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27 July 2017 16:43 (South Africa)
World

Shades of Watergate? Firing FBI Director may just be Trump’s most consequential mistake/lunacy yet

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: Protesters rally in opposition to President Donald J. Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 May 2017. EPA/SHAWN THEW

J. BROOKS SPECTOR finally admits he is totally and completely astounded by the mendacity and duplicitousness of the Trump administration – following the firing of FBI Director Comey and the alternate truths the Trumpenproletariat chooses to tell.

This whole business with Donald Trump, the FBI and the White House’s political interference in the FBI’s probe of Russian interference in the US 2016 election has reached the point that the casualties of this assault on democratic practice and values – at least metaphorical assaults – are accumulating at something like the way the bodies drop in Hamlet. By the time Fortinbras comes onto the stage in Shakespeare’s drama at the end of it, the human and institutional wreckage is everywhere. In Trump’s White House, there is already little sense of dignity or adult behaviour. Following the dismissal of the FBI director and the alternative truths that have been told about it, there is the distinct possibility that there is much more to come from this.

And this is the way it is in Washington now, even if everyone still gets to go home for dinner and a couple of increasingly needed double scotches. One casualty of course, is any sense that the Trump administration has the faintest clue it knows what it is doing, or that there is anyone who can restrain the main man when he flies into a rage.

Competence. That is the first casualty in this ongoing disaster of a presidency. There was a moment, just after Trump was installed as president, when he had told anyone who would listen to him that his administration would run like a finely tuned, well-oiled machine. He was, after all, a certified genius of a businessman – and that he knew how to get things done. He was a dealmaker and a decider.

But that was before we saw the constitutional shambles emanating from his executive orders, the fights he has picked with various American allies, the rhetorical bombast about North Korea (and that lost aircraft carrier strike force), that “great, great wall” that almost certainly isn’t going to be built (regardless of who would pay for it), the multiple confusions over legislative action relating to healthcare, a tax reform plan that has been barely more than some scratch notes on a torn piece of notebook paper, and, of course, the appointment and then swift removal of Mike Flynn, the once and former national security adviser.

Instead of the advertising, this White House is more like the Mad Hatter’s tea party or something imagined by Hunter S. Thompson than anything approaching what the country has seen before, save perhaps in the final horrific days of Richard Nixon. As the investigations into Nixon’s crimes and cover-ups were closing in on him, the president was reportedly drinking heavily, and – also reportedly – down the chain of command, the military had been told severely by the secretary of defence that commanders must check back with the defence secretary first, in the event of any late-night, problematic orders from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave that went something like, “Okay, let’s go bomb Moscow”.

The second casualty, this time around, is the last vestige of belief that there is truthtelling coming from the White House. In the first rush of reporting on the firing of FBI Director James Comey, the president and his totally caught-off-guard vice president and staff let it be known, variously, that Comey had increasingly lost the trust of the president, the people and the FBI’s staff; that the president was horrified at how Comey had mishandled those investigations into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails (despite the fact Trump had previously praised him for bringing it out into the open), and that the president had sadly agreed with a proposal brought to him by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, that since Comey was mishandling his job, he must go.

Trump’s team has also argued that any fury about Comey’s dismissal is really just crocodile tears by the very people who would have been only too delighted to see Comey fired, had they won the November vote instead. Never mind that none of Clinton’s people had ever called for Comey’s defenestration, despite their annoyance of the possibility that his public announcement in late October that he was again looking at Clinton e-mails had helped cost her the election. Trump’s army had argued that the national distaste for Comey could not have been ignored.

Ah, but there was a little problem in all that. Accordingly to many reports, it seems Trump had gone ballistic upon hearing recent utterances by Comey in Senate committee testimony in which he discussed his agonies over the possibility that any of his public statements had influenced the recent election. Crucially, too, it seems Comey had gone to his Justice Department seniors, including Rosenstein, to request more staff and funding to ramp up the FBI’s now-drawn-out investigation into the simmering mess that is the Trump-Russia connection. Given that Trump continues to insist this is just fake news tied to ill will from a disgruntled Hillary Clinton, his defeated rival, one can easily imagine how Trump would launch himself into an emotional orbit, upon realising that Comey’s FBI was now poised to move “full steam ahead” on an investigation that has already been ongoing for almost a year.

Moreover, as The Washington Post reported yesterday, “Accounts from more than 30 officials at the White House, Justice Department and on Capitol Hill indicate that President Trump was angry that FBI Director James B. Comey would not support his baseless claim that President Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped. Trump also fumed that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russia probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists.”

Although a White House deputy press spokeswoman vigorously denied it all, the story has been confirmed by numerous media outlets – and not denied by the justice department. And so, instead of a president sadly acquiescing with Rosenstein’s memorandum (that could hardly have been written by the just-appointed Rosenstein on the basis of his in-depth knowledge of the ongoing investigation in the Trump-Russia issue), the real story seems to be that Rosenstein – after just two weeks or so in office – had effectively been instructed to write a memo describing the basis for Comey’s dismissal.

Given Trump’s white heat over Comey’s “disloyalty”, after Rosenstein’s presenting his report to the president, such a memo would serve as the basis for an actual dismissal letter. Rosenstein is not, apparently, totally prepared to be the mindless tool in all this as he has been spotted meeting with the chair and vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee – although there have not, as yet, been any leaks about what he said to them.

Trump apparently wrote his dismissal letter in a fit of pique or royal high dudgeon. And Trump’s tantrums apparently get at least some of their energy from a habit he has of watching and re-watching favoured or most hated moments from Senate hearings via TiVo. This gives him more than ample chances to stay on message in an angry state of mind over all the betrayals. (“Does this man have nothing else to do?” one wants to scream into the darkness.)

The actual letter used the astonishing word that Comey was “terminated” (as in the language used by people like Stalin and Beria in the old Soviet Union after a show trial or two, or the way Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator franchise film character deals with his enemies), rather than words like “fired”, “dismissed”, “relieved of his duty” or any other slightly more respectful term of art – or even being allowed to resign instead.

Astonishingly, the dismissal was on the television news, even as Comey was in California speaking with the staff of an FBI regional field office. And it included yet another apparent “liar, liar, pants on fire” moment. Trump unaccountably had favourably cited Comey’s three (not two, not four) reassurances that he, Trump, had not been tied to the ongoing investigation into the Russian connection, right along with noting that Comey was now officially toast. This particular little factoid was not verified by the new Acting FBI Director, Andrew McCabe, in testimony in another Senate committee hearing on Thursday – and he should presumably know such a thing, if it had actually happened. (Perhaps we should just be grateful Trump didn’t fall back on his own television locution, a gleeful “You’re fired!” – from his reality show days. Or maybe that wording is copyright with the show’s scriptwriters and he can’t actually use it any more?)

At McCabe’s testimony at the annual Senate committee hearing on international security threats on Thursday, despite his just having taken over, when he was asked point blank if he would continue the Trump-Russia investigation vigorously and that if he needed additional funds or staffing, he must not be dissuaded by any superiors – moreover, at the first sign of any efforts to squelch the investigation – the senators told him he should tell them this was happening. And, if he needed more resources, he should similarly tell Senate Intelligence Committee members about it and they would do the best the could to help.

Astonishingly, in the midst of all this concern about Russian election intervention, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the US had a meeting with Trump in the White House – with embraces, smiles and hugs all around. And amazingly, while the US press was barred from the meeting, a Russian photographer was allowed in. The Russian government then dutifully sent out the photographs through the Tass news agency. Aside from the way the White House looked like it had been played over the images, the larger optic of bonhomie with the Russians, just as their intervention in the election was being discussed among senators, on television, and elsewhere throughout the nation, is just mindboggling. And it served as an acute reminder of what all the fuss was about.

As columnist and Russia specialist Anne Applebaum had argued in her most recent column, entitled, “Don’t forget those smiling images of Trump and the Russians”,

The pictures from the Oval Office on Wednesday — published by a Tass photographer, as no U.S. media were present — are jolly and good-humoured. President Trump, who fired his FBI director a day earlier, is grinning for the cameras and shaking hands with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. They, too, smile and laugh, relishing the many ironies of the moment.

Have a close look at those happy faces; keep the images in your head. Then turn your attention just for a moment to the story of Ildar Dadin, an unusually brave young Russian. Dadin was arrested in Moscow in 2015, one of the first to fall victim to a harsh new Russian law against dissent. His crime was to have protested peacefully and repeatedly, mostly by standing silently in the street with a sign around his neck.”

As a result of all of this, the Trump White House’s reputation is increasingly in tatters with many Americans (his poll ratings continue to slide), and with a growing number of senators and congressmen (both Republican and Democratic). Such cavalier behaviour similarly endangers any parts of his legislative agenda that could require a modicum of co-operation by Democrats – such as tax reform or even the budget for the next fiscal year. Finally, of course, it almost certainly guarantees the ongoing FBI investigation, as well as various congressional ones into that Trump-Russian connection, will gain further impetus. Investigators will, in that old Watergate phrase, “follow the money”, and lower-down figures in it will shop their information for immunity from possible prosecution over money laundering or worse.

Given the Trump administration’s almost preternatural skill of stepping on their own messages or tripping over their own feet, more and more people will continue to draw parallels to that last great constitutional crisis – Richard Nixon and Watergate. And if any part of this current investigation begins to show serious legal flames and not just still more thick, obscuring smoke for Trump’s campaign, the push for an independent prosecutor to get to the bottom of it all – and all the dangers that will pose for a Trump presidency – will continue to grow louder and stronger. They will be hard to avoid. DM

Photo: Protesters rally in opposition to President Donald J. Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 May 2017. EPA/SHAWN THEW

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World

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