I admit to being slack-jawed over the New York Times report that President Trump smeared former FBI director James Comey in a conversation with representatives of Russia’s murderous, anti-American regime. The account, based on notes taken at the meeting and leaked to the Times, has implicitly been confirmed in a near-equally repugnant statement by the White House press secretary.
Inexplicably, Trump chose to host Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak the day after he fired Comey in a maze of conflicting explanations (when none, by the way, was required). Naturally, this further fueled the Trump-Russia conspiracy narrative. The president first told his guests that the former FBI director – a decorated former prosecutor and investigator who has spent most of his professional life trying to protect the United States from terrorists, hostile governments, and criminals – was “crazy, a real nut job.” Remarkably, Trump then managed to top himself, adding that by firing Comey, he had “taken off” the “great pressure” he faced “because of Russia.”
After months of investigation, congressional hearings, and a major report released by the FBI, CIA and NSA, there is no publicly known evidence of a concerted effort between Trump associates and Russian operatives to influence the election. Yet, Trump continues to act and obsess like a guilty person. My guess is that he is sure there is nothing to the Trump-Russia suspicions, he is angry over the way the narrative is hurting his presidency, and an incorrigible character flaw induces him to lash out in childish ways.
Nevertheless, any thinking person would grasp, under the circumstances, that such foolish statements would be leaked and spun as informing his Russian co-conspirators that he pink-slipped Comey because he was worried about the “great pressure” the Russia narrative is causing him (i.e., consciousness of guilt) – rather than exasperated by it.
For what it may be worth, I think the “Russia collusion” aspect of the president’s remarks misses the point. Despite my admiration for my friend David French’s considerable legal skills, I have been underwhelmed by his theory of obstruction by multiple steps (i.e., that Trump may have obstructed the FBI’s Russia investigation not merely by pressuring Comey to drop the probe of Michael Flynn, but by a series of actions of which the Trump-Comey conversation is just part). When it gets down to brass tacks, the “obstruction” issue hinges on whether there is any real proof of knowing collusion between the Trump camp and the Putin camp. If that were to emerge, the obstruction would be a slam dunk. If it remains a febrile Democrat hope forever in search of evidence, there is no step in David’s pattern that can’t be explained away.
No, the real question raised by the president’s latest intemperate remarks and the company in which they were made is whether the president knows the good guys from the bad guys.
Jim Comey is a patriot. That I have disagreed with him on some big things, does not change that. Disagreeing is what Americans do – that’s self-government by people who care passionately about how we are governed.
But let’s assume for argument’s sake that I am wrong. Let’s say that, as Sean Spicer says, Comey is a grandstander who has intentionally politicized an investigation in order to undermine the president. He’s still not the Russians. “America First,” remember? Comey is an American who believes in America; Lavrov and Kislyak are Putin operatives who oppose America at every turn. Comey believes in freedom and the rule of law; the Putin regime believes in Soviet tyranny and the rule of Putin.
Comey is one of us. Lavrov and Kislyak are two of them.
There is no excuse for a president of the United States to run down an American for the consumption of our Russian adversaries – particularly an American who is fighting against Russia’s operations against our country. It is indefensible. If President Obama had a meeting with Iranian diplomats at which he insulted, say, former ambassador John Bolton in an apparent effort to ingratiate himself with our enemies, we would be ballistic – and justifiably so.
The problem with this incident is not that it makes more likely the possibility that Trump colluded with Russia. The problem is that it suggests that Trump isn’t distinguishing friend from foe, Americans from America’s enemies. I don’t care about the “Russia collusion” narrative. I’m talking about a president who must know there is a more destructive narrative about his fitness, for which he cannot seem to stop providing ammunition.
What he said to the Russians was not an instance of an outsider crashing against establishment Washington’s way of doing things. This was flat out bizarre. And it is made worse – if that’s possible – by Spicer’s statements. As the Times relates them:
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Mr. Spicer said. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”
Where to begin? The challenge inherent in “our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia” is caused by Russia. Jim Comey has nothing to do with it. Russia is our enemy. Russia backs the “death to America” regime in Tehran. Russia props up the Assad regime. Russia uses the presence of the Islamic State in Syria as a pretext to attack America-backed forces. Russia invades its neighbors and annexes their territory. Russia murders and persecutes political adversaries.
Could that possibly not be clear?
I grant that it was highly irregular for Comey to testify that the ongoing counterintelligence investigation of Russian interference in the election includes scrutiny of any ties and coordination between Putin’s regime and the Trump campaign. I do not understand the reason for this in the absence of presenting evidence to support the stated suspicion. As we’ve observed more times than I care to count, the FBI and the Justice Department should not be speaking publicly about investigations. They should not make insinuations about Americans who have not been charged with any crimes. They should not be confusing the salient distinction between counterintelligence and criminal investigations. Even if you allow, as I do, that the public should be told if there is solid evidence of sinister dealings between our president and the Kremlin, the FBI has no business spreading innuendo.
But all that said, Comey did not go rogue in his latest testimony. His statements were pre-cleared by the Trump Justice Department. You want to say Trump’s chosen attorney general is recused and Trump’s other appointees were not in place to be an effective check on Comey’s penchant for deviating from protocols? Fair enough … but it is still the job of the president to rein in his subordinates. Trump has plenty of legal and strategic advisers. If he did not want the FBI and Justice Department to speak publicly about ongoing investigations – which they are not supposed to do in any event – he could have ordered them not to do it.
Of course the leaks are a problem. But I take it Spicer realizes that we could only be talking about classified leaks if the information leaked is actually classified – i.e., if it is the accurate version of the notes of the meeting, meaning: it is what the president actually said. If it were up to me, I’d be summoning every official who had knowledge of these notes into the grand jury, and I’d be making it very clear that the administration plans to pursue and prosecute officials who disclose classified information.
But I would not be laboring under the delusion that the leaking of what Trump said is more outrageous than the substance of what Trump said. What the president said, especially in light of whom he said it to, is reprehensible.