Today, Comey gave an unwavering, consistent, believable account of his interactions with the president and why it gave him pause. All of his stories and accounts line up with what we already know, none of it contradicts, and the intelligence community has his memos to back them up.
Trump’s plan (or at least, the RNC’s plan) was to undermine Comey’s credibility today to save face. To label him a showboat, question his motives, and try to give the American people a reason to doubt his testimony. However, Trump and the people defending him couldn’t help but push that they feel “vindicated” by his account of telling Trump he was not under FBI investigation.
Trump’s outside lawyer, Mark Kasowitz, today released a statement in defense of Trump’s actions. The point of the statement was to try to remove Trump from the appearance of wrongdoing, and he does this by using much of Comey’s testimony as evidence. He cites Comey’s own account of what took place, the exact quotes and wording Comey used, and that Comey told the president he was not under investigation personally, in order to try to paint a narrative. However, Kasowitz claims Comey, while telling the truth (even down to the exact wording) on the rest of his testimony, was lying about the part where Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation.
The problem with all of this is if you’re using Comey’s testimony to defend yourself, even down to the exact wording he used, then you are inherently reaffirming his credibility. You are telling the American people that Comey had consistently told the truth throughout the entirety of his testimony. Oh, except for that one thing – probably the only thing that, if true, means that Trump is guilty of a crime. That’s the one and only thing that we are supposed to believe was a lie.
So who are we to believe? A man who has shown professionalism, integrity, nonpartisanship (even when we all thought his treatment of Clinton was partisan), consistency, and reliability – whose story has only been corroborated by the people attacking him? Or a president who consistently lies and contradicts himself, sometimes in the same sentence?
Try to imagine how this would hold up in court, let alone the court of public opinion.
Ronald Reagan viewed America as a “shining city upon a hill.” His vision saw America holding the torch of liberty for the world to see – a shining example of the power and prosperity that can flow from freedom, liberty, and democracy. That our power comes from our freedom, not despite it, and that our power will be used to protect and project the truth to world, along with our democratic values.
You might call this a “right makes might” worldview. A worldview that has grown and flourished in the years following World War 2, its basic assumption is that America is powerful because its institutions – freedom, democracy, capitalism – are right and just.
Compare this to the worldview shared between autocrats like Vladimir Putin and the alt-right, who see the world as a proverbial game board where those with the power to do so have not only the right to bully the others, but the moral obligation. Those who share this worldview believe that a nation should project whatever power it has on the world stage, and that this strategy, when followed by all nations, brings about peace and prosperity.
The problem with this is that it isn’t new. This nationalistic, might-makes-right strategy, has already been tested. And it failedmiserably. What inevitably happens when many powerful nations believe they have more sovereignty over less powerful nations is conflict – and after industrialization, conflict is more costly than it is worth. The world has benefited tremendously from what was envisioned by Woodrow Wilson and has evolved since 1945 – a globe of interconnected, cooperating nations that work together for the common good. Through this cooperation, nations can achieve together what they cannot do alone.
This was the basic premise of the Paris Agreement. A nonbinding voluntary “gentleman’s agreement” that laid the framework for all nations to make a conscious effort at reducing carbon emissions for the benefit of all. The success of this agreement, being nonbinding, relied on the most powerful countries to lead the way.
America was supposed to be one of the leaders. Leading the world into a 21st century energy economy would have been another opportunity for the United States to prove that it is still “a shining city upon a hill,” an example for the rest of the world to look up to and emulate. Instead, the president Thursday rolled back that leadership, leaving the world to look for a new leader – a new “shining city upon a hill,” which now looks like it could be Europe, or China, or whoever may step into the leadership void. It was a powerful signal to the world that we don’t care about you any more, and that you are on your own.
Even more than this however, Trump’s foreign policy reflects a pivot away from what has treated the world very well in the years since World War 2. Abandoning global cooperation, abandoning leadership by example in an attempt to bully the rest of the world in a might-makes-right approach to foreign policy is already beginning to backfire. We are alienating the allies that have helped us push for democracy, freedom, and capitalism throughout the world, against the forces of totalitarianism and communism. This isn’t some left-wing “sissy” view of the world. This used to be bipartisan, shared by Republican and Democrat leaders alike.
Evan McMullin, the conservative independent presidential candidate in 2016, had this to say about it, “We left this model behind after the great world wars and have benefited from a lack of their return since. Our system since has been rules-based in which all nations, no matter how weak or powerful, have the same claim to sovereignty and justice. The ‘might makes right’ philosophy, whether in foreign or domestic affairs, is an assault on truth. It presupposes that there is neither right nor wrong, but only political or military power. Where political or military power determine what is ‘right,’ there is no truth because power is dynamic and changes hands regularly. Where there is no truth, there is neither liberty nor equality, thus the reason authoritarians adopt populism so readily. There is truth!”
Reagan knew this, he knew the power of leading by example, of truth, of supporting and cooperating with our strongest allies. Why are conservatives abandoning the philosophies of their heroes, the same heroes whose name they still cite as examples of what is possible with conservative leadership?
Can you foresee a situation where Trump has to leave office against his own will? Will he gracefully step down if he loses his re-election or, especially, if he’s impeached? Or will we have a constitutional crisis on our hands?
Democracy is inherently fragile, and is only as strong as the integrity of those willing to defend it.
Let’s just imagine in our heads a situation where Donald Trump loses his re-election to a Democrat in 2020. Given how 2016 went, we know the campaign is probably going to be a long, ugly, a demoralizing bloodbath between him and whoever runs in opposition. Trump may even label his opponent as a danger to the country, painting a scary and dangerous picture for voters of the ugly possibilities of what may happen to America if we allow this opponent to take office. We may have sweeping breaches of voting rights by 2020, given that the Republican party as a whole has shown little interest in protecting them. Trump may call the results rigged, or illegitimate; he may use everything in his power to throw mud into the gears of what has always been a peaceful transfer of power in this country. And using “everything in his power” – he’s the president of the United States. He has a lot of power.
But this isn’t even the scariest possibility. Let’s say the FBI, or leaks to the press, or any of the other investigations into his campaign uncover something illegal and impeachable. What if Trump calls it all illegitimate, as he’s already done so far? What if Congress strips him of his power and he says “no?” Trump for the most part controls the military and the police. Using that power to hold onto the presidency might sound like a far fetched scenario, but democracy is inherently fragile, and is only as strong as the integrity of those willing to defend it. As I said, we know Trump isn’t interested in defending democracy; from the looks of things he is only willing to defend himself. And remember that this country has gone to civil war in the past.
Those hoping that Trump will be impeached don’t account for the fact that this country will be in crisis if it comes to that. Even if Trump was successfully removed from power against his will, the extreme partisan divisions that exist right now could very well turn into deep trenches. Our people could turn on one another in ways we haven’t yet thought possible – those who support Trump and those who support his impeachment. Even now, more Republican voters trust Putin, possibly more than they trust Democrats. To think we would be able to pick up the pieces, unite as a country, and go back to normal in a situation like this is a long shot. If it came to that, there would be significant harm done to this country’s institutions, one way or another.
Even at this moment, Trump is using a very familiar playbook. Evan McMullin, who ran for president as a conservative independent in 2016, had this to say about it: “Accelerating investigations place the Trump administration in a familiar authoritarian quandary. Remaining in power subjects them to increasingly compromising scrutiny while offering the best protection from its consequences. So they become evermore willing to take extraordinary, illegal steps to hold onto power as a matter of self-preservation. It remains to be seen what form this will take in the case of the Trump administration.”
Let’s hope that if it comes to this, there are enough Americans left to put the country before party loyalty. But at the moment, in our current hyper-partisan political climate, I’m not convinced that’s the case.
No, I’m not talking about CNN. I’m talking about conspiracy theorists who have found a following among news-starved liberals impatiently waiting for the FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia to end in indictments or impeachment. It’s hard to even call them conspiracy “theorists” because they do not post theories, they post unfalsifiable “intel” from “sources” that claim that Trump, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and maybe even hundreds of others have secretly been indicted and that they will be arrested any day now.
The most prominent among these are Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor, who have amassed huge followings on Twitter and with their blog Patribotics. They make unverified and uncorroborated claims about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia by citing anonymous sources, or “insiders” as they claim. They put on the air that their claims have validity by echoing one another, and citing their own blog to back themselves up.
Mensch gained publicity by correctly identifying the existence of FISA warrants into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and Taylor did as well when he correctly identified the existence of grand juries looking into the same case. In both of these cases, Patribotics beat the mainstream media to the punch and were the first to report them. However, they use the momentum gained by being right once in a while to claim that they are just “ahead of the game” with the rest of their unverified stories – that the media just hasn’t published or caught up with them yet.
Typically in legacy news outlets – those with decades-long reputations to back up their credibility and trustworthiness – a story is only published with anonymous sources once it has been thoroughly vetted and corroborated. Anonymous sources will be corroborated by multiple staff members at say, The Washington Post, who will then publish the story. Typically, multiple other news outlets will also corroborate the story and independently vet the sources, and also publish it in a short period of time. This is how we as an audience know we can trust these sources without knowing who they are.
Take for example the story that broke Wednesday night about Greg Gianforte assaulting the Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs. There were multiple refutations of the claim that Gianforte “bodyslammed” Ben Jacobs, both from Gianforte’s staff and from other conservative talking heads. However when the story was confirmed by Fox News, whose journalists had witnessed the assault first hand, we as an audience knew the truth. This level of corroboration is what makes the typical criticisms of anonymous sources weak.
This level of corroboration is also what the Patribotics team is missing, and why their stories can’t be trusted. Often times you won’t be able to find their sources and claims anywhere but Patribotics and their individual Twitter accounts. Sometimes they will post stories that are downright false, and once proven false, Mensch and Taylor bend over backwards trying to retroactively prove them true, or even just edit the original post to make it reflect new info. This is intentionally misleading and false, but it gets into strange territory when they attempt to undermine (or even outright harass) anybody who criticizes the weaknesses and veracity of their “reporting.”
Edit 5/27/2017, 3:30 PM: Since it is a popular line of defense that Patribotics and their followers use to defend their unverified reporting, I felt the need to address this. Even if it comes out later that what they have reported is true (which has happened a few times), my points about their intentionally misleading reporting still hold. The fact that the Patribotics team is constantly posting “told ya so’s” when any small part of their reports happen to be true, the fact that they are constantly going back and editing old reports to reflect new information (often times even distorting the original false point to make it sound true given new facts), the fact that they are pushing potentially explosive ideas before having all the facts, and the fact that they lash out against critics – these are all intentionally misleading activities, regardless of how true any of it is, and should be red flags. The truth should be able stand on its own merits.
The James Comey firing is not normal. The President of the United States fired the man tasked with investigating him for crimes. The importance and weight of that sentence cannot be overstated.
Comparisons to Nixon have been floating around since the news came out. Nixon, in his Saturday Night Massacre, asked his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor who was assigned to investigating Watergate. Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than comply, thus yielding Department of Justice authority to his Deputy AG, William Ruckleshaus, who also resigned for the same reason. Finally authority of the DOJ fell to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, who then (finally) fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
The problem was that Nixon had ordered Cox fired because Cox was getting too close to honing in on Nixon for crimes related to Watergate. Instead of facing up to these crimes, Nixon abused his executive power and ordered Cox fired. Two acting Attorneys General chose to resign instead of follow this order because it was just that – an abuse of executive power. While Comey was not a special prosecutor, and thus there could have been any number of reasons to fire him – in a democracy, you cannot fire the person tasked with investigating you.
Well, actually, you can. It is within the powers of the President of the United States to fire the FBI Director. Investigations are carried out by the executive branch, and the President runs the executive branch. The reason I say you “can’t” do this is because it is an abuse of power. At this point it is up to Congress to hold the President accountable for these actions. But our current Congress is controlled by the Republican party, and Mitch McConnell as the Senate Majority Leader already shut this down, speaking of it as if it is no big deal, and as if we should all just move on.
McConnell has been very good at making extremes and abuses of power seem normal. He has made historic obstruction of government seem normal, even denying the sitting President from nominating a Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia for a full year. Now he’s even making it seem normal for the President, whose campaign is under investigation for its ties to Russia and the Russian hacking of the 2016 election, to fire the FBI Director who is leading this investigation. He does this by brushing it aside, and moving onto other topics of discussion, thus nullifying any opposition or press narratives as time, and the news cycle, passes.
[T]he outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired.
And the spin machine is now running on full blast. Fox News has been trying to disarm the criticism with a lot of Whataboutisms from the start, and Trump has been throwing confusion into the narratives to get people arguing. Trump has been masterful at this for years now, and it is a major reason why he’s President today. The letter he wrote to fire Comey even stated that Trump had been informed by Comey on “three separate occasions” that he was not under investigation, even hinting that these conversations were recorded in a tweet yesterday. Which is bizarre, not only because it was brought up at all, but because Comey isn’t worried about any such tapes. This didn’t stop the press from running with the story, feeling the need to give legitimacy to these remarks, and thus the narrative is effectively mucked. Our divided country is once again divided along party lines on this issue.
Those defending these actions will have arguments like, “Comey needed to go for politicizing the Bureau, and Democrats are only up in arms about this because of partisan politics.” There is some semblance of truth to that. I agree that Comey overly politicized the FBI, both with his letter to Congress last November about the Clinton email case that probably turned the election in Trump’s favor, as well as constantly being in front of the camera and making news. However, the outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired. And the White House narratives to explain that don’t add up (especially since Trump and Sessions, who made the decision to fire Comey, constantly praised his handling of the Clinton email case until last week).
If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how you’d feel if Obama fired Comey last year when Hillary Clinton’s email investigation was still ongoing. Let’s even say he had some other reason for doing it. Wouldn’t you find it suspicious? Would you take the President at his word?
The Democrats are in a tough spot. On one hand, if they blow this up and grandstand about it, half of the country will think it’s all just partisan politics and the criticisms will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, however, if they don’t do enough then they are rolling over in the face of an abuse of executive power. Especially since so few congressional Republicans have joined in the criticism, the onus falls on the Democrats.
One option, as Adam Jentleson described, is to use every opportunity they have in the Senate to question Republicans about their denial of this abuse of power. Republicans can choose not to comment when asked by the press, they can hide from town halls, but hiding from the Senate floor is much more difficult. Mitch McConnell hopes this will go away with time (as it usually does), but the Democrats need to decide if this is a big enough problem to use all of the power at their disposal to resist.
And most of all – maybe the only way to truly ensure Congress acts as a check on the Executive – people need to vote. Vote for candidates who pledge to hold the White House accountable for their actions, in 2018 and always. Turn up the electoral pressure on those who refuse to acknowledge these problems, and all of a sudden we will see their attitudes – or their seats – flip.
Today we received the news that Steve Bannon has been removed from the National Security Council. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I’m sure many others have as well who have any interest at all in the United States’ role in global security. A former executive editor for a far-right online media outlet, with no national security or foreign policy experience, should have never been appointed to the role in the first place, but at the very least I’m glad he’s been removed and H.R. McMaster (a career military professional with vast experience) is in control.
However, the reasoning is unclear. The White House explanation is that Bannon was appointed to the NSC as a check on Michael Flynn, and now that that job is no longer needed, he has stepped down. This is obvious nonsense, given that Flynn hasn’t even held a job in government since he stepped down from his role as National Security Adviser on February 13th. This explanation also begs the question, why was Flynn appointed the highest national security position in government at all if he wasn’t trusted and needed to be babysat?
Furthermore, looking deeper, why is the White House now throwing Flynn under the bus? A few weeks ago Trump was defending Michael Flynn as if he was some kind of hero, and now they’re putting out statements that make him sound like a rat who needed Steve Bannon to keep him in line on the NSC. Could this have anything to do with Michael Flynn offering to testify in exchange for immunity? These narratives don’t add up.
Since the official explanation is illogical, and I know Steve Bannon didn’t altruistically step down for the good of the country, then why has he stepped down? When Michael Flynn resigned, it was hours before the story broke in the New York Times that the Trump campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence, involving Michael Flynn and others. I’m not saying that there is a story about to break on Steve Bannon, but it makes one wonder.
With growing humanitarian crises in Syria (under the Assad regime, who Trump has refused to denounce), a growing nuclear threat in an unstable and unpredictable North Korea, and maybe most of all, the growing threat of an imperialist Russian government who is undermining elections and fostering division throughout the west, including our own country – I for one am happy the adults are back in charge, at the very least in the National Security Council. Hopefully this is a sign that things are moving in the right direction, but somehow I have my doubts.
Multiple outlets (including the New York Times and the Washington Post) are reporting that this is part of a broader push by the Trump Family and some of the more “traditional” members of the administration like McMaster to push out extremists like Bannon from positions of power. Trump may be getting on board with this after Bannon’s failures with the immigration ban and healthcare act. I am simultaneously hopeful that this means Trump’s worst tendencies are going to be quelled, and fearful that this will make him more effective at passing the worst parts of his agenda. We will see.
There is a narrative that President Trump is a buffoon. That he’s unqualified, an egomaniac, a narcissist, doesn’t know what he’s doing, etc. Every time there is controversy, it seems to play right into this common narrative – Trump is causing chaos with executive orders because he has never held public office before and is screwing up, Trump is going to hurt his supporters by supporting the American Health Care Act because he doesn’t know the difference between medicare and medicaid, etc.
I’m here to provide a different narrative. This narrative, to me, survives Occam’s Razor, because it is a much simpler explanation than, say, “an unqualified narcissist stumbled backwards practically on accident into the most powerful office in the world because Americans are racists.” My narrative is that Donald Trump and his team are far more intelligent than they let on, and they play into this “buffoon” narrative to serve their own ends. Some said during the campaign that Donald Trump was playing chess when everybody else – the media, the other candidates, the voters – were playing checkers, and I believe this to be, at least in some parts, true.
Take for example Tuesday’s “bombshell” 2005 tax return release, drummed up by Rachel Maddow and MSNBC on Twitter as “we have Trump tax returns” which quickly turned social media into a frenzy, only to disappoint because the tax returns had nothing even a little bit nefarious in them. One idea, hinted at even by Maddow on her show, was that these returns were leaked on purpose by the Trump team to put the story to bed – the story that he won’t release his tax returns because it will show a link to Russia and the Kremlin. This is quickly cast aside because, even if that were true, people believe that it would have been a stupid move by the Trump team anyways because it put his non-release of tax returns back into the spotlight. But maybe this wasn’t meant as a nuclear bomb that was going to put the story to bed once and for all, because obviously, it wasn’t going to do that.
Perhaps it was meant as one more chip away, in a sequence of a hundred little chips, at the legitimacy of the press and the media?
Think about it. People aren’t talking about the content of Trump’s tax returns right now – I mean, there was nothing in the two pages Maddow released that made him look bad at all. What people are talking about right now is how Maddow drummed up this frenzy over nothing. It makes her, and MSNBC, and to some extent the entire media, look like rabid dogs frothing over anything they can possibly spin to make Trump look bad. I am not blaming Maddow for covering this (aside from her tweet that hinted that they had more than they did), as a journalist she has an ethical duty to cover this story. But this plays perfectly into the idea that Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Donald Trump, and his entire camp have been pushing – that the media cannot be trusted.
Even I read news now with a doubtful eye. It is always in the back of my mind that the media wants to spin anything it can into something negative about Trump, so I have to second guess any news that comes out. I know how to fact check, but a lot of people don’t. A lot of people don’t even realize fact checking is important, or even a thing. And those are the people that this attack on the legitimacy of the media is meant to confuse.
Doing damage to the legitimacy of the press serves the purpose of making all the negative news surrounding Trump sound like hysterical weather coverage – a lot of panic and hysteria drummed up over a minor storm that ends up being nothing, because that’s what sells. It causes people to “turn off” to all of the negative news, thus making it less politically risky to implement an extreme agenda.
There are many other examples of these little chips away at the legitimacy of the media. The White House provides competing narratives, “alternative facts” as we have so lovingly taken to calling them, that are meant to make people debate about what is and is not fact, rather than the facts themselves. Donald Trump called CNN “fake news” for covering the Russian intel dossier claiming the Kremlin might be blackmailing him. Even the memo that was leaked claiming that Trump wanted to create a militarized deportation force of 100,000 could have been meant as a distraction, something leaked on purpose that could easily be dismissed as “fake news.” Trump has done this over and over from the very beginning because there is a lot of negative news surrounding him that would have crippled any other candidate, yet he always survives. And now his administration might be doing it too, on a much larger scale and over much bigger and more dangerous issues.
Obviously a theory is only a conspiracy unless there is substantial, objective, and verifiable evidence to back it up. I realize all I have here are a lot of breadcrumbs with no bread. So I’m not asking you to swallow without question that the Trump camp is waging a war of Orwellian doublespeak on the minds of the American people. What I am asking you to think about is the idea that Trump is not causing chaos because he’s a buffoon, that he didn’t fall backwards into the Presidency on accident. Perhaps the Trump administration is causing chaos, and chipping away at the legitimacy of their critics one piece at a time, because it makes their extreme agenda more palatable and politically feasible. I’m asking you to think about the idea that perhaps Trump is smarter than he lets on, and that underestimating him in this way is going to fail time and time again.