CNN reported on March 7 that Trump White House lawyers up. http://cnn.it/2qZYxvJ. The story was that the White House had retained 26 attorneys on the White House legal staff, an increase of four over President Obama’s legal team at the outset of his administration. There was nothing particularly striking about the report, given the breadth of Trump’s conflicts of interest and the complications encountered with his Muslim ban and other allegedly urgent needs to man up and fulfill his campaign promises. Moreover, the White House is engaged in untold complex problems that implicate serious legal issues, often at the border of known practice or precedent so having some rational thinkers close by for consultation is not a bad arrangement.
However, more recently Trump has lawyered up again. It is unclear who is paying for the new counsel, but according to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Trump: “obviously, was aware of Senator Graham’s suggestion [that Trump’s business relationship with Russia be investigated] after he made it today and he’s fine with that. He has no business in Russia. He has no connections to Russia. So he welcomes that,” Spicer said.” In fact, he is [sic]already charged a leading law firm in Washington, D.C., to send a certified letter to Senator Graham to that point that he has no connections to Russia,” Spicer said.”
Several points of interest arise from that statement. Spicer is flatly parroting the Trump mantra that he is free of Russian entanglements of any kind. If nothing else, Spicer is a loyal soldier following orders. However, his statements of “fact” regarding Trump’s business connections with Russia are contradicted by earlier well-circulated statements by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and alter ego in the Trump business empire.
Moreover, it is not clear why anyone should conclude that a hired law firm’s “certified” letter will settle the question of Trump’s involvement with Russia. The “certified” refers only to a service offered by the U.S. Postal Service; it does not add credibility or probative force to the contents of the communication. And the law firm’s affirmation of Trump’s Russia connections, or lack of them, cannot possibly be regarded as a substitute for an independent investigation of the question whether such connections exist. Even if the law firm were to conduct a massive and thorough “investigation,” it would necessarily be relying on Trump and his associates’ version of the truth and could not possibly have access to all the documents being reviewed by the relevant congressional investigating committees, not to mention the FBI’s independent investigation. Given Trump’s relentless history of lying about matters big and small, there is little joy to be found in a law firm’s sign off on anything he says, especially when he is paying the firm (or has misdirected public funds to pay the firm).
Oh, one other thing, the fact that the unnamed law firm is “leading,” per Spicer’s description, will impress no one. There are more “leading” law firms in Washington alone than there are Starbucks stores.
That brings us to the firing of James Comey as Director of the FBI. The facts on this sordid episode are not all in yet, but we are told that in the days before he was fired, Comey had sought subpoenas from the Eastern District Court in Virginia for documents related to now-fired Michael Flynn, thereby indicating an apparent escalation in the seriousness and breadth of the FBI investigation into election meddling by Trump and/or his associates. Moreover, Comey had reportedly just asked for more resources to carry out the investigation from the same person who supposedly recommended on his own initiative that Comey be fired. The FBI refused to comment on that point, but, according to the New York Times, “Sarah Isgur Flores, the Justice Department spokeswoman, said “the idea that he asked for more funding” for the Russia investigation was “totally false.” She did not elaborate.” http://nyti.ms/2pkwBWL.
Beyond those curious circumstances, we have the actual documents that executed the dismissal of Comey.
The opening line of the dismissal letter states that the President has “received the attached letters … recommending your dismissal,” as if the letters were a surprise that was slipped under the door of the Oval Office while the President was watching TV. The second paragraph states the President’s concurrence in the judgment of the Department of Justice, again implying that DOJ came up with all this on its own and that Trump is simply acceding to their recommendations.
But most remarkable, perhaps, is this bizarre statement:
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.” [emphasis added]
At the very same moment he is firing the Director for misconduct in office, Trump tries to borrow from whatever may remain of Comey’s credibility by saying, in effect, “look, he said I wasn’t guilty so I’m not guilty!” Can anyone not hallucinating believe that the insertion of the gratuitous claim that Comey had thrice absolved Trump of suspicion was inserted for any reason other than the guild the lily of Trump’s denials of involvement?
Beyond that, the inclusion of the claim that Comey in effect gave Trump a clean bill of health in the Russia investigation raises many questions that must be answered, under oath. One is, when exactly, and under what circumstances, did the Director of the FBI give such personal assurances to the President, if in fact he did? Comey is now in the position of an attorney whose client has publicly claimed the attorney gave unethical advice or otherwise violated the law in connection with his representation. The attorney must be allowed to defend himself and so must Comey. He should be called very quickly as a public witness by the relevant congressional committees to explain whether he did what Trump claims or whether Trump, in keeping with past practice, is flat out lying.
Now we come to the recommendation from Attorney General Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III in which he recites his great dedication to “discipline, integrity, and the rule of law.” That, notwithstanding that he had previously recused himself, for lying to Congress about his own contacts with Russian operatives, from the investigation Comey was leading into the Trump-Russia connections. Apparently his having recused himself regarding the investigation was not seen as an obstacle to his participation in dismissing the leader of that investigation. This screams out for explanation. Was the recusal a head-fake to thwart an investigation into Sessions’ lies about his meetings with Russia operatives? Surely someone at the Justice Department remembered his recusal. You would think an explanation of his participation in the dismissal would have been offered by now. The total arrogance of these people is palpable.
Finally, there is the recommendation memorandum, also dated May 9, 2017, from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, to whom Comey reported and who had been on the job about two weeks. It must have been a busy day at the White House and DOJ for all these letters bearing the same date, May 9, 2017, to have been produced.
The document begins by praising Comey’s skills as a speaker and that “he deserves our appreciation for his public service.” The letter then acknowledges that Rosenstein and Sessions have discussed Comey’s handling of the “conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails” and states Rosenstein’s inability to understand Comey’s refusal to “accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the Director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”
The Memorandum then recites the errors made by Comey that in Rosenstein’s view usurped the authority of the Attorney General (then Loretta Lynch): (1) announcing Comey’s conclusion that the case against Clinton was being closed without prosecution, and (2) holding a press conference to “gratuitously” release “derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” and (3) using inappropriate words, like “conceal” in a subsequent letter to Congress.
The press conference to which Rosenstein objects occurred on July 5, 2016, just over nine months before Comey’s dismissal without notice or opportunity to address the charges against him. The letter to Congress was sent on October 28, 2016, before the 2016 election and just under three months before Trump’s inauguration. And until May 9, 2017, Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation and his public disclosures met with Trump’s enthusiastic approval. Perhaps in an attempt to counter the effect of those facts, Rosenstein’s memorandum recites excerpts of letters from seven former Attorneys General, Deputy Attorneys General and other unnamed Justice Department officials who concur in the condemnation of Comey’s actions, leading to the conclusion that “Having refused to admit his errors, the Director cannot be expected to implement the necessary corrective actions.”
More questions arise. When were these letters from former DOJ leaders written? No dates are given. How were they solicited? By whom? Are we to believe they were just lying around waiting for some enterprising Attorney General to cite them as authority for dismissing Comey? White House Deputy Press Secretary Sanders has stated that Trump was considering firing Comey as early as January 21 but her explanation for the delay is a mish-mash of incoherent blather.
To be clear, and in conclusion, I am not arguing that Comey’s conduct in 2016 was correct. I strongly believe he inappropriately influenced the 2016 election and helped elect Donald Trump. Trump rewarded that help by firing him because Comey was showing a frightening (to Trump) independence in pursuing the Trump-Russia connection, an independence for which Comey had a reputation. Trump views loyalty as the most important trait and Comey, in Trump’s eyes, now looked like a traitor. So, “you’re fired!”
But this is not reality TV. Trump has doubled down on thwarting the Russia investigation. He is so arrogant that today, less than 24 hours after firing Comey, Trump met at the White House with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak while excluding U.S. press.
The firing of Comey is, in my judgment, a non-survivable mistake that should, by itself, lead to Trump’s impeachment. It may take a while, but there is no way this interference can be tolerated in a democratic society. The issue is not whether Comey handled the Clinton investigation correctly or who objected or applauded at the time. The question is whether a sitting president can be permitted to directly interfere with an investigation of serious impropriety through the intervention of a hostile foreign power in the manner of his election. The answer must be ‘NO.’
Trump better get some more lawyers. He’s going to need them.