The Comey Interview

I didn’t find the ABC interview with former FBI director James Comey to be that interesting in the end. There wasn’t a lot of new information or insight. In fact, David Graham of the Atlantic had a good summary:

The interview also captured the sense of surrealism that has pervaded much of American political life for the last two years. Comey was at the heart of many of the major events in that span, including the Clinton email investigation, the Russian election-interference investigation, and of course his own firing, yet his reaction to these events is as dumbfounded as people who watched from afar. The view from the inside is uncannily like the view from the outside.

Americans’ opinions and political affiliations are unlikely to change after this interview, especially given the pushback from Republicans and Democrats ambivalence toward Comey. As for the most serious allegations against Trump and company, we’ll all just have to wait for the Mueller investigation to reach a conclusion – if it is allowed to finish, of course.

All of that said, here are three observations prompted by the interview.

1. Let’s spread the morality around

A lot is being made of Comey’s remark that Trump is morally unfit to be president.

While I happen to agree, this was quite obvious during the campaign, and many people – not the least evangelicals – still voted for and support him. To this day, I’m not sure what to do with that fact.

Either way, I want to highlight one assumption Comey makes, that I think many Americans share:

There’s something more important than that that should unite all of us, and that is our president must embody respect and adhere to the values that are at the core of this country. The most important being truth. This president is not able to do that. He is morally unfit to be president.

You know what, Congress needs to embody those values, too. We invest too much of our national vision and power in the presidency and the president. We need to demand more all around.

2. In tribal times, conservatives would never have accepted Clinton

When it came to the Clinton and Trump investigations during the campaign, I do think Comey was in a hard place. But looking back now, it’s clear he should have stuck with established protocol and not said much, if anything. Instead, he famously issued updates on the Clinton investigation, and it appears he had political calculations in the back of his mind all along:

Like I said, I don’t remember spelling it out, but it had to have been. That– that she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate the moment she’s elected, the moment this comes out.

Whether he should have been factoring politics in or not, he sure got his understanding of current American politics wrong here. Clinton would have been seen as illegitimate by the entirety of the conservative political and media class no matter what. Trump was already claiming the election was rigged and raising doubt as to whether he’d accept the results. As a polity, we constantly underestimate the ruthlessness of the modern conservative movement.

As an aside, while some Democrats and analysts and Hillary Clinton herself claim that Comey was the decisive factor in the election, I’m less convinced. In a long, complex campaign, there are many causes. For example, there were tactical errors in the Great Lakes states, and the Democrats have yet to reckon with how unpopular of a person Hillary Clinton was and is. Also, Trump weathered what should have been far worse setbacks, and yet came out on top – just barely, of course, and only with the aid of Russian hacking and through the unfair and antiquated quirks of the Electoral College.

3. In Washington, there is no stain that can’t be washed out

Comey also remarks in the interview that anyone who associates with Trump, in the end, will be permanently marked:

(T)he challenge of this president is that he will stain everyone around him. And the question is, how much stain is too much stain and how much stain eventually makes you unable to accomplish your goal of protecting the country and serving the country?

Okay, he’s totally wrong here. In Washington, the stains almost always wash out, no matter how heinous they might be.

The George W. Bush administration was a disaster – a misguided war of choice in Iraq that cost hundreds of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars; the turning the United States into a nation of torturers; the biggest financial and economic collapse since the Great Depression – yet many major players went on with their public or political careers or have landed in prestigious think tank or media roles. Among the promoters of the Iraq War, David Frum is at the Atlantic, and Michael Gerson is at the Washington Post. Among the torturers, Trump has nominated Gina Haspel – a CIA official who operated one of the notorious black sites – to be CIA director, and incredibly, Comey himself worked to justify torture policies. As for the architects of the policy scheme that led to the Great Recession, I’m not aware of one who is in the poor house. George W. Bush himself even got some love recently when he subtly criticized Trump. Even from the Trump administration, Sean Spicer received a warm welcome initially – at the Emmys and Harvard of all places – despite obvious lying to the American public. There is no stain stain-y enough. Returning to the Comey interview, even from the Obama administration, former CIA director David Petraeus has landed comfortably, despite deliberately spreading classified information.

Washington just can’t quit its own inside players.

Bottom line, Comey is part of a long and growing list of public figures – including Hillary Clinton and Trump himself – that I wish would just pass from the political scene.

Curbing my enthusiasm: Misgivings about the Cohen raids and prosecutorial sprawl

As someone who finds Pres. Trump to be an awful person and disagrees with many (but not all) of his policies, I’m supposed to be delighted with the raids on Pres. Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen. After all, this could be a big step toward finding out whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 election, and of course, it’s entertaining to watch such delightful people struggle to cover up an alleged affair between Pres. Trump and a porn star.

But, these raids also make me uneasy. This is one of those difficult moments when my fairness gene gets the better of me. In this investigation into Cohen, there might be a crime. On that we’ll have to wait and see. But I can’t help asking how this relates back to investigating the connections between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. It could. But on the face of it, it does not. And that has me thinking that this is starting to feel like the Whitewater investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton, in which independent counsel Kenneth Starr wandered far and wide.

Let’s recall that, in the end, the investigation into Whitewater yielded nothing, but Starr did end up catching Clinton in a perjurious lie over the completely unrelated matter of having sexual relations with an intern in the White House. Now, I’m no fan of the Clintons. I don’t think much of them on policy grounds. But they were absolutely, positively railroaded by an empowered, aggressive, and ruthless independent counsel.  The residual political damage from those events has lasted well past the 90s. Certainly it was there in the background – and often in the foreground – for many voters of a certain age during Hillary Clinton’s run in 2016. I think you could argue that the out-of-control Starr investigation and the precedents it set of hyper-partisan, never-ending, deeply unfair investigations was a big factor in bringing us the Trump presidency. For what it’s worth, even Starr has come around to the idea that he went too far and has sought to reach out to the people he hounded.

Now, let me be clear about one aspect of the Cohen raids: I am not arguing that this was illegal or against procedure. I understand that there is a process and multiple safeguards and officials involved. Instead, I am making an argument about how the institution of the special counsel should be empowered in our legal system. I am expressing alarm at how special counsel investigations can sprawl out to areas beyond their original mandate. This sort of legal sprawl is exactly why the Starr investigation became such a circus. It spun out in every direction until it hit something. If you’re fine with sprawling investigations, okay. But by my thinking, that gives a lot of aid and comfort to the people who drove the investigations into the Clintons. Special counsels end up having a vast amount of power. That is not a legal matter. That is a policy choice and a political decision. It’s a choice of institutional design. And I’m not sure it’s good for our system.

Let me say all of this in a slightly different way to anyone who’s inclined toward hyper-partisanship: If you’re a Democrat and saw the Whitewater investigation as overreach, then I ask you to be concerned that the Mueller investigation is starting to have some features of overreach, as well. If you’re a Republican, and you think Whitewater was great, then I guess you just have to accept that the Mueller could go everywhere and anywhere. Again, I don’t think this approach is good for the law or for the country. But if you take the perspective of a hyper-partisan, then all is well.

By the way, I want the Mueller investigation to continue. I believe Trump should be impeached if he fires Mueller. And to be fair (there it is, again), Trump brought this special counselor on himself by firing Comey.  But I’m concerned that we’re not addressing the real, long-term issue: After all of this with the Mueller investigation, are our US electoral systems any less vulnerable to manipulation? THAT is what we should have daily stories on. And Pres. Trump is very much at the center of that growing scandal. He has not made securing our electoral process a priority. Security officials have testified to that. Holding him accountable for that might lead us straight back to all things Russia, anyway. So, I say rake him over the coals, but let’s keep our eyes on the right prize of the raking.

P.S. I was asked by a friend to be more specific about how I would have wanted the investigation to go.  If I had to draw a line, maybe it would be this: Mueller could have left the entire Stormy Daniels investigation to some other institution. He has ended up doing that, but only after taking deliberate steps to prompt action by the other agency. Now, under his charge, why would he do this? Well, to shake loose Russia investigation information – not really to address the Stormy Daniels affair itself. The Story Daniels affair was a pretext to yield the other information, from a Mueller perspective. Now, you could argue that they’re all just one big, happy federal investigating and prosecuting family. Why draw artificial lines? Okay, fair enough. But that is a decision about institutional design. And the way these investigations tend to metastasize, as history shows, I get concerned about sprawling power.

P.P.S. By the way, on the specific allegation of “collusion” (not officially a crime, by the way), Trump absolutely, positively wanted collusion.  He looked right at the TV camera and asked Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s email. He’s “guilty” of attempting to collude already. But people voted for him anyway. Hyper-partisan Republicans, in this case, are highly selective in their indignation. And the other evidence that we know publicly is pretty damning – with the the Trump Jr. meeting and the timing of the Wikileaks release. But I’ll wait for the results of the entire Mueller investigation – and frankly, maintain a healthy skepticism of the intelligence analysis abilities of the our intelligence agencies.

Don’t be too comfortable with every part of the Russia investigation

While I want the Mueller investigation to continue – and I sure want to know if the Trump campaign directly colluded with the Russian government to hack the DNC and Podesta – I’m not comfortable with every aspect of it.

First off, the recent subpoena against Sam Nunberg seemed awfully broad – both in terms of the time period covered and the number of people involved – especially for someone who left the campaign pretty early on.

Secondly, from this Washington Post article outlining the possible state of the investigation, there are a couple of facets from the possible legal case that should be unsettling. Apparently, there could be charges of “conspiracy to defraud the United States”. Which can be interpreted this way:

In the 1910 case Haas v. Henkel, the Supreme Court interpreted the provision broadly to include ‘any conspiracy for the purpose of impairing, obstructing, or defeating the lawful function of any department of government.’ Notably, there is no requirement that the government be cheated out of money or property.

Wow. Interpreted broadly, almost any form of direct protest against a federal agency becomes a crime.

Also, there’s the crime, which some Trump associates have already pleaded guilty to, of lying to federal officials. Perjury is a crime, of course. And that’s sensible. A duly constituted court of law can’t function without some incentive to make people tell the truth. But federal law enforcement officers are not the court. People might have all sort of reasons they don’t want their personal lives picked over by federal officials. It’s on the federal officials to find a way to build a case without being overly invasive.

Again, I’m no fan of Trump, and I want the investigation to continue. But we should be cautious about overly empowering federal law enforcement. You would think this would have been a lesson Democrats would have learned during the Clinton administration.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, there’s no evidence yet that anything Mueller comes up with will be persuasive politically to Republicans or Trump’s supporters. And that is key to this whole effort to understand what happened in 2016. If we can’t agree on a shared set of facts and a set of values for what’s acceptable in our republic, we have years of political poison ahead of us.