on the release of a partisan congressional memo alleging the bureau used improper evidence to obtain legal permission to surveil a Trump campaign adviser. We’ve never seen anything like it. “The FBI was provided a limited opportunity to review this memo the day before the committee voted to release it,” the bureau said. “As expressed during our initial review, we have grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

The memo, written by Congressman Devin Nunes and barreling toward public circulation at the president’s discretion, has already created a firestorm, and it is not even out yet. Nunes fired back at the FBI hours later, claiming, “It’s clear that top officials used unverified information in a court document to fuel a counterintelligence investigation during an American political campaign.”

Bookbinder is amazed:

Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: This memo is the latest escalation in an eight-month effort to tarnish the Russia investigation that might be the most significant smear campaign against the executive branch since Joe McCarthy – only here, the effort is being led by the head of that branch himself. As the New York Times reported, the Nunes memo seems like a dagger aimed by President Trump at Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is supervising the Russia probe for the Justice Department.

That was the plan:

Republican huzzahs over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment were still echoing when the opening salvo of this shocking campaign was launched: the claim that Mueller had disqualifying “conflicts.” Never mind that the Justice Department cleared Mueller of conflicts before he was appointed. Or that ethical standards do not remotely support disqualification over issues like Mueller’s professional acquaintance with James Comey, his employment at a firm that represented Trump associates, or even a long-ago dispute over the amount of fees Mueller owed at a Trump golf course. These meritless conflicts claims have continued to resurface like a game of whack-a-mole, popping up elsewhere after they are knocked down.

And that wasn’t all:

The next smear targeted the members of Mueller’s team. President Trump and his supporters loudly complained of political bias because some of Mueller’s lawyers have donated to Democrats. But Mueller is prohibited from asking his hires about their political contributions; applicable laws and regulations bar him from considering such matters in making employment decisions. Moreover, Mueller himself was a registered Republican the last time anyone checked and was appointed by another: Rosenstein.

And that wasn’t all:

When that assault didn’t stick, then came the allegation that the investigation had improperly obtained emails from Trump transition email accounts. The initial flurry of attention – including mention by the president himself – soon faded when the General Services Administration said the transition had been told its emails would not be protected, and experts nearly unanimously dismissed any impropriety. Indeed, the claims turned out to be so weak that President Trump’s transition legal team didn’t even press them in court, instead settling for a complaining letter to Congress. When faced with resounding pushback, the reply was to slink away—but not before filling the airwaves with days of unfounded insinuations.

And that wasn’t all:

That was when the president and his supporters upped the ante. For a time, there was a focus on sensational claims about the conduct of two DOJ employees as evidence of anti-Trump bias. One was Peter Strzok, an FBI specialist in Russia matters who sent negative texts about Trump to a colleague. The other is Bruce Ohr, a career attorney at DOJ who was never assigned to Mueller’s team and whose wife worked for Fusion GPS – the firm behind the dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Here too, the facts proved inconvenient: It turned out Mueller axed Strzok from the investigation when the texts came to light, and Ohr was reassigned after DOJ learned that he had failed to disclose contacts with individuals at the firm. (Then there is today’s news that Strzok co-authored the pre-election FBI letter that many believe sunk the Clinton campaign – hardly proof of pro-Clinton bias.) The fact that Strzok and Ohr were reassigned and are now the subjects of internal DOJ investigations is a sign that the system is working, not that it is broken.

Nevertheless, the escalation continued even after the reassignments. The Trump spotlight turned to the Steele dossier, commissioned by an opposition research firm funded first by Republican opponents of Trump and then by representatives of the Clinton campaign. We haven’t read the Nunes memo, but Republicans have been whispering for weeks that the dossier served as the basis for the FBI’s Russia investigation and therefore tarnishes it.

Ah, no:

Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson, who hired Steele, testified to Congress that the FBI believed the dossier to be credible “because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing and one of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump Organization.” News reports indicate that the FBI had many other leads when it launched the investigation. These included a tip from Australian intelligence and the hacking and publishing of emails from the Democratic National Committee.

And then there’s Representative Devin Nunes:

His contribution to all of this is a memo that claims the FBI improperly obtained authorization to conduct surveillance on Trump campaign advisor Carter Page. Democrats on the committee unanimously opposed its release, asserting its claims of wrongdoing are unfounded and out of context and its release endangers our national security. Indeed, Trump’s own Justice Department objected to its release as “extraordinarily reckless,” and his handpicked FBI director reportedly trudged to the White House to voice his firm objections – before his bureau’s formal objections were made public on Wednesday.

That’s why Bookbinder calls this a Saturday Night Massacre in slow motion:

Press reports suggest the president may be contemplating using the memo to dismiss Rosenstein. That matters: If the president were to use his powers to insert someone lacking independence, that person could throttle the special counsel.

That move would, however, risk deepening the president’s obstruction of justice liability, and that of those around him who are involved in the decision. After all, firing Comey on dubious grounds with the alleged intent to hamper the Russia investigation led to an obstruction investigation. Cashiering Rosenstein would offer a matching bookend.

Something odd is going on here:

From Trump on down, the hope seems to be that the best defense will prove to be a good offense. This is exactly the playbook Trump used to run when he was a slick up-and-coming Manhattan developer taking advice from the late Roy Cohn: attack, attack, attack. But this is the presidency, and Trump has failed to learn the lesson of Cohn’s previous client and patron, Joe McCarthy. It’s not going to go the way he thinks.

In fact, it’s a train wreck with tons of trash flying through the air:

As House Republicans prepare to release a four-page memo they claim shows the Justice Department misbehaved in seeking to surveil a Trump campaign adviser, the allegations are already drawing extreme skepticism and outright mockery from former government officials and outside experts.

“None of those pushing this are in any other way acting like they believe what they’re saying,” Julian Sanchez, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, told TPM.

“You just have this wider and wider net: they all perjured themselves, they all opened themselves to criminal liability,” former FBI counterintelligence agent Asha Rangappa said, referring to the allegations against the FBI. “It makes no sense.”

And there’s Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor who specializes in national security issues:

There are many reasons FISA experts don’t expect the allegations to stand up to the hype, which has involved a Twitter campaign to #ReleaseTheMemo and included GOP claims that what it shows is worse than Watergate.

For Republicans claims of an abuse to be true, one would have to assume that the dossier was the sole basis of the warrant application, that it was a “fabrication” and that the DOJ knew that it was a fabrication when it applied for the FISA warrant, Vladeck said.

“All three things would have to be true for this to actually be an abuse of FISA,” Vladeck said, adding that he wouldn’t take the claims seriously unless the White House declassifies the underlying warrant.

There is agreement here:

“The major problem here is that this is only arguably scandalous in any way if [the DOJ] just essentially repacked the dossier as a warrant package without any work of their own,” Sanchez said, adding that it would be “inconceivable to me that would be the only source.”

“I doubt they based it on a single source of information,” said a former Republican chair of the House Intel Committee, Mike Rogers, on CNN.

“I can’t imagine that the dossier was the centerpiece of a FISA application,” said Robert Litt, a former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence who also worked for the Justice Department.

“Number one, I don’t think the Department of Justice would have allowed that to go forward as the sole basis. Number two, I don’t think a judge would have approved probable cause on that basis alone,” Litt said. “And number three, everything I read has suggested that there was considerable other information about Page before this dossier came in.”

The FISA warrant applications presented to the judge end up being dozens of pages long, according to former officials. A four-page memo that sought to summarize it would be a “carefully picked bowl of cherries,” John McLaughlin, who served as acting CIA director under George W. Bush, said on Twitter.

None of it makes sense:

Court documents filed in 2015 show that the government had intercepted two Russian figures discussing the prospect of recruiting Page, and the FBI interviewed Page in 2013 about his Russian contacts. The Washington Post reported the FISA application cited those communications and others not publicly disclosed. In the spring of 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reportedly approved an application to extend the FISA surveillance on Page.

“There would have been probably months, if not years of investigative activity on Carter Page prior to going to the court to begin with,” Rangappa said.

Before a FISA application makes it to the judge, it travels through many layers of review at the FBI that also includes career DOJ lawyers, who verify the source of every fact laid out in the application’s affidavit, according to Rangappa. A warrant for Page would have been treated with extra scrutiny, given the political sensitivities of him having been affiliated with Trump’s campaign, Rangappa said, adding that former FBI Director James Comey would have also likely signed off on it.

“I think a judge would have gone through that with a fine tooth comb and asked many questions,” she said.

These guys know trash when they see it, and this is a train wreck, as the Washington Post reports here:

The long-simmering feud between President Trump and the Justice Department erupted into open conflict Wednesday when the FBI publicly challenged the president’s expected release of a contentious and classified memo related to the probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

In a rare unsigned statement, the FBI cited “grave concerns” with inaccuracies and omissions in the four-page memo, which was written by House Republicans and alleges abuses at the Justice Department, connected to secret surveillance orders. Trump has told advisers that the memo could benefit him by undercutting the special counsel’s investigation and allow him to oust senior Justice Department officials – and that he wants it released soon, something that could happen as early as Thursday.

“We have grave concerns about the material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy,” the FBI said.

The extraordinary statement pits the nation’s top federal law enforcement agency against a commander in chief who already has fired one FBI director and has repeatedly expressed a desire to remove the attorney general and others connected to the Russia investigation.

They did their best:

The FBI’s public warning came after several days of failed attempts by FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and other Justice Department officials to convince the president and his senior staff in private meetings that the memo should be blocked because it poses a risk to national security.

That wasn’t good enough:

Trump was captured on video Tuesday night after his State of the Union address telling a South Carolina congressman that he was angry about the memo’s conclusions and would “100 percent” release it. “Don’t worry about it,” Trump told Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), who was urging its disclosure.

Wray has repeatedly tried to warn the White House against releasing the disputed document – including a visit to the White House on Monday afternoon with Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein to lobby Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. Later that night, Wray called Kelly again, but Kelly did not give ground, saying the president was inclined to release the memo, according to people familiar with the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the conversation.

That was Trump’s inclination:

Few things have frustrated Trump as much as the law enforcement agencies he cannot fully control. Allies say he is upset that he can’t control “my guys” at the “Trump Justice Department” and that no one seems particularly loyal to him. He has also broken long-held protocols by directly calling Justice Department officials, and instructed his chief of staff to do the same, without the White House counsel on the phone.

Yes, he’s forcing a train wreck:

Rather than lessen his trouble, these and other actions have opened new avenues in Mueller’s probe, which has included questions for witnesses about potential obstruction of justice and the president’s behavior.

And it’s all trash:

Late Wednesday night, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the panel’s ranking Democrat, accused Nunes in a letter of making “material changes” to the memo before sending it to the White House – meaning the memo panel members voted to make public was not the same one as the president is presently reviewing.

Schiff accused Nunes of “deliberately misleading” the committee and demanded that Nunes withdraw the version he sent to the White House, insisting that “there is no longer a valid basis for the White House to review the altered document” and approve its public release.

A spokesman for the Republican majority of the committee called the changes “minor edits.”

It doesn’t matter. Trump has forced the issue. The trash is now in the air. There was the Republican train wreck in Virginia. It was oddly symbolic in all its details. The trash flew everywhere. That sort of symbolism isn’t supposed to happen in real life, but it did happen. Now expect a dark and stormy night.

There’s the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest – entrants are invited “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” – like the opening of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford – “It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets…”

It’s going to be like that.

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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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