James Comey: Savior of Our Democracy, Exonerating Leaker, and… Harassment Victim?
There are many clear and present dangers in multiple investigations by multiple parties of the same subject. We know from previous experience that there is a tendency toward zeal and impatience in granting congressional immunity in exchange for public testimony, instead of waiting, patiently, for the painstaking gruntwork of a proper large-scale investigation. The public, quite understandably, is clamoring for information. Officials, on both sides of the political divide, understandably, want to score political points at this very low point in American politics. I highlighted those dangers I thought most important in a previous post. Now, with James Comey’s appearance before the Senate and President Trump’s response behind us, let’s examine some of the more imprudent reactions from our lawmakers and media punditry:
“After President Trump said Friday he is “100 percent” willing to testify under oath about the events that led to firing James Comey as FBI director, a House Democrat wants to take him up on it.
Big mistake. There is not a sufficient amount of evidence out yet. Were Trump to testify this soon, with relatively little known, what we got last week at the White House press conference is most likely all we would get from him and, most importantly, what half of America would remember. How do we know this?
In a polarized, over-hyped America in which there is not one common reality, but four, each camp would remain firmly convinced of its own righteous version of events, with none swayed by the facts as they keep coming to light.
To give one a sense of how crazy things have become, here is a sampling from The Guardian’s reporting on how Comey’s testimony was reported on, and received by the U.S. public:
The fallout from James Comey’s testimony to the Senate intelligence committee on Thursday is a perfect illustration of the nature of the bubbles we aim in this column to burst. In liberal media, the story Comey told has been characterized as damning, a bombshell, a telling blow. In conservative media it has been widely characterized as a victory for Donald Trump. (This morning, Trump himself described it as “total and complete vindication” on Twitter, suggesting he might have been checking in on these assessments.)
While the piece aims to critique right-wing media, it does include right-wing commentary one is regularly exposed to in what is considered the “liberal media:”
Publication: LA Times
Author: Matt Welch is editor-at-large for libertarian mothership Reason, and used to be its editor-in-chief. He has placed libertarian opinion in a range of newspapers at the quality end of the market, including the LA Times.
Why you should read: The hype around Comey’s testimony, and the expectation of some that he would deliver an impeachment “smoking gun”, makes assessments like Welch’s possible. He asks: if Trump’s actions don’t add up to obstruction of justice, can we really impeach him for being clueless? What if there is no “there” there? What if he is just an ignoramus and not, probably, a crook?
Extract: “But in the meantime, and in the absence of potentially damning information about, say, Trump’s financial relationships with Russian entities, we may be blundering into a kind of worst-case scenario. What if under all that smoke there’s just smoke? What if the president’s misbehavior is due to incompetence and boorishness, not corruption and collusion? Are we really prepared to impeach a guy over a tweet?”
From the break-into the Watergate building, it took two years of investigation to get to the Nixon tapes. We are barely two weeks into the naming of Robert H. Mueller as Special Counsel and he is still putting together his team.
There are senators, like Dianne Feinstein whose cachet in the liberal media and among Democrats is golden, using valuable question time to ask Comey why he didn’t stand up to Trump. What’s more, Feinstein opened her questioning with: “And I know that you’re a man of strength and integrity, and I really regret the situation that we all find ourselves in. I just want to say that.” Then, after asking him why he thought he was fired, she followed up with:
“Now, here’s the question: You’re big. You’re strong. I know the Oval Office, and I know what happens to people when they walk in. There is a certain amount of intimidation. But why didn’t you stop and say, “Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you”?”
Comey, by neither giving into Trump nor rebuking him, ended up not only standing up to him, but also caused him to hang by his own petard. Thanks to Comey’s passive-aggressive resistance strategy, we now have record of a string of attempts by Trump to put an end to Comey’s investigation.
By going into the lion’s den and resisting as he did, Comey forged a trail that can be followed right back to the Oval Office. In ongoing inquiries, investigators don’t usually warn perpetrators that they are doing something wrong. They let them get in as deep as possible before swooping in for a prosecution. Telling Trump he was being inappropriate would likely have yielded an apology, perhaps some kind of excuse and then Comey would have been fired, with absolutely no evidence to testify about.
Feinstein isn’t the only public figure to question Comey in that fashion. The usually astute Maureen Dowd fell into the leaking as weakness trap in her latest New York Times op-ed:
“Comey admitted he was a leaker, and Trump is obsessed with catching leakers even though he’s a world-class leaker himself. They are their own Deep Throats.”
In What Comey Told Us About Trump, Peggy Noonan gets closest to the real issue, when all is said and done:
“Then again, a conservative intellectual with small-town roots wrote, during the testimony, that he thought this might be a break point, a moment when Mr. Trump’s supporters would listen close and think he’s not so much like them, and not so different from the swamp he means to drain.
I myself don’t know.”
The reality is that we do know. That reality plagued us all throughout the Obama years, the Election 2016 primaries and general election, and now into the Trump White House.
There are four realities that exist within the American universe: alt-right, Fox News conservative right, mainstream liberal media, and the progressive left. In the first two realities Comey’s testimony was presented as a vindication of President Trump, leaving out damning details all the while using others as if they were exculpatory. In the other two realities – more so in the mainstream media – Comey was likened both to a sexual harassment victim and an angry ex-official with damning evidence of obstruction.
The likening of Comey as a harassment victim, specifically, the usage of sexual harassment parallels, should be highly offensive to anyone who has suffered at the hands of a harasser in the workplace. The coercive component of harassment is the same across harassment types, but that is where the parallels begin and end. Such usage, in the end, is an exercise in reductionism as they not only cheapen the debate and the ugliness that is particular to sexual harassment, but they also fail to inform those who might recognize Trump’s aggression for what it is, without the sexual reference added. Few are those who walk this earth who are unable to understand bullying at a visceral level. What Trump did, going by the frequency and highly unusual approach he took, was to bring to bear the weight of his office on Comey in order to elicit compliance in a matter that should have been Comey’s to act on with complete independence.
In reality, Comey is neither a helpless victim, nor is the content of his testimony, in and of itself, damning proof of obstruction of justice. Comey’s public testimony, taken together with contemporaneous memos to the file, and his conversations with high-level staff at the FBI, provide a basis for the investigation of possible obstruction of justice. Those all coincide with President Trump asking his Vice President, Attorney General, Chief of Staff (twice) and Senior Adviser to leave the room so he could have a private conversation with then FBI Director Comey. It is highly unlikely that all three men will have amnesia when asked in public hearings whether they remember being asked to leave. It is entirely possible they will all suffer a case of amnesia, but it is unlikely, as there were others in attendance.
Then, there is former U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara… He too was fired by Donald Trump. In his first public interview since he was fired, we learned on ABC’s “This Week” that he too was fired after having the unusual experience of coming into inappropriate contact with Trump not once, but three times. For comparison, Bharara never once communicated with President Obama. Bharara was an Obama appointee.
Bharara, who investigated Trump businesses while a U.S. Prosecutor for New York, was fired once it became clear to Trump that he would not do his bidding, when Bharara did not return Trump’s phone call. Bharara’s firing is a part of a pattern of firing officials who don’t show a readiness to bend to Trump’s will, including James Comey.
Trump attorney Jay Sekulow appeared immediately after Bharara on ABC’s This Week. What should have been a rather unremarkable interview turned into something quite eye-popping: putting into question whether or not Special Counsel Mueller might be fired:
STEPHANOPOULOS: And finally, will the president promise not to interfere, not attempt at any time to order the deputy attorney general to fire Robert Mueller?
SEKULOW: Look, the president of the United States, as we all know, is a unitary executive. But the president is going to seek the advice of his counsel and inside the government as well as outside. And I’m not going to speculate on what he will or will not do.
But right now the role of the president is to govern the United States of America. He’s going to do that. He’s going to leave anything else to the lawyers. But I can’t imagine that that issue is going to arise. But that again is an issue that the president with his advisers would discuss if there was a basis.
I mean, George, if there was a basis upon which there was a question raised that raised the kind of issues that are serious, as in the situation with James Comey, the president has authority to take action. Whether he would do it is ultimately a decision the president makes.
I think that’s complete conjecture and speculation. The Constitution, it’s a unitary executive. You know that, you worked for a president.”
Obviously, President Trump hires people who are much like him. The kind of hypothetical firing Jay Sekulow alluded to in his interview with Stephanopoulos is bullying by lawyer in a $2,000 suit.
Donald Trump has been sowing chaos throughout his administration by constantly making statements that undercut his cabinet secretaries. While he is entitled, as president, that behavior has been highly disruptive – to the point where even John McCain, this weekend, waxed nostalgic by remarking that America’s standing on the global stage was better under Obama. Imagine that!
But I digress…
Comey is inexorably at the nexus of Trump and Clinton, Russia, WikiLeaks and the DNC, and blind partisanship and favoritism that cost Democrats an election they should have handily won. He is also inexorably in the middle of the Democratic party’s stalled renewal process, post-defeat, not because he is involved in Democratic politics, but because he is still being blamed for a loss he did not cause. Hillary Clinton’s loss was far more complex than the email scandal, the email scandal and WikiLeaks, the email scandal, WikiLeaks and Russian media interference.
Senator Feinstein’s and others’ constant slights of Comey need to stop. In May this year, Feinstein was still berating Comey for reopening his investigation of the Clinton emails. She spent quite a bit of time chastising him in a public hearing:
Then, inexplicably, she appeared on CNN this weekend and criticized Loretta Lynch, echoing James Comey?
So, *now* she’s queasy? Why not last July? Last September? How about in October? Why not on November 9 when she was blaming James Comey for Hillary Clinton’s awful campaign and her astounding loss to his Orangeness?
When did Feinstein change her mind about Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails on the Weiner laptop? Remember… Comey went public because Loretta Lynch allowed Bill Clinton to come on-board her plane and met with him, because Lynch had insisted Comey use the word “matter” rather than “investigation” when referring to the Clinton email investigation, and… the Department of Justice was not allowing the FBI to look at the Clinton emails on a laptop they had confiscated from former Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Do we, as Feinstein suggests, need a full investigation by the Judiciary Committee of Loretta Lynch and her Department of Justice? Yes, we do. But it shouldn’t be Feinstein’s committee that investigates. Neither she, nor the Republicans and Democrats currently on that committee should be the ones to seek the truth. They had their chance and they blew it.
Which brings me back to James Comey, Russia, Trump, and his band of cronies and assorted lackeys… The best chance the nation has is to allow Robert Mueller to do his job thoroughly and free from any outside interference, be it from Congress, Department of Justice (Rod Rosenstein is technically his supervisor), or the White House. Should, as Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, exercise his powers as “unitary executive” and fire Robert Mueller, a Congress under the complete control of the GOP will be under tremendous pressure to move with an impeachment.
James Comey did his job brilliantly. His testimony was planned and designed to telegraph to the White House that it is not free to do as it pleases. Comey’s seemingly puzzling admission to having his memo transmitted to the media through a friend, shouldn’t be surprising at all. Comey wrote his memos specifically to omit any classified information. He did so purposefully, most likely in the anticipation that he would have to use them some day. Comey, when it became clear he would no longer be able to continue his work, then used his memo to make sure someone else did. He played Trump and Rod Rosenstein brilliantly. Caught in Comey’s gauntlet is also Jeff Beauregard Sessions. He will be testifying before the Intelligence Committee on Tuesday in a closed session. His testimony should be the same as Comey’s, part in public and part in a closed session.
People forget that the FBI profiles the targets of their investigations. What would a profile of Donald Trump read like? We got a feel for Comey’s assessment of how Trump was to be handled during his testimony. He opened a window on the very careful way he tread around Trump. That Comey lasted as long as he did, in the final analysis, is actually quite remarkable, given the high level of anxiety Trump has demonstrated in regard to the Russia investigation, in his tweets, public interviews, and the things he was reported as saying about his firing of James Comey to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office.
The Clinton email scandal, at the core, was about abuses of power – taking something that is the property of the government and making it her personal property. That others had done it before Clinton doesn’t make the act any less than what it was. Instead of dealing with the email issue with some modicum of impartiality, high-ranking Democrats completely blew off the ethics of the issues in an election year, in favor of vilifying the chief investigator, at times placing roadblocks in his way and needlessly pushing him to act. Contrary to what Feinstein claims in her May interview with CNN, James Comey is anything but given to spur of the moment acts. Comey’s methods, actions, and behavior with Donald Trump during the months leading up to his firing more than prove it.
If Democrats are to effectively provide leadership and direction in the investigation of the rot that was the Trump campaign and now Trump administration, they absolutely need to leave partisanship behind and focus on the long-term issues facing investigators. They absolutely must stop patronizing James Comey and treat him like the smart, loyal, honest law man he has always been, regardless of past disagreements. Going forward, Comey, Mueller and thousands of loyal civil servants who remain in government, all will need the support what little is left of Federal government in order to survive the months ahead. They will need the protection of vigilant Democrats to continue their work, wherever it leads them.
James Comey was not a harassment victim. He knew Trump was trying to bully him into ending his investigation. What was characterized by some as cowering, was actually Comey turning Trump into his mark, giving him all the rope by which to hang himself. When all seemed lost, after Comey’s firing, he had three more tricks up his sleeve: the memo his friend showed the New York Times, his testimony in Congress last week, and whatever he’s told Robert Mueller.
Comey left his employ, not in a state of weakness, but on the strength of his conviction, indignation at the rank corruption around us, and courage to keep fighting to do right by our nation.
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Full Hearing: James Comey Testimony, June 8, 2017
For some levity, here is my friend Kenneth Stiggers: