◆ The two big stories are about Pres. Trump:
(1) The discussion with then-FBI Director Comey about the Mike Flynn investigation, and
(2) The discussion with the Russians about ISIS.
Let me offer comments on each, rather than a regular news roundup.
My goal is to say what we know and don’t know about each and put their importance and potential consequences in some perspective.
◆ Comment on FBI Director Comey’s private meeting with President Trump
The meeting was in mid-February, the day after Flynn was fired as National Security Adviser
The most grievous possibility is that Trump was asking Comey to stop the investigation, which could be seen as obstruction of justice. That’s a very serious charge.
Comey claims to have written a memo-to-self after the meeting. He held it secretly for three months and then had friends leak it to the press on Tuesday. The anonymous friends read excerpts from the memo and did not release it to the press. They kept their own identities secret, as well.
Since it was Comey’s own memo, the leak had to come from him. No one besides Comey and the friends though whom he is leaking has actually seen the memo. We don’t know if he wrote memos on other meetings with Trump (or with others), but he probably did.
I suspect this memo and any others he wrote will be subpoenaed. That could get very interesting. The Democrats, in particular, will enjoy the circus and the stench of scandal, using it to block the Trump presidency.
Personally, I am disturbed Trump even broached the subject of the Flynn-Russia investigation with Comey.
Excluding Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the meeting casts further doubt on the propriety of the President’s behavior.
But there are problems with interpreting the information we currently have as an attempt to obstruct justice, which is how the Democrats and their favorite media are spinning it.
- First, if there was an attempt to obstruct justice, Comey had a clear legal obligation to report it. He did not. That suggests he thought it was not such an attempt.
- Second, Comey never discussed this potential obstruction with the second-in-command at his agency, which he presumably would have done if it were a disturbing issue or a close call.
- Third, Comey never threatened to resign, a threat he famously made during the George W. Bush administration over a DOJ decision. He presumably would have done so–or told his associates about his doubts–if he thought Trump was trying to block an FBI investigation.
- Fourth, Comey gave very detailed briefings to senior Congressional investigators about the Russian investigation and never mentioned it.
- Fifth, Comey did not leak this bombshell memo while he was employed at the FBI. He kept it private for three months and only disclosed it after being fired. That means he either did not think the information sufficiently damning or else he thought it was his “job insurance” in case Trump wanted to fire him (a very disturbing possibility, reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover). Right now, we simply don’t know why he kept it secret, especially if he thought it was so important.
- Sixth, it is possible that Trump’s statement was less a request to kill the investigation of Michael Flynn (which would be obstruction, if that was Trump’s specific intention) and more a vague aspiration that he hoped this mess would end soon with Flynn cleared. (Again, I do not think the President should say any such thing to the leader of that investigation. That’s true even if his statement falls well short of obstruction.)
- Finally, we know that the FBI investigation has continued full-throttle and that the former second-in-command, now heading the agency temporarily, said in public testimony that no one has attempted to impede the FBI inquiry. That’s vitally important.
- If Trump were attempting to obstruct the investigation, it seems likely he would have done more. Of course, the Democrats say he did: he fired Comey. But he did so long after the “bombshell” meeting, so it is hard to connect the two.
- Comey has also said that he didn’t get the additional resources he needed for the investigation. But that has been rebutted by the acting director (who says he has adequate resources) and the deputy AG (who says flatly that Comey never made such a request).
- Trump’s political enemies see the whole episode as more evidence of Nixonian malfeasance, a wonderful chance for hearings that put Trump and the Republicans on the defensive, and a great way to impede and undermine Trump.
- Trump’s friends see it as something like an attempted coup by Comey, the intelligence agencies, the sore-loser Democrats, and their friends in the media.
- Expect many more shoes to drop, including a grand jury investigation of Russian financial ties by some former Trump campaign aides.
◆ Comment on Trump and the Russia Leaks
Now, several days after the news broke, we still don’t know all the details. But we can reasonably conclude that Trump shared some highly-classified information with the Russians. Although Trump has full authority to do that and did not disclose “sources and methods,” he seems to have spoken without fully recognizing the sensitivity of the information or clearing it in advance with his national-security team.
After the meeting, they called a couple of the US intelligence agencies to clean up after the fact. Some senior people in those agencies almost certainly were the ones who then leaked that information to the media, vastly compounding the damage as well as committing felonies by disclosing the secret information.
The New York Times and Washington Post played this story as a huge Trumpian error, endangering US national security. But they never explained how, other than saying that such leaks were terrible and, because the leak came from a US ally, it could endanger that relationship.
My assessment: Trump may have shared too much; it is hard too say since we don’t know the details publicly. If he did, then it was probably a combination of inexperience handling this classified material and an overestimation of our common interest with the Russians.
But there is a huge irony here. The media’s main claim is that Trump endangered the US with his leaks.
But it was the WaPo and NYT that spread that information around the world (via leaks they received) and it was the NYT that went further and identified the US partner who “owned” the intelligence, the Israelis. If the information Trump gave the Russians truly jeopardized the US and was a major violation of our security, then what exactly was the justification for publishing detailed descriptions of this secret data, which shares it not only with the Russians but also Iran, ISIS, and everyone else?
- Trump may have made a mistake, but it doesn’t look like a huge one (from what we know so far). It may have been done out of hubris, inexperience, or overestimation of our potential to work with the Russians but not out of malice–and certainly not treason as some unhinged commentators have said.
- The media, the Democrats, and Trump’s other opponents, including many traditional conservatives, have exploited his error, exaggerated its impact, and actually compounded the problem by publishing additional classified materials, contradicting their claim that they were only worried about the national-security impact of Trump’s (presumed) error.
◆ Bottom Line on the two big stories taken together: the Comey meeting and the Russia meeting:
This whole ruckus–the damage he inflicted on himself, the damage his adversaries are inflicting on him–destabilizes his presidency, sucks the oxygen out of his policy initiatives, splits the Republican party (whose elected officials don’t know whether to back him or back away), and weakens the country.
If there is real fire beneath the smoke, the damage will get worse. Much worse.
On the other hand, if Trump’s supporters think he is being railroaded out of office without conclusive, damning evidence, they will see what they feared all along: a Washington establishment that runs the country, regardless of what the electorate says–an entrenched, unelected elite determined to fight dirty to retain its power.
Given the already-deep cleavages in the country, either alternative poses serious dangers to America’s consensual, constitutional order.