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…]


Political chaos in Washington is a return on investment for Moscow

The Washington Post reports: Russia has yet to collect much of what it hoped for from the Trump administration, including the lifting of U.S. sanctions and recognition of its annexation of Crimea.

But the Kremlin has gotten a different return on its effort to help elect Trump in last year’s election: chaos in Washington.

The president’s decision to fire FBI Director James B. Comey was the latest destabilizing jolt to a core institution of the U.S. government. The nation’s top law enforcement agency joined a list of entities that Trump has targeted, including federal judges, U.S. spy services, news organizations and military alliances.

The instability, although driven by Trump, has in some ways extended and amplified the effect Russia sought to achieve with its unprecedented campaign to undermine the 2016 presidential race.

In a declassified report released this year, U.S. spy agencies described destabilization as one of the Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s objectives. “The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order,” it said. [Continue reading…]


Major U.S. investigation of Russian money laundering through NYC real estate gets shut down abruptly

CNN reports: A major US investigation into Russian money laundering has come to an abrupt end.

The case aimed to expose how Russian mobsters allegedly stole $230 million and hid some of the cash in New York City real estate. Also sure to come up was the suspicious death of the Russian lawyer who exposed the alleged fraud, though US prosecutors weren’t alleging that the defendants were behind it.

The trial was set to start on Monday, but late Friday night, federal prosecutors in New York announced they settled the case with Prevezon, the company accused of buying up “high-end commercial space and luxury apartments” with laundered money.

The abrupt conclusion has some involved in the trial wondering why this Russian investigation had been cut short.

“What most concerns me is: Has there been any political pressure applied in this?” asked Louise Shelley, an illicit finance expert who was set to testify in support of the US government on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]


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…]


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…]


FBI agents group endorses Mike Rogers for FBI director

Politico reports: The FBI Agents Association on Saturday backed former lawmaker and FBI agent Mike Rogers to replace ousted FBI director James Comey.

FBIAA President Thomas F. O’Connor said in a statement that Rogers, who was formerly chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, “exemplifies the principles that should be possessed by the next FBI Director.”

“It is essential that the next FBI Director understand the details of how Agents do their important work,” O’Connor said. “Mike Rogers’ background as a Special Agent, veteran of the armed forces and former member of Congress sets him apart as someone capable of confronting the wide array of challenges facing our help ensure that the Bureau remains the world’s premiere law enforcement agency.”

O’Connor added that during his time in Congress, Rogers “showed a commitment to confronting threats to our country in a nonpartisan and collaborative manner.” [Continue reading…]

Garrett M. Graff writes: During the Obama administration’s search for an FBI director, there was not a single former or current elected official seriously considered. By and large, Comey’s background—as well as the backgrounds of others who were floated in 2013 as Barack Obama considered that appointment, like Ken Wainstein, Patrick Fitzgerald and Lisa Monaco—was typical of bureau leaders past: Comey was a career federal prosecutor, former U.S. attorney and one-time No. 2 in the Justice Department.

The man he replaced, Robert Mueller, had precisely the same résumé—a career federal prosecutor, former U.S. attorney and one-time No. 2 in the Justice Department. Mueller was so driven by the Justice Department’s mission that, after a stint heading its criminal division under George H.W. Bush, he stayed only a brief period in private practice before starting over again at the bottom of the department’s hierarchy as a line criminal prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C. During that 2001 search by George W. Bush, perhaps the closest any candidate came to having political ties was George Terwilliger, a former U.S. attorney and deputy attorney general who, while in private practice, had helped with Bush’s legal strategy during the Florida recount. (It’s worth noting that Terwilliger, though, didn’t ultimately get the job.)

The three men who headed the FBI before Mueller were all longtime federal prosecutors-turned-federal judges: Louis Freeh, William Sessions and William Webster. Meanwhile, the first director of the FBI post-Hoover, Clarence Kelly, was a respected police chief and former FBI agent.

These leaders have by no means been without their own faults. Sessions was fired by President Bill Clinton in 1993 after a George H.W. Bush administration investigation found that Sessions had abused expenses and travel privileges. And Clinton’s relationship with Sessions’ successor, Freeh, grew so poisonous amid the scandals of the 1990s that the two men stopped speaking. Freeh also gave up his White House visitor badge, even as the threat of Al Qaeda rose across the globe—a sign that FBI directors can actually become too independent.

Even so, that independence is a fundamental bulwark of our impartial justice system, the idea that no individual in the country is above the law. The Trump administration appears to be considering undoing that long-standing tradition for no apparent reason—and without any real protest from official Washington. [Continue reading…]


Did Trump’s dinner with Comey break the law?

The Daily Beast reports: The timing of President Donald Trump’s dinner with FBI Director James Comey raises the question of whether the president attempted to—or did in fact—interfere with an ongoing FBI investigation. And that’s a federal offense.

The episode in question occurred in the earliest days of the Trump administration. Within days of Trump’s start at the White House, the Justice Department had reason to believe that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have been compromised by the Russians. Flynn was interviewed by the FBI on January 24.

On January 26, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates rushed to the White House to tell Trump’s top lawyer of the Justice Department’s suspicions. She returned, at the White House counsel’s request, to continue the discussion on January 27.

That same night, the evening of January 27, the president had dinner with Comey, according to James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, who told this to NBC News.

Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor who convicted Scooter Libby for leaking a CIA agent’s name, told The Daily Beast that the context of Trump’s dinner is “really significant.”

“So even if he’s not obstructing an investigation into himself, he may be obstructing an investigation into Flynn,” said Zeidenberg, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia.

“Asking him for his loyalty, I don’t know if that would qualify as obstruction of justice in and of itself,” Zeidenberg said, adding, “That suggests consciousness of guilt.” [Continue reading…]


Watchdog group alleges Sessions violated recusal rule in firing of Comey

The Washington Post reports: An ethics watchdog group filed a complaint against Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Friday alleging that his participation in the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey violated Justice Department rules and Sessions’s promise to recuse himself from matters involving Russia.

“Firing the lead investigator is the most extreme form of interfering with an investigation,” wrote Fred Wertheimer, who signed the six-page complaint on behalf of his organization, Democracy 21.

The filing asked the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate the matter and issue a public report — and to take additional action.

“Immediately, we call on OPR to take all necessary steps to ensure that the Attorney General withdraws from any participation in the selection of an interim or permanent Director of the FBI,” the complaint said.

When President Trump fired Comey on Tuesday, he announced that he had consulted with Sessions and the department’s No. 2 official, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein.

Wertheimer, who has worked on ethics issues since the Watergate scandal, said the attorney general’s participation in the Comey firing violated Justice Department rules requiring staffers to recuse themselves from any criminal inquiry in which they have a “personal or political relationship.” [Continue reading…]


The Trump Tapes

The Washington Post described this tweet as “an apparent attempt to threaten Comey,” while NBC News calls it “a stern warning.”

Trump’s intended insinuation would seem to be that the revelations from such “tapes” would show that Comey was lying.

But just a minute: this purported “threat” is coming from a man who has repeatedly insisted that he was a victim of wiretapping and who was publicly humiliated by Comey saying categorically that Trump’s belief was baseless.

In Trump World, if his conversations with Comey got taped, they got taped by Comey.

If he learned nothing else from Nixon, Trump surely learned that it’s never a good idea to gather evidence of ones misdeeds by keeping secret recordings of private conversations.

Moreover, Trump can hardly have forgotten that unwittingly being taped very nearly cost him the presidential election.

Trump’s early morning tweet might have been delivered in the form of a threat but what it really represents is a projection of his fears.

“James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”


“Donald Trump now hopes the FBI didn’t tape his conversations with Comey, because if they were leaked, they would expose how Trump just lied on NBC.”

CNN now reports that as far as Comey is concerned, “if there is a tape, there’s nothing he is worried about,” — which is to say, nothing that Comey is worried about.

And that’s probably got Trump even more worried: Comey just left open the possibility that such a tape exists!

And maybe it does — and surely this is the stuff of Trump’s nightmares.


Rod Rosenstein has debased the office of the deputy attorney general

Benjamin Wittes writes: When Trump nominated Rosenstein as deputy attorney general, I was delighted. I have known Rosenstein for a long time. I have always thought well of him. I’ve admired his ability to serve at senior levels in administrations of both parties and impress both sides with apolitical service. I considered it a positive sign that Trump had installed a career professional as deputy attorney general under Jeff Sessions, who is a polarizing figure to many. And I quietly told many people anxious about Sessions that I was not worried that anything too terrible would happen at the department with Rosenstein and Rachel Brand—who has not yet been confirmed as associate attorney general and of whom I think extremely highly—in the deputy’s and associate’s offices respectively.

I was profoundly wrong about Rosenstein.

Rosenstein’s memo in support of Comey’s firing is a shocking document. The more I think about it, the worse it gets. I have tried six ways from Sunday to put an honorable construction on it. But in the end, I just cannot find one. The memo is a press release to justify an unsavory use of presidential power. It is also a profoundly unfair document. And it’s gutless too. Because at the end of the day, the memo greases the wheels for Comey’s removal without ever explicitly urging it—thus allowing its author to claim that he did something less than recommend the firing, while in fact providing the fig leaf for it.

In other words, Rosenstein’s actual role was even less honorable than the one he reportedly objected to the White House’s tagging him with. If the original story that Rosenstein’s recommendation drove the train had been true, after all, that at least would involve his giving his independent judgment. But the truth that Trump told is far worse than the lie Rosenstein insisted the White House correct. Rosenstein was tasked to provide a pretext, and he did just that.

Let’s give Rosenstein the benefit of the doubt and assume he believes every word of the memo he wrote—and I do assume as much. A lot of people, including a lot of people with institutionalist Justice Department views, share the belief that Comey screwed up, as the President would say, big league. Even I, who have defended the good faith of Comey’s actions and believe he was in an impossible situation, do not agree with every one of his decisions during the 2016 election period. So I’m perfectly willing to believe that Rosenstein felt able to take on the assignment to write this memo because he, in fact, believes the things he said in it.

Let’s go a step further and assume that everything Rosenstein says in the memo about Comey’s conduct is actually true—in other words, not merely that Rosenstein believes it all, but that he’s right. (This I do not believe, but I don’t want to relitigate the question of Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails matters.)

For that matter, let’s set aside the fact that the memo criticizes Comey for actions taken many months ago that the current president never criticized and that the previous administration did not think amounted to a firing offense.

Even with these assumptions, the memo is indefensible. Paul Rosenzweig has ably detailed its deficiencies; Bob Bauer has described how the document, which was produced in the less-than-two-weeks that Rosenstein has been in office, does not indicate whom Rosenstein consulted with and on what factual record his conclusions depended. Daphna Renan and David Pozen make a similar point, arguing that “the process by which Comey was fired appears to raise a version of the same professional concerns that the firing supposedly responds to”: a breach of Justice Department norms developed to protect integrity and independence.

I won’t rehash their many points in detail here but I wish to add a few, all around one general theme: Rosenstein’s memo wasn’t honorable, and it debases the office of the deputy attorney general for the occupant of that office to issue such a memo. [Continue reading…]


Trump said he was thinking of Russia controversy when he decided to fire Comey

The Washington Post reports: President Trump on Thursday said he was thinking of “this Russia thing with Trump” when he decided to fire FBI Director James B. Comey, who had been leading the counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Recounting his decision to dismiss Comey, Trump told NBC News, “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.’”

Trump’s account flatly contradicts the White House’s initial account of how the president arrived at his decision, undercutting public denials by his aides that the move was influenced in any way by his growing fury with the ongoing Russia probe. [Continue reading…]


Current and former FBI officials dispute Trump account of meeting with Comey

NBC News reports: Despite what President Donald Trump said earlier in the day, James Comey did not seek a dinner with the president to retain his job, one current and one former FBI official close to Comey told NBC News Thursday evening.

The January dinner meeting between the two men, the sources said, was requested by the White House. And the former senior FBI official said Comey would never have told the president he was not under investigation — also contradicting what Trump said.

“He tried to stay away from it [the Russian-ties investigation],” said the former official, who worked closely with Comey and keeps in touch with him. “He would say, ‘look sir, I really can’t get into it, and you don’t want me to.'”

A current FBI official confirmed that Comey did not request the one-on-one dinner, which happened at the White House a few days after Trump was sworn in. [Continue reading…]

Given that Comey’s position as FBI director was set to continue until the end of its term in 2023 — by which time it’s reasonable to assume that Trump would at least be out of office if not in jail or exile — why would Comey go as supplicant, asking to be able to stay in his job? Least of all, why would he be ingratiating himself in front of the man who was the direct beneficiary of Comey’s ill-conceived intervention in the 2016 election?

Either Emperor Trump is, as is his habit, simply lying. Or, incapable of differentiating between fantasy and memory, he has reconstructed a version of events that corresponds with the power dynamics he desired rather than the actuality he encountered.


In a private dinner, Trump demanded loyalty. Comey demurred

The New York Times reports: Only seven days after Donald J. Trump was sworn in as president, James B. Comey has told associates, the F.B.I. director was summoned to the White House for a one-on-one dinner with the new commander in chief.

The conversation that night in January, Mr. Comey now believes, was a harbinger of his downfall this week as head of the F.B.I., according to two people who have heard his account of the dinner.

As they ate, the president and Mr. Comey made small talk about the election and the crowd sizes at Mr. Trump’s rallies. The president then turned the conversation to whether Mr. Comey would pledge his loyalty to him.

Mr. Comey declined to make that pledge. Instead, Mr. Comey has recounted to others, he told Mr. Trump that he would always be honest with him, but that he was not “reliable” in the conventional political sense.

The White House says this account is not correct. And Mr. Trump, in an interview on Thursday with NBC, described a far different dinner conversation with Mr. Comey in which the director asked to have the meeting and the question of loyalty never came up. It was not clear whether he was talking about the same meal, but they are believed to have had only one dinner together.

By Mr. Comey’s account, his answer to Mr. Trump’s initial question apparently did not satisfy the president, the associates said. Later in the dinner, Mr. Trump again said to Mr. Comey that he needed his loyalty.

Mr. Comey again replied that he would give him “honesty” and did not pledge his loyalty, according to the account of the conversation.

But Mr. Trump pressed him on whether it would be “honest loyalty.”

“You will have that,” Mr. Comey told his associates he responded. [Continue reading…]


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.


Trump just decimated the White House’s entire Comey narrative


Aaron Blake writes: I wrote Wednesday that the White House’s explanations for firing James B. Comey were crumbling. Well, President Trump just exploded them.

In one fell swoop, Trump totally contradicted his three top spokespeople and offered a polar-opposite version of events than they had provided.

After they had spent the past 45 hours emphasizing that this was a decision Trump arrived at after receiving a memo and recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, Trump just blurted out that he was going to fire Comey all along. Basically, he admitted the memo was a ruse and a political ploy. [Continue reading…]


Trump cancels visit to FBI headquarters after being told he’s unwelcome

NBC News reports: The White House has abandoned the idea of President Trump visiting FBI headquarters after being told he would not be greeted warmly, administration officials told NBC News.

Amid the continuing fallout over his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, Trump was considering an appearance at the FBI’s J Edgar Hoover Building in downtown Washington, DC. The White House publicly floated the idea as recently as Thursday morning.

Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders, asked by a reporter whether such a visit was imminent, replied, I believe that it’s very likely that takes place sometime in the next few days.”

But that idea was dropped later Thursday, administration officials said, after the FBI told the White House the optics would not be good. FBI officials made clear that the president would not draw many smiles and cheers, having just unceremoniously sacked a very popular director.

And FBI agents said that, while many of them voted for Trump, after the president unceremoniously fired a very popular director, few were ready to meet him at the bureau with open arms.

“My sense is most FBI employees feel a loyalty to Comey,” one person who works at headquarters told NBC News. “And whether they agree or disagree with the way he handled the email case, like and respect him … Trump would not be well-received at headquarters.” [Continue reading…]