Since I’m not a Trump or intelligence community insider, I’ve refrained from posting any items on the last crisis that began surrounding the administration starting with the president’s firing of James Comey as FBI Director. (I have commented on some aspects briefly on Twitter.) But since I’m a strong supporter of many positions championed by Mr. Trump both during the campaign and – to a lesser extent – in the White House, I thought that RealityChek readers would be interested in some observations about aspects of the uproar that deserve more consideration.
First and most important: Both current and former officials in the federal bureaucracy and even the intelligence community clearly hope to end the Trump presidency, and have decided to leak to the equally anti-Trump Mainstream Media even the most highly classified material if it’s judged to be potentially harmful to the president. Yet no leaks have revealed any evidence supporting the central allegation against the president: the charge that he or close aides colluded in any way with Russian efforts to fix the presidential election in his favor.
Given that the president’s foes long viewed the prospect of his victory with alarm, and given that they have sought to de-legitimize this victory since it unfolded the evening of last November 8, the absence of such a smoking gun after so many months is absolutely startling. If this evidence exists, what are President Trump’s adversaries waiting for?
P.S. – this argument pertains to retired General Michael T. Flynn, who advised candidate Trump and briefly became his White House national security adviser. Flynn has certainly acted in several instances like he’s had something (or things) to hide. But he’s been tracked for months by intelligence officials who – again – have been anything but reluctant to make troubling findings public. And nothing has emerged pointing to working with Russia to undermine the campaign of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
One possible explanation? Many anti-Trump-ers are waiting for the 2018 mid-term elections to get closer and closer, in order to boost the chances of a Democratic landslide before the administration had a chance to rebut the charges conclusively – and before Congressional Republicans have a chance to dissociate themselves from Mr. Trump. And maybe they’re being joined by some establishment Republicans, who hope to recapture their party from the Trump-ist forces. And maybe both factions are motivated mainly by the belief that Mr. Trump is such an unprecedented danger to the republic that any means are warranted to remove him from the Oval Office.
If so, however, some big legal issues pop up. For instance: Are individuals privy to information about crimes – and in fact major crimes – withholding them from law enforcement authorities?
Second: Not only has no evidence of collusion been leaked. The former head of the entire intelligence community has just made clear that, during his own prolonged probe of Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election (a related but clearly separate issue, for which strong evidence exists), he saw none.
In March, James Clapper, who resigned as Director of National Intelligence soon after the election, had tantalizingly hinted at the existence of such material by telling a reporter that the intelligence community “did not include any evidence” in its January report on the Russian campaign “that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that included in our report.”
But when pressed by “Meet the Press” anchor Chuck Todd to confirm whether such evidence existed, Clapper responded, “Not to my knowledge.” And when asked under oath in Senate testimony on three months later whether that statement was still accurate, Clapper stated, “It is.” In other words, Clapper’s probe, which reflected the work of 16 intelligence agencies including his own Director’s office uncovered no collusion evidence.
The issue was briefly muddied during that same hearing by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Like Clapper, an Obama administration appointee to her latest position, Yates initially answered the question about collusion by demurring. She explained that her “answer to that question would require me to reveal classified information. And so, I — I can’t answer that.”
As noted by questioner Senator Lindsey Graham – no admirer of President Trump – the FBI that Yates helped supervise as the second-in-command at the Justice Department was part of Clapper’s Russia investigation. After Yates indicated that the FBI was conducting its own separate counter-intelligence inquiry into Russia’s activities, Graham asked Clapper if the evidence found by the Bureau at that time “was not mature enough” to justify including in the broader intelligence community report.
Responded Clapper: “[T]he evidence, if there was any, didn’t reach the evidentiary bar in terms of the level of confidence that we were striving for in that intelligence community assessment.”
So again, a protracted look into Russia’s Election 2016 hacking produced no evidence of collusion that the intelligence community as a whole believed was solid enough to justify even hinting at in its publicly stated conclusions.
Third: One highly damaging allegation that’s been made over the last week was the Washington Post‘s claim that Comey requested more resources from the Justice Department for his investigation just before he was fired. The clear implication: The president became convinced that Comey was ramping up his investigation – which began in July – and decided to fire him in order to deny him the funds needed to do the job adequately. Such an action, of course, would at least strongly resemble obstruction of justice.
This article, however, too, looks fishy. Post reporter Ashley Parker did include an on-the-record flat Justice Department denial, but needless to say, government spokespersons lie or dissemble all the time. Much more difficult to dismiss: Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe – who had been Comey’s former top deputy – stated in his own sworn testimony to Congress that he was unaware of any such request.
Yes, it’s true that Comey might have made the request without telling McCabe. But how much sense does that make? Nor can anyone accuse McCabe of being a Trump toady. His wife, Jill, had run for office in 2015 as a Democrat and had accepted $500,000 in campaign contributions from the political organization of a long-time Clinton family ally, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Finally (for now!), comes the subject, as reported in The New York Times, of Comey’s alleged memo claiming that President Trump asked him to drop his Russia investigation in a February meeting. The former FBI Director will surely have the chance to confirm, deny, or otherwise elaborate on this story and the conversation in his own testimony under oath to Congress.
As suggested by prominent Trump critic Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, if this request was made, we’re talking about a genuinely Nixonian case of obstruction of justice. (The “smoking gun” tape that played such a decisive role in Richard Nixon’s impeachment and removal in 1974 centered precisely on a decision by the former President to order the FBI to stop its Watergate investigation.)
As Mr. Trump’s critics like to say, however, the Times article “raises questions” – indeed, big ones. First, it’s crucial to note that, as Nixon himself admitted, his actions were intended to cover up criminal activity. As noted above, there’s no evidence yet of a Russia-related crime committed by the Trump administration.
More immediately, Comey has not exactly been shy about loudly expressing, acting on, and widely sharing his concerns about obstacles to official inquests and other behavior he considered improper. In 2004, he threatened to resign as Deputy Attorney General over post-September 11 domestic surveillance programs he viewed as illegal. Last July, he famously held a press conference in which he took the extraordinary step of moving beyond his position’s investigative role to explain extensively his decision to recommend against indicting Hillary Clinton for using a personal email system as Secretary of State. And earlier this month, Comey said – again, under oath – that he took this step because he unilaterally decided that his superior, Attorney General Loretta Lynch had lost credibility as a Clinton investigator because of her meeting with the candidate’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, in June.
It’s certainly possible that Comey has decided to keep firsthand evidence of clear Trump criminality under wraps for going on three months now. But it sure looks out of character.
All of the above notwithstanding, there’s no question that the President’s undisciplined and often contradictory statements understandably have created major suspicions – which are by no means confined to his enemies’ ranks. The consequently confused efforts by his surrogates to clean up these messes have only compounded the problem. And even if the administration had its communications act together, one indisputable lesson of Washington and other scandals is that shoes keep dropping. Moreover, numerous continuing global business ties and burgeoning official responsibilities of the President’s children, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his family keep failing valid smell tests.
At the same time, the clearly organized Dump Trump effort by numerous persons with detailed knowledge of seemingly the full range of the federal government’s most sensitive activities suggests that “RussiaGate,” at least, could be different. Not in the sense that damaging claims won’t continue to be made, but in the sense that the anti-Trump-ers might have already leaked their worst.
The only certainty at this point appears to be that the various Trump Wars will rage on for months at a minimum – which means that the valid policy grievances of the president’s supporters and so many other Americans will continue to be neglected by their government.