Saturday, September 2, 2017

How Emperors Decide

François Flameng (1856-1923), After Waterloo, via Wikimedia Commons.
So it's like that story, which I assume is false, about Napoleon's hemorrhoids being responsible for the French loss at Waterloo—Trump decided to fire James Comey as FBI director because of the bad weather in New Jersey on the weekend of May 6.

It was keeping him indoors at the Bedminster club, with no breaks from the Fox News broadcast other than occasional furtive switching to CNN, where one of the big stories was presumably Comey's testimony to the Senate of the previous Wednesday in which the director said he was "mildly nauseous" at the suggestion that his actions of late October and early November might be the decisive factor that got Trump elected. Meaning, I think, at the shadow on his reputation (he'd been blundering into the situation of influencing the election for months, and it made him look like a bad director), not at the horror of Trump becoming president, but the latter is what Trump heard, of course, because everything's always about him.

And Bannon and Priebus, who had been advising him for weeks not to fire Comey because it would make him look guilty, weren't around, and Jared Kushner, who'd been giving him the opposite advice, was there. It strikes me that Bannon and Priebus may really not have understood, at least at that point, how guilty Trump actually is, along with so many of the other well-wishers who keep telling him to stop looking guilty.

Kushner, on the other hand, was in the very thick of his own FBI problems, over the omission of dozens of meetings with foreigners from his security clearance application, including Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Vnesheconombank head Sergey Gorkov. He may well know more than Trump himself about Trump's skeezy financial relationships with Russians and about Russian efforts to help Trump win the election (though he knows as little as Trump about policy matters, or even less), because he and his consort, Grand Duchess Ivanka Donaldovna, are essentially involved in both. While it could be true that Comey told Trump he wasn't the subject of an FBI investigation, Comey couldn't have said the same thing to Kushner, because we know the FBI was investigating him, or at any rate had him under "scrutiny", and he knew it too.

So Trump was sitting there stewing himself into a concentrated rage, and Kushner was Trump whispering, and the peculiar Stephen Miller was there too—we tend to think of Miller as a kind of poor imitation Bannon, but I think Miller, who came to the White House straight out of Sessions's Senate office, knows a lot more than Bannon about the Russia thing, and I'm not the only one:

And before you know it Trump is dictating the you're-fired letter he'd like to send Comey, as we've just begun learning, and Miller is writing it down with all his little teenage debate-club flourishes,

Paraphrasing the letter, the administration official said Mr. Trump wanted this message sent: “You’ve told me three times I’m not under investigation but you won’t tell the world, and it’s hampering the country.”
The same official said Miller did not influence the content of the letter, which was ultimately never sent after White House counsel Don McGahn vetoed it, saying “its angry, meandering tone was problematic.”
“It was the president’s ideas. Miller was the scrivener,” the official told the WSJ. (Talking Points Memo)

and by the time they get back to the White House on Monday Trump's determined to send it, as Politico informs us:
Then, the White House began frantically searching for how to explain the firing. McGahn had told Trump that the firing would be “less of a big deal” if it was handled properly and delayed, one person said, describing the conversations.
And Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein put together his own soon-to-be-famous memo accusing Comey of mistreating Hillary Clinton, and Comey was fired on Tuesday.

I've been assuming Trump and Kushner and some fairly large number of them are guilty of assorted malefactions the whole time, of course, including profitable sidelines as the Russian oligarchs' money launderers, and the basic political deal of trading Russian intelligence assistance in the election for sanctions relief if Trump should win the election—a deal that now seems to have broken down permanently, as Trump can't even attempt to keep his side of the bargain without making it obvious to the entire United States that he's been bought and paid for. It's increasingly obvious to most of us anyway, because he and his minions have handled the thing as badly as they handle governance, and even those who want the most desperately not to see it, the congressional Republicans, can hardly avoid it.

So I think in that sense the project was bound to fail, sooner or later. But I do think it will turn out in the end that the Comey firing was the most directly self-destructive of Trump's actions. And it's also a really interesting example of how decisions get made in a pre-democratic institution like the Trump White House, driven by court intrigue, weather, and the imperial whim.

P.S. Seth Abramson has developed a fascinating and elegantly supported theory that Trump's aim in the Russia plot wasn't to become president at all, but to close the deal on the Trump Tower Moscow, which he had been working toward for years (since 2002, I think), and thought he'd finally sewn up in 2013, during the Miss Universe festivities (partying that could have included getting himself filmed in the Golden Showers show). He only became president because that's what Putin wanted in return for giving him the permits on the hotel complex.

Cross-posted at No More Mister Nice Blog.

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