As the remarkable story of President Trump’s secret ties to Russia unfolds each day, it is hard not to think back to the day last summer where a press conference about a different investigation, with a different potential target, and an undoubtedly different outcome became the center of the political universe. On July 5, 2016, FBI director James Comey took to his high podium to deliver a statement about his organization’s criminal investigation into potential mishandling of classified information by former Secretary of State and then-presumptive Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton. As Comey himself admitted, it was “an unusual statement.” He both gave “more detail about our process than [he] ordinarily would” while “not coordinat[ing] or review[ing] [his] statement in any way with the Department of Justice.” Intense public interest and importance, he said, justified his departure from protocol.
Comey’s statement was unusual for another reason. Despite finding no deceit or destruction of evidence, finding no intent to disclose classified information, and ultimately concluding that Clinton sent or received a mere 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains (plus six others found by examining e-mail fragments) containing classified information over a private server, he felt the need to publicly chastise his investigation target. Although determining that no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges based on such meager evidence of intentional mishandling of classified information, Comey took time to make the damaging and debatable charge that Clinton had been “extremely careless” and speculatively ruminated that it was “possible” a hostile foreign actor had accessed Clinton’s communications.
Now we know that just weeks after Comey made these public statements about a confidential investigation, his FBI was actively investigating the far more explosive possibility that Clinton’s Republican opponent in the presidential race was intentionally conspiring with a hostile foreign power to influence the election in his favor. Continue reading
A host of insider tell-alls coming from within the White House have revealed what we knew would be the case—Donald Trump and his minions don’t know the first thing about running the Government. Two weeks ago, the New York Times described an executive branch led by a lonely man wandering the West Wing in his bathrobe and staffed by “a surprisingly small crew of no more than a half-dozen empowered aides with virtually no familiarity with the workings of the White House or federal government.” Last Sunday, the Washington Post detailed how one of Trump’s closest “friends” first privately, and then quite publicly, told the president that his chief of staff, Reince Preibus was “in way over his head.” That same day, the New York Times reported that the National Security Council was in a state of disarray: “Three weeks into the Trump administration, council staff members get up in the morning, read President Trump’s Twitter posts and struggle to make policy to fit them.” Now, Politico and other outlets are reporting that Trump is considering a massive staff-shakeup less than a month into his presidency, and that aides like Preibus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer may be out the door soon. Continue reading
Donald Trump’s selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the current Supreme Court vacancy has left Democrats in a difficult position. On one hand, Judge Gorsuch is a qualified and conventional nominee on the conservative end of mainstream legal thought. Under a traditional understanding of the Senate’s constitutional role of providing “advice and consent,” qualified nominees without extreme ideological records should receive a prompt hearing and handy confirmation. Obstruction of Judge Gorsuch under these standards would upend the smooth functioning of the judiciary and politicize the Court, thus undermining public faith in a bedrock American institution.
On the other hand, these aren’t traditional circumstances. Continue reading
Days before the inauguration of our new president, Georgia Representative John Lewis and Donald Trump got into a bit of a dust-up. The details of the spat are unimportant; we demean a citizen’s responsibility to stay informed by equating Trump’s mean tweets with news. The president can be an insult comic on his own time. But though it got lost in the coverage of the furor it caused, Lewis’s initial comment was worthy of deeper consideration. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Lewis remarked: “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president.” In another year, a comment like this might be more easily dismissed as sour grapes. But not this time, with this president. Lewis was right to question Trump’s legitimacy, although not for the reasons he asserted. Continue reading
Earlier this month, two icons of the liberal arts gave a pair of heralded addresses to a rapt audience. Both speeches implicitly repudiated the incoming president while appealing to our better angels. In the first, the consensus candidate for greatest screen performer of our time spoke in moving terms about the country’s diversity and tolerance. A few days later, our country’s greatest living orator acknowledged the coming storm but assured the nation that its inner exceptionalism did, could, and would prevail. Together, the two speeches acknowledged our collective horror unbowed, offering the distraught a life-raft of hope. Yes, Meryl Streep and Barack Obama served up two heaping bowls of chicken soup to listless liberals hungering for reassurance. But it was just more empty calories. Continue reading
Remember that brief moment in the presidential campaign when we debated whether 2016 was shaping up to be a repeat of 1968? A few pundits noticed a real but overly simplistic parallel, which quickly drew attention and a slew of think-pieces in response, proclaiming that 2016 was not, in fact, 1968. It was early July, to be exact. Republicans were gearing up for their convention in Cleveland, one that most expected to be chaotic and perhaps violent (thus, holding the place of the Democrats’ 1968 convention in Chicago). A divisive GOP candidate in Donald Trump was poised to accept his party’s nomination on the backs of a racially charged primary campaign catering to white, Southern interests (recalling Tricky Dick Nixon’s rebirth aided by backroom deals with Strom Thurmond). There was then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort designing the GOP convention’s thematic purpose as “Make America Safe Again,” a pro-police message designed to reassure an agitated and threatened white middle-class (reminiscent of the populist, segregationist George Wallace’s divisive rhetoric). The 2016 campaign even pulled the same slogans right from the pages of history (or from the lips of Nixon himself): Trump spoke of a “silent majority” and “law and order” that would take back the country. Not to mention there were the striking parallels between Hillary Clinton and Hubert Humphrey—two high-minded, wonkish career politicians with ties to the hawkish and business interests of the Democratic Party too suspect for an embittered and emboldened, new left. Continue reading
One of the most stupefying defenses of the rigid, free-market libertarianism that took over the American right in the age of Obama was that freedom from government interference was an essential principle no matter the price. This idea came up in many forms. There was the notion that government programs fostered dependency, that redistribution actually harmed its beneficiaries. There was the view that the immediate benefits of expanding government disguised a larger restriction of innovation and prosperity. But no matter the form, the philosophy of Ayn Rand—which conveniently benefited those already possessing resources and power—always cherished a vague ideology of liberty at the expense of basic human needs.
This is how dogmatic adherence to intangible ideas always goes astray. It demands fealty to abstract principle over the primal truths of lived experience. Yet elevating theory while minimizing observation is usually misguided. Government dependency is hardly a concern when you’re starving.
Which is why the latest self-serious journalistic justifications for treating President-Elect Trump with the respect and even-handedness of past leaders are so off-base. Continue reading
America has a drinking problem. I know this because for the third time this year I am seated adjacent to a fellow cross-country traveler with a particular taste for the good life. A month ago, I was two seats down from a kindly older man with deep crags in his face who urgently pressed the help button as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off. At ten in the morning, my lifeline was a tall, styrofoam cup of coffee procured from the terminal just before takeoff. He, on the other hand, clutched at the two miniature bottles of whiskey dutifully brought to him as a child would his stuffed bear. After pouring the first bottle of Dewar’s into a plastic cup of ice usually reserved for diet ginger ale, the man unscrewed the second. Perhaps he should have finished the first one off before turning to the next because his shaky hands betrayed him just as he freed the sticky screw top from the bottle’s lips, sanitizing the aisle between row 22. You’ve never seen a more forlorn expression. “Don’t worry about it,” I tell the man, even as I continue to do just that. Continue reading
The results of this presidential election should inspire reflection from political prognosticators everywhere. They were wrong. The conventional wisdom, the counter-conventional wisdom, all of it. The collective reassurance that, no, this couldn’t happen here was mere wishful thinking. Going forward, greater caution is warranted.
At the same time, let’s not make this something it’s not. The levers of power may be held according to the binary system of wins and losses, but the story of an election—and its portent for the future—is much fuller. Democrats gained six seats in the House and two in the Senate, after winning eight House and two Senate seats in 2012. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton is just 158,987 votes short of Barack Obama’s vote total from 2012 and won the popular vote by more than 2.84 million votes—a full 2.1%. With her lead likely to grow slightly larger over the next week, she will at worst be only 1.8% short of Barack Obama’s reelection margin of 3.9% in 2012, just a few tenths of point behind George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection margin, and with a larger margin than ten different presidents (not including Donald Trump). Spare me the self-flagellation. Continue reading
There was a time before Barack Obama was the president when things made sense. The world may have been a chaotic and unruly place, but the political world was orderly underneath. Inside the beltway, a problem was a problem, a scandal was a scandal, and a gaffe was most certainly a gaffe. Administrations came and went as eventually power corrupted and it was time for a change. Those on top seemed invincible—until they weren’t. Those were the rules, and we all abided by them. Continue reading