The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Never Ask if It Can Get Worse, Because It Always Can

Never Ask if It Can Get Worse, Because It Always Can

I can’t put it any better than David French does:

If [FBI director James Comey’s] memo exists, then there is compelling evidence that the president committed a potentially impeachable offense. Here is the alleged chain of events: First, Trump asked Comey to drop an investigation of a close former associate and a former senior official in his administration. Second, Comey refused. Third, weeks later Trump fired Comey. Fourth, Trump then misled the American people regarding the reason for the dismissal. Each prong is important, but it’s worth noting that the fourth prong — Trump’s deception regarding the reason for Comey’s termination — is particularly problematic in context. Deception is classic evidence of malign intent.

There is no good outcome here. Either there is now compelling evidence that the president committed a serious abuse of power, or the nation’s leading press outlets are dupes for a vindictive, misleading story. Either outcome violates the public trust in vital American institutions. Either outcome results in a degree of political chaos. If the memo is real and as damaging as the Times claims, the chaos is likely greater, but don’t underestimate the cultural and political damage if our nation’s most prestigious press outlets run a story of this magnitude based on a malicious fiction. It’s time for facts and documents, not anonymity and allegations. It’s time for the truth.

I’ll leave the door open a crack to the possibility that Trump is indeed the victim of a group of unidentified “U.S. officials” making up stories about him and feeding those fictitious allegations to a hostile press.

If there are tapes of conversations in the White House, those tapes could clear up two recent controversies immediately. Maybe Trump really didn’t say anything sensitive, secret, or inappropriate in his Oval Office conversation with Russian officials. If I see an unedited, verified recording or transcript of that conversation, and it refutes the story from the Washington Post and those other news organizations, I’ll say mea culpa. Yesterday I walked through the reasons that the Post account sounds plausible.

Similarly, maybe Comey is mischaracterizing his conversations with President Trump. Maybe Trump never asked for something inappropriate, like, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

But if there isn’t a taping system in the White House… Trump should stop sending out tweets suggesting there is one. We had the odd situation a few days ago of White House press secretary Sean Spicer repeatedly insisting Trump had been “clear” in his tweet about tapes of the Trump–Comey conversations… but that tweet wasn’t clear at all, and Spicer refused to confirm or deny that there was a taping system in the White House.

It’s a yes or no question. Are there tapes of these conversations or not?

If those tapes exist, and they support Trump’s account of events and not the account of anonymous sources and Comey… it means Trump has exculpatory evidence and is choosing to not release it and expose his accusers as liars and publicly humiliate them. How often do people choose to withhold evidence that clears them of accusations?

This doesn’t have to remain a mystery. Charlie Cooke is right; Congress should subpoena Comey’s memos immediately. Subpeona any tapes of conversations with Comey, as Lindsey Graham suggested, too. Let’s get to the bottom of this.

Beyond that, I suspect many Republicans find this exhausting. We keep seeing Day One errors well past Day One Hundred. John Podhoretz asks the tough but fair questions about why Trump keeps shooting himself in the foot:

Let’s just say Trump was talking casually about a guy he thought was a good fellow whom he was compelled to fire but whom he still liked and didn’t want to see hurt. That would be nice, right? It would also be a sign that Trump is a fool.

What, did Trump think Comey just fell off a turnip truck and wouldn’t be taking notes on what Trump said to him? Did he think Comey had climbed to the top of the greasy pole without possessing the classic survival skills of a successful bureaucrat?

And, having had this conversation with Comey, what on earth would then lead Trump to fire the man with whom he had had such a stupidly casual conversation about a sensitive investigation?

Isn’t this the sort of thing about people that a seen-it-all dealmaker is supposed to know better than the ordinary politicians who make such terrible deals we Americans felt compelled to bring in a famous businessman to fix what’s broken?

The White House staff could probably do a better job, but at the heart of the problem is Trump’s judgment. Notice this detail in the Times story:

Trump told those present — including Mr. Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions — to leave the room except for Mr. Comey.

Boy, that doesn’t look bad, does it? Let’s remove anyone Trump trusts from the room who could verify his side of the story so he can discuss an extremely sensitive topic with a law enforcement official who is investigating his administration. What could go wrong, huh?

If Trump wanted to make the firing of Comey as uncontroversial as possible, he needed to point to a slew of specific reasons for the decision besides the Russia investigation. Comey botched part of his testimony before Congress a few weeks ago. Paying professional hackers $900,000 to hack into the phone of the San Bernardino killers certainly seems like a controversial decision. Omar Mateen was on the FBI watch list, but still managed to perpetrate the Orlando attack. So was one of the Boston Marathon bombers. There’s a case to be made that the FBI and the country would be well served by a clean slate and a fresh start. . . . but that’s a case that President Trump has no interest in making.

Charlie envisioned how a less impulsive president would handle an issue like this:

 . . . he would have spoken early and often to the leaders of both parties, and taken care to ensure that the meetings were recorded. In addition, he would have consulted some well-respected figures — people with solid reputations and roles outside the fray — who could subsequently vouch for his authenticity. When it came to doing the deed, he would have explained his thinking to Comey and thereby ensured that he knew it was coming. And perhaps, given the likelihood of uproar, he would have made a speech or given a televised address in which he justified his move to the public. “I understand that this is unorthodox,” he might have said, “but this question of James Comey continues to hang over the country, and I think it’s time to move on.” And then, having made his apology, he would have announced a bipartisan panel charged with picking the replacement.

Instead, Sean Spicer is thrown out there in front of the cameras with an hour’s warning and no real information about why Trump made the decision.

Apparently Steve Bannon was among the Trump advisors who wanted the president to hold off on firing Comey. When Bannon is calling for prudence and deliberation, you should probably slow down.

Again, what’s the White House staff supposed to do in this situation? Just how well can they serve the president when the president himself keeps making these decisions like this?

Notice how often lately Republicans are asked to step in and defend Trump not because of the policies he wants to enact, not because of his legislative agenda or his vision for the country, but for his own impulsive decision-making.

Meanwhile, Out in the Rest of America…

Dave Wiegel asks a fair question: When does all of this GOP chaos and Democratic energy actually translate into election wins?

Georgia’s June 20 runoff election will wrap up a quartet of special elections for Republican-held seats this year, in which the roiling Democratic base has stocked millions of dollars and giddily high hopes. But after a single-digit loss in Kansas, and after Ossoff’s 48 percent showing led to a runoff in Georgia, Democrats are under new pressure to post a win.

All of the openings result from Republican lawmakers being tapped for positions in the Trump administration. In Georgia, Ossoff and Handel are vying for the former seat of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

 . . . But the May 25 race for Montana’s sole House seat has excited liberals, too, with first-time candidate Rob Quist, a country singer, pulling in $3.3 million for a contested race that Republicans did not expect. In South Carolina, another June 20 election will pit Democrat Archie Parnell against a Republican state legislator who had to slug through an expensive and bitter primary fight.

ADDENDA: Jazz Shaw isn’t as nice to those contemplating leaving America as I am.

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