James Comey

Trump Digs Presidential Grave

President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump.

For more than a month, President Donald Trump has dug a legal hole so deep that he has trapped himself. Shovelfuls of self-inflicted errors could cost Trump his office.

With a pledge to testify under oath about the events connected to his firing of FBI Director James Comey, Trump continues to excavate his presidential grave one scoop of dirt after another.

On May 9, Trump fired Comey.

In a letter to Comey that day, Trump wrote he had received “letters from the attorney general and the deputy attorney general of the United States recommending your dismissal as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have accepted their recommendation, and you are hereby terminated.”

On May 10 in the White House, Trump told two top Russian officials that he fired the FBI director to eliminate “great pressure” he faced “because of Russia.” The FBI’s investigation into possible connections between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government was the highest-level case overseen by Comey.

On May 11, Trump told Lester Holt of “NBC Nightly News” that, when he fired Comey, he did not rely on the recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. “I was going to fire Comey — my decision,” Trump said, adding, “I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation.”

His reason for firing Comey, Trump told Holt: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’”

On May 12, Trump wrote on Twitter, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

On June 8, Comey testified under oath to the Senate Intelligence Committee about his firing by President Trump, including related events before and after.

Comey said that at the end of a Feb. 14 counterterrorism meeting in the Oval Office, Trump dismissed the other participants, including Sessions, and spoke with him alone about Michael Flynn. Trump had fired Flynn from his position of national security adviser the day before.

Trump asked him to halt investigation into Flynn’s Russian interactions, Comey said, quoting Trump: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

“I’ve seen the tweet about tapes,” Comey told the committee. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes.”

“The president surely knows if he taped me,” Comey added. “If he did, my feelings aren’t hurt. Release all of the tapes. I’m good with it.”

On June 9, Trump held a joint news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in the Rose Garden.

A reporter asked about Comey’s statement that the president told him to let Flynn go. “I didn’t say that,” Trump said.

“So he lied about that?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I didn’t say that. I mean, I will tell you I didn’t say that,” Trump said.

The reporter asked: “So, he said those things under oath. Would you be willing to speak under oath to give your version of those events?”

“One hundred percent,” Trump said.

The reporter asked, “When will you tell us about the recordings?”

“Over a fairly short period of time,” Trump said.

“Are there tapes?” the reporter asked.

“Oh, you’re going to be very disappointed when you hear the answer. Don't worry,” Trump said.

Since his appointment May 17 by Rosenstein, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has stood above the FBI, the House and the Senate, and their investigations.

Friday, Trump wrote on Twitter that he is under investigation: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI director by the man who told me to fire the FBI director! Witch hunt.”

Trump could be right about being investigated but likely is wrong about the investigator — Rosenstein, by implication. In any case, the president can expect scrutiny.

Because of his sworn-testimony promise, Trump faces the prospect of testifying to Mueller about his Russian interactions, as well as any other actions that Mueller deems appropriate.

The president’s wide-ranging comments about the investigations and related goings-on — too often contradictory — are unlikely to escape prosecutorial examination or testimonial untangling.

Most damning is Trump’s conflict of interest in firing Comey who, at the time, oversaw the investigation into connections between Russia, and the Trump campaign and administration.

If Mueller finds truth in Comey’s account of Trump interfering with the FBI’s investigation, the lid on his presidency’s casket will close for good.

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Trump’s Tower of Incompetence

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, President Donald Trump and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, President Donald Trump and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak.

Day by day, error by error, sleight by sleight, Donald Trump proves his presidential incompetence.

When President Trump invited Russian officials to the White House on May 10, he could not restrain his ego or his boisterous voice. He bragged: “I get great intel. I have people brief me on great intel every day.”

Trump then leaked a location from which international intelligence had been gathered, one of several secrets he divulged. With that information, Russia would be able to determine who provided the intelligence and how it was gathered.

With a grin of incomprehension, Trump delivered this treasure to Sergey Lavrov, who has been Russia’s foreign minister since 2004 and was Russia’s U.N. representative for 10 years before, and to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. since 2008.

Two unreported meetings with Kislyak last year resulted in the need for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from decisions connected to Russia and the Trump campaign, of which Sessions was a part.

The intelligence details that Trump divulged were so tightly locked down that many high-level American officials did not have clearance to learn of their existence. Authorized officials must use a code word before any mention.

If delivering a gold mine of intelligence to Russia was an insufficient outrage, The New York Times reported Friday that Trump also boasted to Lavrov and Kislyak about firing FBI Director James Comey. By doing so, Trump said, he rid himself of “great pressure” he faced “because of Russia.”

The two Russian foreign officers are sophisticated-and-notorious. They play in the major league of international intelligence operations, while Trump and some of his top administrators are mired in a minor league that breaks in novices.

RUSSIAN ROULETTE

Trump’s Russian glad-handing and mouth running resulted in needless jeopardy. He blurted the name of the Syrian city where the intelligence was gathered.

This fact and others undercut the safety of an Israeli spy operating in Islamic State territory. The spy develops valuable intelligence on terrorism for use by Israel, which shares it with the U.S.

If anyone other than the president had been so reckless as to reveal these secrets, that person would be open to criminal charges for releasing classified information.

However, because Trump is president, he has the authority to declassify any information instantly and tell it to anyone. The fact that the president lacks the prescience to understand the danger matters not.

Trump knew the location from which the intelligence came, but he did not know the nation for whom the spy works.

When U.S. officials with clearance and insight realized the gravity of Trump’s revelation, they rushed to erase it from the American meeting summary written for other American officials. They also notified the CIA and National Security Agency about the president’s secrecy leak.

Monday, as The Washington Post broke the news of Trump’s revelations to Russia, the White House rolled out National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to denounce The Post’s article as untrue.

Anyone paying attention found the denouncements a masquerade. The McMaster and Tillerson denials did not apply to The Post. The matters about which the officials spoke were not mentioned in the article.

Consider this meaningless McMaster smoke screen: “What the president discussed with the foreign minister was wholly appropriate to that conversation, and is consistent with the routine sharing of information between the president and any leaders with whom he’s engaged.”

COMEY CONSEQUENCES

One day in early February, Trump ejected everyone from the Oval Office, including Vice President Mike Pence. The president called in then-FBI Director James Comey alone, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Trump asked Comey to end the investigation into Russian connections of then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump told Comey.

Comey wrote Trump’s comments in a memo he filed after the meeting. Extensive documentation of important matters is common within agencies such as the FBI and the CIA.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” wrote Comey about Trump’s plea to end the investigation.

At Trump’s urging, Flynn resigned Feb. 13, after lying to Pence about conversations with Kislyak.

At the least, Trump has demonstrated that he cannot handle himself around adversaries such as experienced Russian foreign officers.

Wednesday, in response to the report of Trump’s incompetent handling of foreign intelligence, the stock market nose-dived. It had been rising since his election on expectation of an improved economy. The market regained a portion of the loss Thursday and Friday.

Late Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (rose-en-STINE’) appointed a special counsel to investigate whether the Trump presidential campaign made connections with Russia.

The FBI has been conducting the investigation. Because of his Russian recusal, Sessions did not make the decision.

Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller special counsel. Mueller is well-regarded both by Democrats and Republicans.

Asked in a news conference Thursday about the special counsel, Trump said: “The entire thing has been a witch hunt. And there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign — but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians, zero.”

Another question: “Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn?” Trump answered: “No. No. Next question.”

Friday’s article by The Times cited the White House memo summarizing the Lasrov-Kislyak meeting. This is the same summary excised of classified details leaked by the president.

The summary says Trump told the Russian officials: “I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job.” It adds: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.” Also, “I’m not under investigation.”

That was May 10. Now, Rosenstein’s charge to Mueller grants the special counsel great latitude in choosing the subjects for investigation.

Duty calls Mueller to determine whether Trump coerced Comey in an effort to halt the FBI’s investigation into Flynn, and whether Trump fired Comey in hope of freeing himself from the FBI investigation over Russia and his campaign.

If Mueller finds either accusation true, Congress should impeach and remove Trump, and the Department of Justice should prosecute him for obstruction of justice.

At the least, Trump has demonstrated that he cannot handle himself around adversaries such as experienced Russian foreign officers or a thorough American director such as Comey, who documents matters of importance in extensive memos.

Now, the nation knows that the Trump presidency could collapse.

If only the president would learn that the nation cannot be run by the seat of the pants. Nor can it be led on the basis of insults, strong-arming or sweeping generalizations.

Thought and planning is required. The work is hard. Competence is Job One.

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Trump Leaves Himself One Way Out

James Comey.

James Comey.

President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday could be considered appropriate only in light of a candle’s flicker. Last year, Comey violated FBI practices and Justice Department rules in announcements about the FBI’s Hillary Clinton email investigation. On May 3, he made an error while testifying about Clinton emails before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

If Trump had turned on so much as a flashlight, his conflict of interest would have blinded him. The conflict disqualified him in every ethical way from firing the FBI director. Comey led the agency’s investigation into the possibility of Trump campaign dealings with officials in Russia.

Trump has only one way to push back the dense blanket of suspicion over his firing of Comey: Call for a special counsel, working with an independent staff, to investigate connections of Trump associates to Russia or any other impropriety.

If he could not keep himself from firing Comey, the president should have sought a special counsel simultaneously. He should do so now. Procrastination on this vital act of investigative independence would smother his presidency.

In terms that Trump might find familiar, a person confident of no wrongdoing would show strength by welcoming a tough, independent investigation. A person living in fear of loose ends would show weakness by firing the chief investigator.

Trump botched the firing from the beginning. Rather than tell the FBI director face-to-face, call him or even dispatch a message to him, the president blasted the news from the White House with no regard for anyone but himself. Comey, who was in Los Angeles speaking with a group of FBI agents, learned from a news report on a television playing in the background that he had been fired.

After talking with a small set of staff members Monday, Trump met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who took his newly confirmed position two weeks ago. Sessions and Rosenstein were working on other matters at the While House on Monday. Trump called them in, The New York Times reported. They expressed concerns about Comey, The Times said, and Trump told them to write recommendations to him.

CONDEMNATION

Sessions and Rosenstein, the No. 1 and No. 2 leaders in the Justice Department, submitted their summations to Trump on Tuesday.

Rosenstein delivered damnation. He wrote a memo, addressed to Sessions. The subject line: “Restoring public confidence in the FBI.”

He began by scorching Comey’s July 5 news conference. Comey announced that Clinton would not be prosecuted over a private email server she used for governmental purposes while secretary of state and that the practice had been “extremely careless.”

“I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails,” Rosenstein wrote, “and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken.” Rosenstein included comments from former attorneys general. They criticized Comey’s course on Clinton.

“The director was wrong to usurp the attorney general’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution,” he wrote. “It is not the function of the director to make such an announcement. At most, the director should have said the FBI had completed its investigation and presented its findings to federal prosecutors.”

Rosenstein’s punch line: “The FBI is unlikely to regain public and congressional trust until it has a director who understands the gravity of the mistakes, and pledges never to repeat them. Having refused to admit his errors, the director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”

Two omissions mar Rosenstein’s memo:

  • Comey’s error in telling the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3 that Huma Abedin forwarded to her husband “hundreds and thousands” of emails rather than the correct “small number” of emails from Clinton, for whom Abedin was presidential campaign vice chair.
  • Silence on Russia, the Trump campaign and Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into them.

The former is an oddly missed opportunity to further discredit Comey. The latter is passive-aggressive concealment.

Sessions followed with a letter to Trump that cited Rosenstein’s memo to convict Comey.

With a salutation of “Dear Mr. President,” Sessions wrote: “The director of the FBI must be someone who follows faithfully the rules and principles of the Department of Justice, and who sets the right example of our law enforcement officials and others in the department. Therefore, I must recommend that you remove Director James B. Comey Jr.”

CONFLICT UPON CONFLICT

As Sessions was providing Trump the ammunition to shoot down Comey, he was under a self-imposed, necessary recusal on the FBI investigation into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. The U.S. says Russia interfered with Clinton’s campaign.

Sessions recused himself March 2 following news reports that he met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. while part of the Trump campaign. He did not tell the Senate about the meetings during his confirmation.

The attorney general fueled the firing even though Comey was working on the Trump campaign-Russia investigation as his top priority, Comey had asked Rosenstein for additional Justice Department resources for the investigation and Boston University public radio station WBUR reported on May 5 that Eric Trump told a golfing author in 2013 that a new Trump golf course was not funded by U.S. banks.

Author James Dodson said Eric Trump told him the reason, “We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” On May 8, Eric Trump denied the report, writing on Twitter, “This story is completely fabricated.”

With Russian matters putting himself and Trump at odds with Comey, Sessions ignored his and Trump’s conflicts of interest, and sent his Comey-condemnation letter to the president.

If these factors were not enough, Trump’s firing letter to Comey contained this odd-and-damning clause: “I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”

Conflict of interest was not enough for the dogged Trump and his staff. Action by action, they dug a deeper hole of indignity this week.

Thursday, Lester Holt interviewed Trump at the White House for “NBC Nightly News.”

Asked by Holt about the not-under-investigation clause in the firing, Trump said he asked Comey whether the FBI was investigating him. “I actually asked him,” Trump said. Comey told him he was not under investigation. He did so, Trump said, during a one-on-one White House dinner and during a pair of phone calls.

Also on Thursday, The New York Times reported that, during the dinner, which it said was a week after his inauguration, Trump twice asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him. In reply, The Times reported, Comey twice pledged honesty instead.

Being the one person who could fire the FBI director and being the head of a campaign under investigation to determine connections to Russia, Trump’s personal questions to Comey were unethical and improper.

Such a thought did not guide Trump as he threatened Comey on Friday. “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Asked by Fox News on Friday if he uses recorders, Trump said: “Well, that I can’t talk about. I won’t talk about that.”

The practice was curtailed after President Richard Nixon taped conversations in the White House secretly during the time of Watergate. The tapes played a great part in his resignation.

Trump told Holt that Comey is “a showboat, he’s a grandstander. The FBI has been in turmoil.”

In an appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s rebuttal was stark.

“Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” McCabe said.

He also said the Trump campaign-Russia investigation is “highly significant.”

Following the firing of Comey, Trump’s staff — and, prominently, Vice President Mike Pence — said the memo and letter from Rosenstein and Sessions were the basis for Trump’s decision.

Trump told Holt, “I was going to fire Comey — my decision,” adding, “I was going to fire, regardless of recommendation.”

Since he fired Comey, Trump repeatedly said he was having a top legal firm prepare a “certified letter” about his income from Russian sources. Friday, the White House released the letter.

The letter was written March 8 by two tax lawyers for the Washington branch of the firm Morgan Lewis of Philadelphia.

They said Trump received income from the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, selling property in Florida to a Russian, and Russians’ and Russian companies’ payments to Trump companies for services such as condominium fees, hotel rooms and rounds of golf.

The letter was certified only in the sense of being sent as certified mail. If that distinction was insufficiently absurd, consider Trump’s decision to use a law firm that was named “by Chambers & Partners’ 2016 ‘Chambers Europe’ guide as Russia Law Firm of the Year,” as a Morgan Lewis news release put it. The firm has a Moscow branch.

If Trump would like to avoid a four-year term whose beginning, middle and end is spelled R-U-S-S-I-A, he will call for a special counsel immediately. He will invite the counsel to investigate even the slightest connection between his campaign, businesses or any other aspect of his life with Russia

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Hillary Clinton Needs a Headline Writer

Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton spoke Tuesday about reasons for her loss to Donald Trump in last year’s presidential campaign. She did so in response to questions from CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the moderator for a talk during Women for Women International’s award luncheon in New York.

Clinton gave detailed explanations for several problems that affected her campaign.

None of the problems she elucidated was a failure to provide concise points summarizing her extensive policy positions.

Amanpour asked Clinton about lacking a “vote-for-me” summary in a sweeping question about her campaign: “Your supporters have said they’re devastated, some are angry, and some say, could it have been different, could the campaign have been better, could you have had a better rationale? He had one message, your opponent, and it was a successful message, ‘Make America great again.’ And where was your message? Do you take a personal responsibility?

Clinton ignored messaging, as she did while on the stump.

Nonetheless, what she said in response to Amanpour was enlightening. Notes: Clinton twice alludes to a book she is writing about the campaign, mentions FBI Director James Comey, gives the wrong date for the Nov. 8 election and reverses the name of the “Access Hollywood” television show.

“Oh, of course. I take absolute personal responsibility,” Clinton said. “I was the candidate. I was the person who was on the ballot and I am very aware of the challenges, the problems, the shortfalls that we had — again, I will write all this out for you — but I will say this, I’ve been in a lot of campaigns, and I’m very proud of the campaign we ran, and I’m very proud of the staff and the volunteers and the people who were out there day after day.

“It wasn’t a perfect campaign. There is no such thing. But I was on the way to winning until the combination of Jim Comey’s letter on Oct. 28 and Russian Wikileaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me but got scared off. And the evidence for that intervening event is, I think, compelling, persuasive.

We overcame a lot in the campaign. We overcame a barrage of negatively, of false equivalency and so much else.

“We overcame a lot in the campaign. We overcame a barrage of negatively, of false equivalency and so much else, but, as Nate Silver, who doesn’t work for me — he’s an independent analyst, but one who’s considered to be very reliable — has concluded that if the election had been on Oct. 27, I’d be your president. And it wasn’t, it was on Oct. 28, and there was just a lot of funny business going on around that.

“Ask yourself this, within an hour or two of the ‘Hollywood Access’ tape being made public, the Russian theft of John Podesta’s emails hit Wikileaks. What a coincidence. You just can’t make this stuff up.

“Did we make mistakes, of course we did. Did I make mistakes, oh my God, yes. You’ll read my confession and my request for absolution. But the reason why I believe we lost were the intervening events in the last 10 days.

“I think you can see I was leading in the early vote. I had a very strong — and not just our polling and data analysis — but a very strong assessment going on across the country about where I was in terms of the necessary votes and electoral votes. And, remember, I did win more than 3 million votes than my opponent. So, it’s like, really?”

Clinton’s comments produced concise summaries in the form of headlines from many news organizations. From CNN, “Clinton: ‘If the election had been on Oct. 27, I would be your president.’” This was a representative summation of the sort that Clinton has shown herself incapable of producing.

The shame is that so many of Clinton’s campaign positions were thoughtful and thoroughly fleshed-out, unlike those of Trump — then or now.

Hearing a would-be president speak with a vocabulary greater than that of a grade-schooler was a pleasure. Unlike Trump, she does not stoop to repeatedly slapping double adjectives such as “very, very,” “beautiful, beautiful” or “many, many” on words he wishes to grant extra importance. Clinton speaks extemporaneously with ease.

However, if Clinton hopes for a future in which she influences outcomes within the nation or world, she needs a summarizer in chief. Better, she should take a course in headline writing at a journalism school.

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