The fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of this administration

Jeff_Sessions_swearing_in_02.png
Jeff Sessions swearing in as Attorney General, courtesy wikimedia.org

Recent tweets and speeches he’s given have the President throwing Jeff Sessions under the bus – the reasons given for his unhappiness are fairly nebulous. It is reported that he is looking for ways to get a new Attorney General, but this may alienate the wrong people – people Trump not only needs to be a successful president, but continue to be president at all if things get ugly enough for him.

Let’s be clear here – Trump wants Sessions gone because, due to Sessions’ recusal, Sessions cannot fire Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia. If Trump was truly unhappy with the recusal itself, or with Sessions’ unwillingness to investigate Hillary Clinton, he would have voiced this months ago.

There are a number of different ways he could do this. He could outright fire Sessions, Sessions could resign under pressure, or he could move Sessions to a new department. The first two would anger the conservative base and likely cross a red line for the GOP, who almost unanimously respect Sessions as a principled conservative. The third option, while it would anger the GOP less than the others, would still create problems for Trump.

This is coming up now because Trump wants to end the Russia investigation, and he can’t. Sessions recused himself from the investigation, as he said he would in his testimony to the Senate. The next person in charge of the special counsel is the Deputy AG, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller in the first place and would refuse to fire him. Therefore Trump has his hands tied – his only option for firing Mueller would be appointing a new Attorney General.

But this is also a ridiculous idea. Since the Attorney General is a position that would need Senate approval, the Senate would demand absolute independence of any new nominee from the Russia investigation as a condition of confirmation. GOP Senators have already drawn a line in the sand with this. This is especially true since Trump is now distancing his administration from the GOP, maybe even “declaring war” on the Republican Congress, who are increasingly seeing no reason to do Trump’s bidding. It is also reminiscent of Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” where he fired acting Attorneys General down the line until somebody agreed to fire the special counsel. It was later used to justify his impeachment on grounds of obstruction of justice. The world would also see it as an admission of guilt – why burn through all the political capital you don’t have to end an investigation if you are innocent?

The Senate, while they might not move to impeach Trump due to GOP control, might instead use this action to justify hiring their own special prosecutor if Trump finds a way to fire Mueller – possibly hiring Mueller right back.


So what’s the deal? Why go through all this?

A large part of Trump’s appeal was that he was the master negotiator – he “alone” can do what no other politician can do. And a large part of the criticism of Trump was that he has no government experience. Wouldn’t a master negotiator see the bind he has already created for himself, the fact that he has already burned what little political capital he has, and leave well enough alone? Or is there some fundamental misunderstanding here – one that explains all of Trump’s actions so far in his short presidency?

I believe Trump thinks of himself as the boss of the American government. I believe that, lacking even a rudimentary understanding of civics, this is how Trump makes sense of our very complicated federal government. He thinks he is the boss – that the Attorney General is his own personal attorney, that the Justice Department is his personal police force, that the Joint Chiefs are his personal generals, and probably even that the president is the “boss” of Congress. This is why, when any of these individuals act with any sense of independence, he is angered. This is also why Trump thought Obama was weak and ineffective – he didn’t understand that the president doesn’t just tell others in the government what to do.

The man literally doesn’t understand that the president has to work to build political capital by working with others on an equal footing, finding compromises and joint solutions. He thinks the reason we have problems in America aren’t because solutions are complicated, but because other presidents weren’t bossy enough. He thinks, by acting with independence, others in government are “disobeying” him.

This is also why Trump will get weaker and less effective as time goes on. Those people will get thrown under the bus, fired, replaced by people actually willing to take the job, and he will have the same problem all over again. Or in the case of Congress, he will alienate them while simultaneously empowering them to stand up to him as only Congress can.

This time, with Jeff Sessions, Trump will step on a landmine if he tries to replace him with an AG willing to fire Mueller. It will set off a chain reaction that will end with, at the absolute least, a lame duck administration. The founders of our Constitution designed our government this way for a reason – to stop a president exactly like Trump from getting away with crimes and abuses of power. And it’s these same abuses of power that Trump sees as the actual role of the President, confusing checks on the power of the Executive Branch as weakness among his staff and cabinet. Fortunately for us, the Constitution provides guidance on handling such abuses, and Trump will be in for a rude awakening if he doesn’t come to terms to this fact quickly.

Advertisements

If the plan was to undermine Comey’s credibility, it already failed

james_comey_testimony_gi.jpg
James Comey appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, courtesy dailywire.com

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.

The country is potentially in a very dangerous situation

32979767134_f1089fef71_b.jpg
Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to President Donald J. Trump, sits in on a meeting with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, Iraq, April 3, 2017. ([Department of Defense] Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro). Accessed via flickr.com.
The story of Jared Kushner’s attempt to open a back channel of communication with the Kremlin is the first glimpse the public has into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin (which the FBI has been investigating for a year now).

Given that there is a possibility of illegal activity here, let’s explore a few scenarios of how Trump could leave office in the coming years:

  1. He loses a re-election bid
  2. He is impeached and removed from office forcefully
  3. He completes two full terms

In all but situation 3, we may have a problem here. Given that Trump has praised foreign dictators for being “strong leaders” by instituting martial law, killing their own citizens by the thousands, destroying checks and balances with questionable power grabs, and the like – we know that Trump does not believe in democracy. And since he does not believe in democracy, we can’t be sure that he believes in the peaceful transition of power.

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.

The left has a fake news problem

7419675760_6c75616eae_b.jpg
“Louise Mensch MP, Corby and East Northamptonshire,” courtesy The Climate Coalition (UK), accessed via flickr.com

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.”

How_To_Spot_Fake_News.jpg
“How to spot fake news,” courtesy http://www.factcheck.org, accessed via commons.wikimedia.org

The stories about the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign are true. But be careful what you read out there. The internet is an environment where anybody can publish anything, so fake news and outright nonsense are prevalent. Make sure the reports you read are corroborated by more than one legacy news outlet before believing them. And most of all use extra scrutiny when reading reports that you hope to be true.


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.