The “Comey firing” story is going according to script: A comment

◆ The Partisans are saying exactly what you expect them to say

  • The Democrats are calling the firing Nixonian, an obstruction of justice because, they say, it was designed to block the Russian investigation.
  • The Republicans are saying that the FBI director’s appointment is within the President’s responsibilities and that Comey’s immediate boss at the Dept. of Justice, a highly-regarded, non-political attorney, lacked confidence in him.

  • The Republicans are stressing the role of Rod Rosenstein, as I expected. Rosenstein memo to his superiors clearly says he lacked confidence in Comey, who, he says, not only made serious mistakes (for which the Democrats had lacerated him) but was still saying he did nothing wrong. By failing to acknowledge his mistakes and learn from them, he raises the likelihood that he will keep making them.
  • The memo, plus news that Trump was frustrated with the continuing Russia investigation (d’uh!), are among the few nuggets of real news since the initial story broke.
  • I explain the basic logic of the two parties’ positions in a previous post here.

The Democrats are clearly on the offensive, but they have a problem. You cannot coverup a crime–which is essentially their charge against Trump–unless there is a crime.

So far, there is simply no evidence of such a crime involving Trump or his campaign. Yes, there is a serious investigation into Michael Flynn and perhaps into others, and, yes, the Russians meddled in our election, but so far there is nothing to suggest Trump collaborated with the Russians. (Related story: The Senate committee investigating the Russia issue has ordered Flynn to turn over relevant papers after he failed to do so voluntarily. BBC)

The Democrats’ call for a special independent counsel will fail unless they can come up with some evidence to support their basic allegation.

Meanwhile, Trump absolutely must appoint a top-notch, apolitical, experienced law enforcement leader to the FBI. The best names I have heard are Bill Bratton and Ray Kelly, people who have run large police departments very successfully.

That appointment is not only crucial for Trump politically. It is crucial for the country, which wants to restore confidence in the justice system. And it will be crucial down the line for Trump, who needs to be able to say that the Russia connection was bunk and that a serious FBI inquiry proves it. If the FBI leader doesn’t pass the tests for neutrality and competence, Trump won’t be able to say that.

◆ Related story: In the meantime, Trump has hung a nickname on Schumer: “Cryin’ Chuck Schumer” (The Hill) Before deriding Trump’s childishness, remember that he has a real knack for picking nicknames that highlight an opponent’s vulnerability. They stick and they work–not always, but mostly. Jeb Bush was low energy. Marco Rubio did seem too little in the campaign. Hillary was and is corrupt. The Schumer nickname highlights his whining negativity–and Trump could make it stick.

A Quick Guide to the Political Firestorm over Comey’s Firing. What matters and why. What Democrats and Republicans will argue

Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey has set off a firestorm, mostly along party lines, but not entirely. Some Republicans have expressed concern, too, and more will wring their hands in the next few days if the Democrats’ narrative takes hold.

How long the fire lasts and how much it consumes depends, crucially, on information that will emerge out over the coming days, as media organizations pump their sources and Comey defends himself.

Here are the basic messages you will hear from Democrats and Republicans, starting immediately.

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The Democrats’ message is remarkably disciplined. They are speaking with one voice, Chuck Schumer’s.

They will repeat two key words: Nixon and Watergate.

Their meaning is clear: Comey was fired to cover up Trump’s crimes.

Here is their message:

  • Trump, not some underlying, is the person who fired Comey.
  • Trump fired Comey because the FBI was getting to close to uncovering malfeasance by the Trump campaign and transition.
    • This is focused on Russian collaboration with Trump and usually implied rather than asserted directly. Why?
      • First, the intelligence agencies agree that Russia actively meddled in the US campaign, sought to harm Hillary Clinton, and favored Trump.
      • We know that some Trump advisers had connections of various sorts to Russian entities. The most important is Michael Flynn, who was briefly the National Security Adviser. There are reports that he and his associates are now under investigation by a grand jury. Some questions have also swirled around Paul Manafort, head of Trump’s campaign in the summer, and Carter Page, a lower-level figure.
    • Key question: Do the connections between the Trump team and Russia rise to the level of collaboration? If so, that would be a huge scandal and lead to calls for impeachment. If such evidence were found and were convincing, many would consider it a “high crime and misdemeanor.”
      • So far, no evidence of such collaboration has been found. Senior figures of the intelligence community, associated with the Obama Administration, have specifically said that they have looked and that there is no such evidence.
  • Because Trump “interfered” with the FBI, which was investigating the Russia issue, we cannot leave this investigation to the Congress or Department of Justice.
    • Key claim: We are now seeing a Watergate-style coverup by the Trump Administration since they cannot fairly investigate themselves and we cannot count on the FBI, the DOJ, etc.
    • Key demand: We must have an independent special counsel to investigate
    • This demand will receive unanimous backing from Democrats, I expect, and has already received a lot of vocal support from them.
    • The demand will succeed politically if the public thinks there is a coverup and enough Republicans agree that an independent counsel is needed.
  • What’s missing from the Democrats’ argument?
    • None of them actually defend Comey or say he should have been kept in the job. They can hardly make the affirmative case since they have repeatedly called for him to be fired.
    • They simply say “the timing is bad” or “looks suspicious.” But they would have said that if Trump had fired Comey on Day 1. They would have said Trump is trying to stop an on-going investigation.
    • They have not produced any evidence that the firing was actually related to the coverup of a crime, which was the essence of the Watergate firing of Archie Cox and his associates.
    • They have not explained why the firing of Comey impedes the Senate investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
  • What to expect?
    • Democrats will keep pushing hard to get an independent counsel and, if possible, stop Trump’s policy agenda by tying up the Congress and undercutting public support for him.
    • Hearings, of course. Lights, camera, preening. The goal of public hearings is to push agendas, not discover information. And the Democrats have a perfect opportunity here.
    • huge fight over whoever Trump picks as the new FBI director. The fight will be less intense if the nominee is a highly-regarded, career professional, but the Democrats will still use the selection and confirmation hearings to slash and burn the Trump administration.

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What are Republicans saying?

They have said, or will say,

  • Comey deserved to be fired for cause, totally unrelated to any Russian investigation.
  • Rank-and-file FBI agents had lost confidence in Comey, making it impossible for him to lead the agency.
  • Senators from both parties had already expressed their lack of confidence in Comey.
  • There is zero evidence, so far, of collusion between Trump and the Russians, much less that Trump was trying to stop any investigation (the obstruction of justice charge against Nixon).
  • If you D’s think Comey is so great, why did you call repeatedly for him to be fired? That is, R’s will try to get D’s to defend Comey, an untenable position, and move them away from simply attacking Trump and the Republicans.
  • The acting director at the FBI is a dreadful candidate to lead the agency, even in the interim. Why? Because his wife, an unsuccessful candidate for local office in Virginia, was handsomely funded by Clinton confidante, Terry McAuliffe. At the very least, that was a horrible judgment, given the FBI’s interest in the Clinton machine.

Significantly, I expect Republican activists to demand a fresh start to several failed investigations Comey led.

They think Comey botched them and that the DOJ blocked them under Lynch and Holder. Besides thinking that’s true–and wanting to get evidence that it is–they would be happy to distract attention from incoming fire.

  • Why, they ask, were all Hillary’s aides given immunity without an indictment in prospect for the bigger fish, the one with the private, unsecured server? Why was no Grand Jury empanelled? Why didn’t the FBI interview Hillary under oath? Why wasn’t the Clinton Foundation seriously investigated?
  • They will want a major investigation of the Obama Administration’s alleged spying on Americans, including members of Congress, the Trump team, and so on. If such spying really did take place, and if it was directed against political opponents, that is a scandal as big as anything since Watergate.
  • They want to know exactly who ordered all the unmasking of names, which should be readily available, and they will want to know the purported national security purposes for the large number of such requests from the White House. They will note that Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, has already refused to testify voluntarily on that issue.
  • They know the leaking of Flynn’s name was a felony, and they want to see an indictment in that case.

My guess: if the Democrats look like they might get a special prosecutor for the Russia issue, the Republicans will want one for the Obama spying.

The Republicans in Congress know–or ought to know–that if Trump’s firing of Comey takes firm root as a major scandal, an attempted coverup by the White House, then the GOP’s grip on power will slip away.

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