Trump threatens the rule of law

Yascha Mounk writes: After the days of mayhem that followed the firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, the biggest question now seems to be whom Donald Trump will pick as his successor. Will he nominate someone with a reputation as a consummate professional like Andrew McCabe, Comey’s erstwhile deputy? Or will he give the nod to a political loyalist like John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas?

If Trump nominates a political hack to replace Comey, the warning bells that political scientists have long been sounding about Trump would amp up to deafening levels. As Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller explains in What Is Populism?, the first move taken by authoritarian populists who have successfully weakened democracy in countries like Poland and Hungary in recent years has been “to colonize or ‘occupy’ the state” by appointing their own cronies to head independent institutions: They have created new institutions they control. They have changed the rules governing existing institutions to bring them under the sway of the government. They have lowered the mandatory retirement age for civil servants to create vacancies. And, yes, were they could, they have fired politically inconvenient bureaucrats for spurious reasons.

If Trump hand-picks a docile FBI director who is likely to derail investigations against him, this would constitute a clear sign that he is starting to follow in their footsteps. At that point, anybody who votes for the nominee would rightly be remembered as a traitor to the republic for as long (or short) as the Constitution shall endure.

But while it would be outrageous if Trump nominates an obvious crony to head the FBI, I am not sure that the alternative is nearly as reassuring as many commentators seem to believe. Given the circumstances of Comey’s dismissal and the process governing his replacement, no successor picked by Trump can be trusted to oversee an investigation into Trump. That is why the only way to limit the immense damage that Comey’s firing has already done to basic democratic norms is to appoint an independent committee or special prosecutor with robust powers and a wide ambit. [Continue reading…]

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GOP senators, pulling away from Trump, have ‘a lot less fear of him’

The New York Times reports: Senate Republicans, increasingly unnerved by President Trump’s volatility and unpopularity, are starting to show signs of breaking away from him as they try to forge a more traditional Republican agenda and protect their political fortunes.

Several Republicans have openly questioned Mr. Trump’s decision to fire the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, and even lawmakers who supported the move have complained privately that it was poorly timed and disruptive to their work. Many were dismayed when Mr. Trump seemed to then threaten Mr. Comey not to leak negative information about him.

As they pursue their own agenda, Republican senators are drafting a health care bill with little White House input, seeking to avoid the public relations pitfalls that befell the House as it passed its own deeply unpopular version. Republicans are also pushing back on the president’s impending budget request — including, notably, a provision that would nearly eliminate funding for the national drug control office amid an opioid epidemic. And many high-ranking Republicans have said they will not support any move by Mr. Trump to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement.

So far, Republicans have refrained from bucking the president en masse, in part to avoid undermining their intense push to put health care and tax bills on his desk this year. And the Republican leadership, including Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, remains behind Mr. Trump.

But with the White House lurching from crisis to crisis, the president is hampering Republicans’ efforts to fulfill his promises. [Continue reading…]

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Trump must be impeached. Here’s why

Laurence H. Tribe writes: The time has come for Congress to launch an impeachment investigation of President Trump for obstruction of justice.

The remedy of impeachment was designed to create a last-resort mechanism for preserving our constitutional system. It operates by removing executive-branch officials who have so abused power through what the framers called “high crimes and misdemeanors” that they cannot be trusted to continue in office.

No American president has ever been removed for such abuses, although Andrew Johnson was impeached and came within a single vote of being convicted by the Senate and removed, and Richard Nixon resigned to avoid that fate.

Now the country is faced with a president whose conduct strongly suggests that he poses a danger to our system of government. [Continue reading…]

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Where are the Republicans who are willing to stand up for justice?

Nicholas Kristof writes: When George Washington was preparing to take office, everybody wondered what to call him. Senators proposed lofty titles like “Illustrious Highness” and “Sacred Majesty.”

But Washington expressed irritation at such fawning, so today we are led by a modest “Mr. President.” Later, Washington surrendered office after two terms, underscoring that institutions prevail over personalities and that, in the words of the biographer Ron Chernow, “the president was merely the servant of the people.”

That primacy of our country’s institutions over even the greatest of leaders has been a decisive thread in American history, and it’s one reason President Trump is so unnerving. His firing of James Comey can be seen as simply one element of a systematic campaign to undermine the rule of law and democratic norms.

The paradox is that Trump purports to be (like Richard Nixon) a law-and-order president. His administration has ordered a harsh crackdown on drug offenders, when we should be scaling up addiction treatment instead. Trump is focusing on chimerical fraud by noncitizen voters, even as he impinges on an investigation into what could be a monumental electoral fraud by Vladimir Putin. He favors tough law and order for the little guy.

Comey took the investigation into possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign seriously enough that for his last three weeks leading the F.B.I. he was getting daily updates, according to The Wall Street Journal. The new acting director of the F.B.I. confirms that the inquiry is “highly significant.”

For months, as I’ve reported on the multiple investigations into Trump-Russia connections, I’ve heard that the F.B.I. investigation is by far the most important one, incomparably ahead of the congressional inquiries. I then usually asked: So will Trump fire Comey? And the response would be: Hard to imagine. The uproar would be staggering. Even Republicans would never stand for that.

Alas, my contacts underestimated the myopic partisanship of too many Republicans. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, spoke for many of his colleagues when he scoffed at the furor by saying, “Suck it up and move on.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump has sparked the biggest political crisis since Watergate

Jonathan Chait writes: Trump gives every indication that he literally does not understand the concepts of popular sovereignty and rule of law. He has treated the presidency as a continuation of his business career, and the election as the sanctification of it, the final proof of his triumph over his critics. When asked about his conduct, he returns obsessively to the glories of Election Night. Trump grew especially furious at Comey’s confession of being “mildly nauseous” at the thought he might have swayed the election, “which Mr. Trump took to demean his own role in history,” the Times reported.

He continues to surround himself with family and personal loyalists, and judges his and his employees’ performance by the quality and (especially) quantity of free media they generate. That he is leveraging the office to enrich himself and his family strikes him as a perfectly obvious course of action. He casually refers to “my generals” and “my military.” He sent his longtime personal bodyguard to fire Comey. To Trump, the notion that his FBI director would investigate him and his associates is as outrageous as having a doorman at Mar-a-Lago greet him with insults.

What has enabled Trump to persist in this belief is a government controlled by a party willing to accommodate his vision. [Continue reading…]

James Fallows writes: On the merits, this era’s Republican president has done far more to justify investigation than Richard Nixon did. Yet this era’s Republican senators and members of congress have, cravenly, done far less. A few have grumbled about “concerns” and so on, but they have stuck with Trump where it counts, in votes, and since Comey’s firing they have been stunning in their silence.

Today’s party lineup in the Senate is of course 52–48, in favor of the Republicans. Thus a total of three Republican senators have it within their power to change history, by insisting on an honest, independent investigation of what the Russians have been up do and how the mechanics of American democracy can best defend themselves. (To spell it out, three Republicans could join the 48 Democrats and Independents already calling for investigations, and constitute a Senate majority to empower a genuinely independent inquiry.) So far they have fallen in line with their party’s leader, Mitch McConnell, who will be known in history for favoring party above all else. [Continue reading…]

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Trump: James Clapper said I have no Russia connections. Clapper: No I didn’t

Vox reports: President Donald Trump has tried to tamp down the growing controversy over his campaign’s ties to Russia by deliberately misrepresenting comments from James Clapper, formerly the nation’s top spy.

On Friday, Clapper began pushing back — and added his voice to the chorus of officials and lawmakers from both parties who worry that there’s more still to come out about possible collusion between the Trump team and the Kremlin during the campaign. [Continue reading…]

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In defense of Comey and the FBI, McCabe defied Trump

The New York Times reports: Andrew G. McCabe has risen so fast at the F.B.I. that he has become a source of both admiration and resentment. So a favorite way to criticize him is to offer one of the most backhanded compliments in the bureau’s lexicon: He’s a great briefer.

Mr. McCabe’s talent for briefing his superiors is regarded by many workaday agents as nothing more than an ability to discuss somebody else’s work. But it is highly valued at F.B.I. headquarters, and in a city where briefings become policy.

“With McCabe, it was always his capacity to understand an issue at great depth that made him stand out,” said James W. McJunkin, who supervised Mr. McCabe years ago in the F.B.I.’s counterterrorism division. Mr. McCabe provided unvarnished information, he said, with cut-to-the-chase precision.

That ability was on display on Thursday in Mr. McCabe’s first public appearance as acting director, less than 48 hours after President Trump fired James B. Comey, Mr. McCabe’s boss.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr. McCabe, 49, crisply refuted a pair of Trump administration assertions about Mr. Comey’s firing.

The White House said Mr. Comey had lost the support of his agents. Not so, Mr. McCabe said.

The White House said the F.B.I. regarded the investigation into Russian election interference as a low priority. Mr. McCabe called it “highly significant.”

Mr. McCabe’s standing up to a temperamental president who has repeatedly smacked the bureau like a political piñata won over at least some F.B.I. agents who had viewed Mr. McCabe as overly cautious. Mr. Trump has described the agency as corrupt, repeatedly belittled Mr. Comey and called the F.B.I. investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election and potential collusion with the president’s associates a “hoax.”

Senator Martin Heinrich, Democrat of New Mexico, said he was surprised by Mr. McCabe’s bluntness. “I wasn’t expecting it,’’ he said in an interview. “It was pleasantly candid. He bucked the system.” [Continue reading…]

When Andrew McCabe flatly contradicted the White House’s claims about James Comey’s standing in the FBI, it might have seemed like he was lining himself up as the next man to get fired, but on the contrary, I suspect he improved his job security.

Trump has already turned the agency into his enemy. If McCabe now gets elbowed out, Trump will become even more vulnerable. The more pressure team Trump applies, the more resistance they will meet.

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Acting FBI Director McCabe refutes White House claim that rank and file FBI employees had ‘lost confidence’ in Comey

In hearings before the Senate Intelligence Committee today, when asked about claims that Director Comey had “lost the confidence of rank and file FBI employees,” Acting FBI Director McCabe responded, “No, sir. That is not accurate.” He added, “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI. And still does to this day.”

 

On Tuesday night, Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders claimed Comey was fired because he had “lost the confidence” of the “rank-and-file” FBI employees.

 

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Senate Intelligence Committee subpoenas Flynn

Politico reports: The Senate Intelligence Committee has subpoenaed any Russia-related documents from former national security adviser Michael Flynn for its continuing probe into the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 election.

The legal order, announced by the panel’s bipartisan leaders Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (R-Va.), went out Wednesday after Flynn’s attorneys informed the panel they would not cooperate with the probe unless the embattled former general was granted immunity, a congressional source told POLITICO.

Flynn had been asked, along with a spate of other former and current Trump associates, at the end of last month to provide the Intelligence Committee with any documents potentially related to the panel’s Russia probe. The investigation is examining, among other questions, whether Flynn or other Trump associates had improper contact with the Russian government throughout the course of the campaign or the transition period. [Continue reading…]

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After Comey, here are the options for an independent Russia inquiry

The New York Times reports: President Trump’s firing of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, on Tuesday escalated calls among Democrats to appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, especially given Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing that investigation, was also the face of Mr. Trump’s decision to fire Mr. Comey: The administration released a lengthy memo from Mr. Rosenstein recommending that Mr. Comey be removed, citing the way he handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.

Late on Tuesday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said Mr. Rosenstein “now has no choice but to appoint a special counsel.”

“His integrity, and the integrity of the entire Justice Department, are at stake,” Mr. Leahy continued.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating the Trump-Russia question, called it “deeply troubling” that Mr. Trump had fired Mr. Comey during an active counterintelligence investigation. He said the move had made it “clear to me that a special counsel also must be appointed.”

The developments have heightened interest in several related legal issues. [Continue reading…]

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In win for environmentalists, Senate keeps an Obama-era climate change rule

The New York Times reports: In a surprising victory for President Barack Obama’s environmental legacy, the Senate voted on Wednesday to uphold an Obama-era climate change regulation to control the release of methane from oil and gas wells on public land.

Senators voted 51 to 49 to block consideration of a resolution to repeal the 2016 Interior Department rule to curb emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming greenhouse gas. Senators John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Susan Collins of Maine, all Republicans who have expressed concern about climate change and backed legislation to tackle the issue, broke with their party to join Democrats and defeat the resolution.

The vote also marked the first, and probably the only, defeat of a stream of resolutions over the last four months — pursued through the once-obscure Congressional Review Act — to unwind regulations approved late in the Obama administration.

In anticipation of Republican defections, President Trump sent Vice President Mike Pence to the Senate floor to break a tie vote. But with three members of his own party breaking away, Mr. Pence stood aside.

“We were surprised and thrilled to win on this,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of the League of Conservation Voters, which, along with other environmental groups, has been lobbying Republicans for weeks to vote against the repeal of the methane rule. “This is clearly a huge win for our health and our climate.” [Continue reading…]

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Senate Russia investigators ask Treasury for Trump team financial information

CNN reports: Senate Russia investigators have sent a request to the Treasury Department’s criminal investigation division for any information related to President Donald Trump, his top officials and his campaign aides, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee told CNN Tuesday.

“We’ve made a request, to FinCEN in the Treasury Department, to make sure, not just for example vis-a-vis the President, but just overall our effort to try to follow the intel no matter where it leads,” Sen. Mark Warner told CNN. “You get materials that show if there have been, what level of financial ties between, I mean some of the stuff, some of the Trump-related officials, Trump campaign-related officials and other officials and where those dollars flow — not necessarily from Russia.”

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FinCEN is the federal agency that has been investigating allegations of foreign money-laundering through purchases of US real estate. [Continue reading…]

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FBI Director Comey’s testimony on Huma Abedin forwarding Hillary Clinton’s emails was inaccurate

By Peter Elkind, special to ProPublica, May 8, 2017

FBI director James Comey generated national headlines last week with his dramatic testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, explaining his “incredibly painful” decision to go public about the Hillary Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.

Perhaps Comey’s most surprising revelation was that Huma Abedin — Weiner’s wife and a top Clinton deputy — had made “a regular practice” of forwarding “hundreds and thousands” of Clinton messages to her husband, “some of which contain classified information.” Comey testified that Abedin had done this so that the disgraced former congressman could print them out for her boss. (Weiner’s laptop was seized after he came under criminal investigation for sex crimes, following a media report about his online relationship with a teenager.)

The New York Post plastered its story on the front page with a photo of an underwear-clad Weiner and the headline: “HARD COPY: Huma sent Weiner classified Hillary emails to print out.” The Daily News went with a similar front-page screamer: “HUMA ERROR: Sent classified emails to sext maniac Weiner.”

The problem: Much of what Comey said about this was inaccurate. Now the FBI is trying to figure out what to do about it.

[Read more…]

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Yates fuels questions about Trump’s 18-day delay in firing Flynn

 

Bloomberg reports: Eighteen days.

That’s how much time passed from acting Attorney General Sally Yates’s warning to the White House that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with Russian officials to the administration’s decision to fire him.

The White House will be under increasing pressure to explain what it did during that period after Yates’ Senate testimony on Monday, her highest-profile appearance since President Donald Trump fired her Jan. 30 for refusing to enforce his initial travel ban. Her revelations come as FBI and multiple congressional committees intensify their scrutiny of Russia’s meddling in last year’s election and any possible connections to Trump aides or associates.

Yates, an Obama administration holdover, said she reached out to White House Counsel Donald McGahn in late January after noting discrepancies between classified intelligence reports on Flynn’s behavior and Pence’s descriptions of what the national security adviser told him.

In two White House meetings on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27, Yates said she told McGahn that the classified information suggested that Flynn was potentially subject to blackmail because the Russians would know he had misled Pence.

“We felt it was critical we get this information to the White House,” Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee in a hearing alongside former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians. To state the obvious, you don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.” [Continue reading…]

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Fight brews over push to shield Americans in warrantless surveillance

The New York Times reports: Obscured by the furor over surveillance set off by the investigations into possible Trump campaign coordination with Russia during the election, a major debate over electronic spying that defies the usual partisan factions is quietly taking shape in Congress.

The debate centers on the National Security Agency’s incidental eavesdropping on Americans via its warrantless surveillance program, which spies on foreigners abroad whose communications pass through American phone and internet services. Its legal basis, the FISA Amendments Act, is set to expire at the end of 2017.

A bipartisan coalition of privacy-minded lawmakers has started to circulate draft legislation that would impose new limits on the government’s ability to use incidentally gathered information about Americans who are in contact with foreign targets.

Many of those lawmakers are veterans of a fight two years ago over the U.S.A. Freedom Act, a law that ended an N.S.A. program that gathered Americans’ calling logs in bulk. They won that fight against security hawks because the statute on which the program was based, part of the Patriot Act, was expiring and they were unwilling to extend it without ending the bulk collection.

The privacy advocates in Congress are using that same lesson this time around, hoping to leverage their colleagues’ concerns that the program will lapse if they fail to extend the law.

But the intelligence and law enforcement communities and their allies in Congress appear determined to extend the warrantless surveillance program law, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, without changes. They are framing the debate as being about a program that is too important to be held hostage to any push for changes, lest gridlock kill it. [Continue reading…]

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James Comey ‘mildly nauseous’ over idea he swayed the election

The New York Times reports: James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, sharply defended his rationale for notifying Congress about new emails related to the Hillary Clinton investigation less than two weeks before Election Day, saying Wednesday that any suggestion he affected the vote’s outcome made him “mildly nauseous.”

Mr. Comey’s comments at a Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing were his first public explanation for his actions, which roiled the presidential campaign in its final days and cast a harsh spotlight on the F.B.I. director.

Mr. Comey said he went public on Oct. 28 because he believed that the emails found by his agents might provide insight into Mrs. Clinton’s reasons for using a private server as secretary of state and might change the outcome of the investigation. Failing to inform Congress, Mr. Comey said, would have a required an “act of concealment.”

“Concealment, in my view, would have been catastrophic,” he said, adding later that he knew the decision would be “disastrous for me personally.”

What Mr. Comey viewed as concealing, Justice Department officials viewed simply as following the rules. The F.B.I. does not normally confirm ongoing investigations. Senior Justice Department officials urged him not to send a letter to Congress informing them that the bureau was examining the new emails. [Continue reading…]

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