Live-Tweeting Obstruction of Justice

Three strains of executive incompetence and self-immolation came to a head this week. First, on the policy front, the administration’s absent leadership and ham-fisted threats continued its unbroken string of legislative futility as the Senate failed to pass its promised healthcare bill. Second, the wild and revolting West Wing drama cultivated by President Trump reached new heights as newly hired (and now newly fired) communications director Anthony Scaramucci caused Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Chief of Staff Reince Preibus to resign, while embarrassing himself with unhinged, confusing, and vulgar statements to the media. And third, the President escalated his assault on the rule of law by assailing his own Attorney General for recusing himself from overseeing the Department of Justice’s Russia investigation due to unavoidable conflicts just as powerful evidence between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin came to light.

Yes, it has been an unnerving few weeks for the country (to say nothing of the last six months, or the last two years). What seems to make it all the more unsettling, though, is the sense—that heavy, dank, oppressive feeling—that that there will be no consequences. The sense that the rules have changed, that none of this will make a difference, and that these monsters will get away with everything. Certainly, this fear has informed and shaped much of the media coverage, with our weekly check ins on whether the Trump diehards are holding fast (newsflash: they are!).

This aura of invincibility that many across the spectrum—left, right, middle, and the media alike—perceive enveloping President Trump is understandable. There’s a legitimate concern that our politics are so polarized, and that the Republican Party is so radicalized, that Trump will survive all outrages and abuses and stand a decent chance of reelection should the economy continue rolling along. Perhaps in the short term this view is correct; Trump will hold most Republicans and the hearts of its most active supporters, and in turn the congressional GOP will muddle along, leaving him unchecked. But the problem with applying the “Teflon Don” theory to all things Trump—including his piques of obstructionist rage and the assorted sordid happenings of son Donnie Jr.—is that it imposes a cable TV framework to legal and policy worlds unconcerned with political theatre. A criminal investigation is not a news cycle. Continue reading

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Lies Are Lies Are Lies Are Lies

There are a lot of ways to lie. That was the upshot from Thursday’s dramatic Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, where former FBI Director James Comey spent the better part of three hours recounting the latest chapter in the 1960s political thriller that is our ongoing national nightmare. The hearing uncovered new ground when Comey described President Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Michael Flynn investigation and implied that there was a greater scope to the underlying Russia investigation than previously thought. It also exhibited the many flavors of falsehoods.

The tutorial began the day before the hearing, when the Intelligence Committee prematurely released Director Comey’s written testimony. That seven-page submission detailed presidential intimidation in a dramatic first-person chronology of dinners and telephone calls between a wooing President Trump and a reluctant Comey. The testimony described a series of efforts by Trump as both president-elect and president to pressure the then FBI Director into engaging in deceit in its subtlest form—lying by omission. Continue reading

A Disastrous Double-Standard

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