Friday, June 9, 2017

It's the crime

Updated a couple of hours after original posting, with somewhat more of an ending.

Descriptive Zoopraxography: Elephants Ambling. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Shorter former New York Times columnist David Brooks, "It's Not the Crime, it's the Culture" (aka "Trump Presidency" [the url] or "A Slow Death March" [the homepage listing]):
James Comey's testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee proves that Trump and his people might not have committed any crimes. Which makes them pretty much the same as the Clinton administration, only still more vulgar and self-destructive of course. Thus there is no reason to impeach the president, though there will obviously be an interminable investigation that will destroy many lives, which is terribly regrettable, but that's just how these people are. I'm not at liberty to explain in an open setting why I'm telling you these things, but if you were to infer that a certain political party that uses an elephant as its symbol had nothing to do with this awful situation you might be getting warm.
Or, as usual, that's not exactly what he says, but what we're supposed to hear. It's interesting to work out the rhetorical methods by which he pulls that trick, anyway, and fisking through it is also a useful way of approaching what we learned, and didn't learn, from the testimony itself.
The first important part of James Comey’s testimony was that he cast some doubt on reports that there was widespread communication between the Russians and the Trump campaign. 
I think that depends on what you mean by "first", "important", and "part". The first thing that really grabbed my ass (beyond the written material that came out the day before, which was fairly stunning in its own right) was earlier, under Warner's questioning, when Comey was explaining that not all of his colleagues agreed on whether Trump was under investigation or not:
One of the members of the leadership team had a view that although it was technically true we did not have a counter-intelligence file case open on then President-elect Trump. His concern was because we're looking at the potential, again, that's the subject of the investigation, coordination between the campaign and Russia, because it was President Trump, President-elect Trump's campaign, this person's view was inevitably his behavior, his conduct will fall within the scope of that work. And so he was reluctant to make the statement. I disagreed. I thought it was fair to say what was literally true. There was not a counterintelligence investigation of Mr. Trump, and I decided in the moment to say it, given the nature of our conversation. (Politico transcript)
Arguably Trump was indeed being investigated, as a person whose behavior the investigators couldn't avoid looking at it, since it was his campaign—but the argument lost, as far as Comey was concerned, because it wasn't about Trump in the narrow technical sense: there was no counterintelligence case file with Trump's personal name on it. Also intriguing is the way he stresses "counterintelligence". Was there, in contrast, a criminal investigation? (Collins asked him that pretty pointedly later on, in the context of the "salacious" dossier, and I thought Comey was hedging in his replies to her: "I didn't use the term counterintelligence. I was briefing him about salacious and unverified material.... I didn't modify the word investigation. It was, again, he was reacting strongly against the unverified material." He was not saying there was no ongoing investigation touching his involvement in money laundering, is what I'm trying to say, just no investigation of him and the pee tape. Yet. But he later told Collins, "I wasn't trying to hide some criminal investigation of the president.")

And question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Comey cast some doubt on reports that there was widespread communication between the Russians and the Trump campaign?

Answer: In principle, yes, but first of all, it was one report, by Schmidt, Mazzetti, and Apuzzo in the Times, February 14,  and he didn't say it was doubtful but that it was wrong, and the report was not about the widespread communications between Russians and Trump campaign people but about the way US intelligence discovered it, as he explained to Senator Risch:
RISCH: I remember, you talked with us shortly after February 14th, when the "New York Times" wrote an article that suggested that the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians. Do you remember reading that article when it first came out?
COMEY: I do, it was about allegedly extensive electronic surveillance in their communications.
Note the placement of "allegedly". It wasn't that there was a broad investigation on links between Trump people, especially Manafort, and Russian officials including intercepted communications, which had been reported in the Times a month earlier, on January 19, without setting Comey's hair on fire, even though it sounded pretty alarming:
The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Mr. Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him. As president, Mr. Trump will oversee those agencies and have the authority to redirect or stop at least some of these efforts. 
The Times is suggesting today that Comey was objecting in particular to the February 14 article's characterization of the Russians with whom Trump people met as "intelligence officials" when their status was murkier than that, which would be pretty strange, as former DCI John O. Brennan called them intelligence officials too. But I think there's something else in the February article Comey is more specifically addressing:
The National Security Agency, which monitors the communications of foreign intelligence services, initially captured the calls between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russians as part of routine foreign surveillance. After that, the F.B.I. asked the N.S.A. to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.
This is what corresponds to Comey's carefully worded complaint of "allegedly extensive electronic surveillance. What he specifically disputes is the technical aspects of the Times report, the suggestion of a very wide NSA dragnet gathering all this stuff or the FBI's exclusive reliance on it (at a time when in fact they were working very much in the humint side, following up on the Christopher Steele dossier interviewing Steele's sources) and its characterization of what his agency was doing. It's certainly not whether Manafort, Page, Stone, and Flynn and perhaps others including Jared Kushner and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III were having an untoward number of suspicious Russian (and Ukrainian and possibly Kazakh) encounters—they were.

That was the suspicion that set off this whole chain of events and the possibility that could have quickly brought about impeachment proceedings.
No, Brooks, it wasn't either of those. The "suspicion" was the clearly justified belief that Russian intelligence forces had stolen Democratic National Committee emails and transmitted them in a form that made them look damning (excerpts with headlines supplied by the Russian and/or WikiLeaks editors and little pre-published WikiLeaks "analyses" telling you how evil they were before you read them) to the public, and that certain Trump associates, notably Rudy Giuliani and Roger Stone (Paul Manafort's business partner) seemed to know an awful lot about the information dumps, in some cases before they took place. And then the fact that so many of these people had had untoward meetings with Russians of more or less official status that they had lied about publicly, sometimes to Congress or on their job applications, which we all learned about not through surveillance but through the fact that they were forced to confess it.

And as far as impeachment goes, this aspect of the story didn't ever quite look like it was going to add up to that. It was Trump's bizarre actions with reference to Russians that made him look like a Putin puppet as early as the presidential debates, not the collusion story, in which it was far from clear that he had participated at all.

The second important implication of the hearings is that as far as we know, Donald Trump has not performed any criminal act that would merit removing him from office.
No. That is not an implication of the hearings. Listen to Comey:
MANCHIN: Do you believe this rises to obstruction of justice?
COMEY: I don't know, that's Bob Mueller's job to sort that out.
He didn't say, "That's David Brooks's job to sort that out." I believe he had solid reasons for that choice.

Sure, he cleared the room so he could lean on Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. But he didn’t order Comey to shut down the investigation as a whole or do any of the things (like following up on the request) that would constitute real obstruction.
Do I need to go on here? The clearing the room and "leaning" is clearly an abuse of power by any understanding. We don't know that he didn't order Comey to shut down the investigation in such a way that Comey couldn't deny it—
BURR: Director Comey, did the president at any time ask you to stop the FBI investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. Elections?
COMEY: Not to my understanding, no.
BURR: Did any individual working for this administration, including the justice department, ask you to stop the Russian investigation?
—but we do know that he repeatedly asked Comey to "lift the cloud" by announcing that the president was not under investigation, which Comey was unwilling to do because making such a public statement would compromise the investigation should that situation change—should Trump become the subject of an investigation after all—and effectively shut it down. That is, let's repeat, Trump was asking Comey to do something Comey feared would cause the investigation to become untenable. And because Trump was, as that colleague of Comey's had said, so close to being investigated that it amounted to the same thing.

And he didn't do it and Trump fired him the next day, after getting the Acting Attorney General (the replacement of somebody else he'd fired for objecting to his desire to do something she thought was illegal) to write up a bogus reason for firing him!

And sure, Trump did later fire Comey. But it’s likely that the Comey firing had little or nothing to do with the Flynn investigation.
It's clear that he was fired for failing to "lift the cloud". And Trump "leaned on" him over that too. It's clear that he was fired because of the "pressure" of the Russia investigation, as he cheerfully told Secretary Lavrov next day:
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
That cloud just wasn't going away. The cloud, the Flynn firing, the "pressure", and Comey's refusal to go out and tell the public that there's nothing to see here, please move along, were all part of a single phenomenon. "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome cloud?"

And it's clear he was fired because Don Donald thought he wasn't loyal enough to be a capo. 

All of this would constitute a significant scandal in a normal administration, but it would not be grounds for impeachment.
Why? Why wouldn't it be grounds for impeachment? Because David Brooks is committed to insisting that it isn't! "As far as we know, Donald Trump has not performed any criminal act that would merit removing him from office." The underlying logic is like that: a coverup would be a crime, if you were covering a crime up, but if what you're covering up—by firing people, intimidating potential witnesses, hiding information like tax returns, favoring retainers who lie, telling absurd lies yourself—if what you're covering up isn't a crime, then it's OK! And we know it's not a crime, because Comey sort of didn't say it was! Q.E.D. It's simply some inexplicable and bizarre behavior that looks like a coverup.

And so on. Not to mention all the other reasons for impeaching him with which Comey has little or nothing to do, starting with the manipulation over the Old Post Office Lease (the General Services Administration thought it was illegal until Trump named a new administrator and lo! the GSA came up with a new opinion) and moving on to who knows what kind of witting participation in money laundering with his Russian and Kazakh and Azerbaijani customers, at least. I've always thought the crooked money dealings were much more likely to lead to an impeachment case than the Putin aspect, anyway, except they're so deeply mixed in together.

Why doesn't David Brooks want us to think Trump is impeachable? He's evidently disgusted by Trump and his entire way of being. He is happy to say that Trump is a bad, disgraceful, monstrous person. But he won't acknowledge the possibility that Trump has committed impeachable offenses, why?

"It's not the crime, it's the coverup," the Watergate veterans always said. Not because the coverup was a more criminal than the crime (a "third-rate burglary"), as I was pointing out the other day. Nixon's crime wasn't the burglary. It was creating a secret government apparatus to secure his power, reward his friends, and punish his enemies, successfully corrupting agents from the CIA and FBI into his plans, turning campaign funds into slush funds and trying to suborn the Internal Revenue Service. The crime he was covering up went far beyond burglaries. In the same way as the Trump mishandling goes far beyond the Flynn, though the criminality is of a different and less classy kind.

Of course Brooks doesn't like to talk about Watergate. Instead, interestingly enough, he finds himself going on for six paragraphs cribbed from James Hohman and Joanie Greve on—Bill Clinton, and the Whitewater investigation, which he thinks the current thing will resemble a lot.

Trump will continue doing dreadful, but not illegal, things, you see, because he wants people to say nice things about him:

In search of praise he is continually doing things that will end up bringing him condemnation. He lies to people who have the power to publicly devastate him. He betrays people who have the power to damage him. Trump is most dangerous to the people who are closest to him and are in the best position to take their revenge.
This will lead to interminable investigations, just like the Clinton years, a toxic environment in the White House, backstabbing and secrecy, unexpected directions of inquiry (they might even learn that Trump had a blow job once! but he told Howard Stern he doesn't care for fellatio and I'll take that at face value), ruined careers, but hey!

The good news is the civic institutions are weathering the storm. The Senate Intelligence Committee put on a very good hearing. The F.B.I. is maintaining its integrity. This has, by and large, been a golden age for the American press corps. 
And the civic institutions are being managed by Republicans, just as they were back in the good old days of the Clinton administration, and the press corps has, at least up to now, been pretty careful with old John McCain and young Paul Ryan...

Because he's trying to demonstrate that Trump is, narratologically speaking, a Democrat. That's why it's so important that he not be guilty of any impeachable crimes, just as Clinton wasn't. Because if he was guilty the Republicans, including Paul Ryan and old John McCain, would be implicated. So Trump is just one of those awful low-class irruptions in the polity, just like the hillbillies from Dogpatch in 1993. That's The Normalizing, dear.

But it's the crime after all, and not only Trump's, as we'll understand sooner or later.

More from Driftglass, I've had all of this one I can stand, sorry if it's sort of shapeless.

No comments:

Post a Comment