The Move Of An Autocrat — Thoughts On The Comey Firing And The Future Of Democracy
I was in the middle of writing a post about how Sean Spicer’s press briefing illustrated the bind that the White House was in over the Flynn investigation. Yates’ testimony showed that Don McGahn had been given clear and detailed warnings not only about Flynn’s “problematic” underlying behavior, clearly discussing sanctions with the Russians, but also that he was lying about those discussions, exposing himself to blackmail by the Russians. Priebus has already admitted that McGahn briefed the President and then launched his own investigation that turned up no illegal activity. The White House took no action to restrict Flynn’s access as NSA after the Yates meeting, indicating that Trump was fine with whatever Flynn had done, presumably because he had done it with Trump’s authority. Only when the existence of the Yates meeting became public was Flynn fired but, since McGahn’s investigation had essentially cleared Flynn, the rationale for removal became that Flynn had misled Pence.
And then the news broke that Trump had fired Comey.
Let’s just recap exactly where we are. Trump associates and possibly Trump himself are the target of a counter-espionage investigation by the FBI. There is a broad range of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the various meetings with Russians by members of the campaign, the payments from Russians or Russian-associated individuals and firms to members of the Trump campaign, the remarkable timing of Russian hacking at critical points in the campaign, and the remarkable alignment of Trump’s campaign rhetoric with the goals of Russia. Whether this body of evidence amounts to proof is what the investigation is all about. CNN reported last night that the FBI investigation had taken a new turn as subpoenas had been issued by the DOJ for associates of Flynn. Testimony from Yates and Clapper indicated that Trump’s business dealings with Russians are also the subject of an investigation. That line of inquiry is also now being pursued by the Senate Judiciary Committee. And all this is on top of the fact that Trump was clearly inclined to keep Flynn on as NSA despite his exposure to Russian blackmail.
In addition, there are daily revelations concerning outright corruption by Trump and his family as they exploit the office for personal gain. Just in the last few days, we have seen the Kushner family trying to raise money for their failing office tower in NY by openly selling access to Jared Kushner and Donald Trump. We have seen the State Department hawking Mar-a-Lago as a vacation spot and promoting Ivanka Trump’s book. And now Newsweek is reporting that Jared and Ivanka are paying discounted rent in DC to a Chilean landlord interested in a Minnesota copper and nickel mine that could be worth billions. And all this is on top of the trademarks received in various countries, the open attempt by foreigners to curry favor by using Trump’s hotels and golf course, and the numerous trips that Trump makes to his own properties that also enrich him. And that is just the corruption we know about.
In the midst of all this, Trump decides to fire James Comey, the man leading the investigation into Trump and his associates. Incredibly, he cites Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton email investigation as the rationale for canning Comey. As Mark Warner said last night, that is just “laughable”. No FBI Director has ever been fired for conduct relating to his on-the-job performance. Only one other FBI Director has ever been fired and that was for personal enrichment and after a months-long investigation and a detailed report of findings. The firing cites a memo from the Deputy Attorney General (DAG) who was appointed by Trump and who has been on the job for just 13 days. In recommending Comey’s termination, the DAG and the AG Sessions ignored DOJ protocol in reaching a conclusion before the ongoing Inspector General’s investigation into Comey’s actions regarding the Clinton emails had even been concluded. In addition, AG Sessions had supposedly recused himself from anything to do with the Russian investigation and recommending firing the head of that investigation breaks that ethical requirement, even taking into account the clearly bogus reasons for firing Comey had nothing to do with the Russian investigation. Lastly, the new acting head of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who has his own ethical and possibly criminal issues, reportedly supported every decision Comey made in the Clinton investigation. By the logic of Comey’s firing, McCabe himself should have to be canned as well.
There is a rashness and vindictiveness in the manner of Comey’s firing as well, indicative of the fact that this was a reaction to something that was going on now and having nothing to do with what happened in the summer and fall with Clinton. They fired Comey without notifying him in advance, leaving him speaking in front of a roomful of agents as his firing was announced on the TV screens behind him. In addition, Trump had his personal bodyguard, who has is own legal issues with assaulting protesters during and after the campaign and is now a functionary in the White House, personally deliver the letter terminating Trump to the FBI offices in DC, knowing full well that Comey was in LA. This was personal to Trump and embarrassing Comey and sending his own Praetorian guard to deliver the termination letter was a powerful message of intimidation not only to Comey but to anyone else whose investigation gets too close to the President. In addition, the fact that the administration has no replacement for Comey lined up and, based on their past record, may take months to find a replacement, indicates that this was more of a rash act of anger than any well thought out plan, something that is also a Trump trademark.
The pattern for Trump is now clear. Any independent investigator who gets too close will be eliminated. Preet Bharara, who had jurisdiction over numerous investigations of Trump as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and who Trump promised to retain, was abruptly removed by Trump shortly after he was inaugurated. Sally Yates, who, as acting Attorney General, was overseeing Comey’s investigation, was privy to some of its findings, and alerted the White House to the fact that Flynn was compromised, was fired, ostensibly for not defending Trump’s travel ban which numerous federal courts have subsequently ruled was unconstitutional. And now James Comey, the man in charge of the only independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia has been fired.
Andrew McCabe, Comey’s current replacement, has his own issues as I’ve mentioned above. He has been attacked by the right because his wife is a politician in Virginia who received donations from Clinton associates in what was portrayed, as only the right wing can, as an effort to buy McCabe’s compliance in the email investigation. On the other hand, McCabe also has violated DOJ rules by discussing details of the Russian investigation with Reince Priebus and offering him advice on lines of rebuttal to contemporary news stories. He is as tainted as Comey and, again as I mentioned above, by the administration’s logic of Comey’s firing, he should be fired as well.
Look, I have no love for James Comey. I have written many times (just yesterday, in fact) about his clear bias against Clinton, his willing or unwitting complicity in what was essentially a coup in our election, and his history of improper and unethical behavior. If Trump’s statement that Comey informed him that he was not under investigation is true, Comey was also improperly communicating with Trump about the Russian investigation. But, let’s be clear, this firing is not about James Comey, it is about the President of the United States shutting down a counter-espionage investigation of himself and his associates. Let that sink in. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the Deputy Press Secretary, made that very clear last night when she said, “It’s time to move on”. Media reports also indicate that Trump was tired of seeing the Russian investigation on TV all the time and wanted Comey to focus on tracking down leaks that reflected badly on Trump and his administration.
All of Trump’s actions when it comes to the Russian investigation indicate guilt. As virtually every revelation comes out, Trump and his administration lie and obfuscate. And the same is true of all his associates involved in the campaign. Manafort, Stone, Page, Flynn, Sessions, and even Trump himself have all been caught in brazen lies about their interactions with the Russians. There is every indication that there is something real here. It seems pretty clear that Trump has been facilitating Russian money laundering for well over a decade now and we have no idea who really owns all the debts he has. And his refusal to release his taxes add to the overwhelming impression of guilt. And he has just shut down the only independent investigation that can produce real, solid evidence of that potential guilt.
This is the move of an autocrat, a man who believes he is above the law. And Trump has actually said that he is above the law on multiple occasions, even boasting he could kill an innocent man in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and get away with it. He has no respect for our constitutional boundaries, constantly trying to intimidate the judiciary and witnesses who testify against him. The White House smears of a career bureaucrat like Sally Yates as a partisan not only reflects their defensiveness about her underlying testimony but underscores that this administration knows no moral or ethical bounds in defense of their illegality.
The manner in which Comey was fired is also indicative of the autocratic, banana republic nature of Trump. You can see it in the vindictive nature of not informing Comey and sending his personal bodyguard to deliver the news. He is clearly abrogating all the power over Comey to himself and that is not the way our constitutional form of government is supposed to work. In addition, the very reasons for firing Comey are so beyond belief and laughable that no one takes them seriously. But that is part of the point. Not only does it show that Trump has the ultimate power over people, but he has ultimate power over words and truth. The rationale is as big an expression of power as the act itself. I can do whatever I want and give whatever reason I want and I will get away with it. And Trump revels in his ultimate power, as he has only one scheduled event today and that is too meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That is yet another expression of his autocratic power. This is the act of an autocrat.
The future of our constitutional democracy currently rests in the hands of Trump’s Republican enablers in Congress. While Democrats and almost all independent analysts agree that the Russian investigation needs to move to both an independent commission AND a special prosecutor, so far we have heard very little support for that from Republicans in Congress. Those Republicans have been destroying our governmental and democratic norms for decades. Another norm has now been broken by the first-ever firing of an FBI Director for his conduct in the course of his duties.
Mitch McConnell’s reaction was typical, saying, “Once the Senate receives a nomination, we look forward to a full, fair and timely confirmation process to fill the Director position.” Richard Burr, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee is merely “troubled”. And here are those noted moderates Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. Graham, “Given the recent controversies surrounding the director, I believe a fresh start will serve the FBI and the nation well. I encourage the President to select the most qualified professional available who will serve our nation’s interests.” And Collins, “The president did not fire the entire FBI. He fired the director of the FBI. And any suggestion that this is somehow going to stop the FBI’s investigation of the attempts by the Russians to influence the elections last fall is really patently absurd.” The statements of those two should not only give us pause about the future of health care (they will cave like they always do) but also for the chances to put any check on Trump’s autocratic and self-enriching powers.
The press keeps on harking back to Nixon and Watergate and the fall of Nixon and finding comfort that the autocratic Trump will suffer the same fate. But there is a massive difference between the Republican party of Nixon’s days and the Republican party today. Then the party had real patriots who were interested in the future of the country and were willing to put their political power on the line for our country and our democracy. Today’s Republican party is a radical, extremist party filled with people who are addicted to power for its own sake and beholden only to rich oligarchs who have no interest in our country or our democracy but only in enriching themselves even further. Trump is their leader. These people will not save us. We will have to save ourselves.
(I’ve also written about this and other issues on my personal blog at [tidalsoundings.blogspot.com])