james debate
james debate

Friday 12 May 2017

It's time to take this seriously. I can say with little doubt and no shred of hyperbole that what is going on in Washington DC right now is among the most important political events that will happen in our lifetimes. A scandal the likes of which we have not seen since Watergate, a crisis of democracy and American sovereignty we have never seen. It's rare that you can say this, but last week we witnessed an event of truly historic magnitude.

donald trump james comey criminal watergate tuesday saturday massacre coverup cover up conspiracy republican
The Trump administration has been coming under fire in recent weeks in relation to a number of scandals, from domestic emoluments, to Betsy Devos' pay-to-play, a crackdown on the freedom of press, and of course the headline act, possible collusion with Russia to violate federal law. His first 100 days in office have been wracked by allegations of corruption and criticisms over a lack of transparency. But last Tuesday night we saw something entirely new, something unprecedented in modern democracy.

On Tuesday night, Donald Trump fired the FBI Director James Comey, the very man who was currently leading an investigation against Trump's administration regarding possible illegal ties to the Russian Government. Now Trump will handpick Comey's replacement. The man currently under investigation... will choose the person who leads the investigation against him.

It's a difficult story to blog about, as things are moving at a ridiculously fast pace, with new revelations appearing by the hour. Since I began this post, Comey's deputy, now acting Director of the FBI, has announced that future investigation progress will no longer be shared with the White House. Mere hours later, Trump tweeted threatening messages at Comey, hinting that he has been taping his meetings in the White House, and that these would be made public if Comey doesn't stay silent.

Things are fast spiralling out of control, and it's arguable that this is already a bigger crisis than Watergate. But let's rewind a little bit, what's all this Russia stuff about?

Russia hacks the 2016 Election
Russian hackers are known to have made a concerted effort to influence the 2016 US election, a process which involved a campaign of online misinformation and propaganda, hacking of voter rolls and electoral systems, and most crucially, the hacking of Democratic Party officials and theft of information from those systems.

The US intelligence community, including the FBI and CIA, have very clearly and publicly confirmed these facts to be true, and further have stated in no uncertain terms that the election interference appears to have been conducted with the intention of helping the campaign of Donald Trump. Trump, for his part, appeared on numerous occasions to have been encouraging the Russians to hack his opponent during the election, but that's only the beginning of his campaign's worrying Russian connections.

Very briefly, Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort was forced to resign and is now the subject of criminal investigation for his connections to Russian and Ukrainian politicians. Mike Flynn was appointed as National Security Advisor by Trump, but forced to resign after it transpired that he had held multiple meetings with Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak, commonly referred to as the "Russian Spymaster" for his connections to espionage. Flynn received payments and made frequent trips to Russia, and then lied about all of it. He is currently under criminal investigation. Jeff Sessions, Trump's Attorney General, also held multiple meetings with the Russian Spymaster. His connections were deemed serious enough that he was forced to recuse himself from getting involved in the Russia investigation as head of the Department of Justice.

From Carter Page, to Roger Stone, Jared Kushner, and even Trump's son Eric, the list of Trump connections to Russia seems endless, and every day it seems more and more come to light. And that's even before we get to the dossier revealed by high ranking British intelligence officials, which indicates that Russia has incriminating personal and financial information on Trump, and was deemed by intelligence agencies to be "credible".

So why did Trump fire Comey?
Considering the scale of Trump's apparent Russia connections, it clearly looks bad for the President to have fired the man leading those investigations. The fact that the recommendation was apparently made by Jeff Sessions, the man who was supposed to have recused himself from getting involved with Russia, makes it all the more shocking.

The move has drawn immediate comparisons with the Saturday Night Massacre, the day when Richard Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor in order to cover up his criminal actions. Needless to say, it didn't end well for Nixon.

But is there any actual indication that Trump has done anything wrong?

Sure enough, the President has the power to fire the Director of the FBI, but typically only in the event of serious wrongdoing. FBI Directors are given 10 year terms specifically for this reason, to insulate them from politics and the whim of the President. It has historically taken actual illegality or major ethics breaches to justify such a dismissal. In 1993 when Bill Clinton dismissed Director William Sessions (no relation to the current Attorney General), Sessions had been the subject of a major investigation, the conclusion of which stated that he had committed significant wrongdoing. No such conclusions have been reached for Comey.

So what is Trump's justification for this extraordinary expansion of executive power? If you can believe it, Trump's justification is that Comey was too harsh on Hillary Clinton during her sham of an email investigation during the election. That's right, Trump fired Comey for taking the (admittedly unwise) actions that in all likelihood gave Donald Trump the Presidency.

Now let's be clear, I have major reservations about the way Comey handled that investigation. His actions were inappropriate and unusual. However they are clearly not sufficient to justify the second ever FBI Director dismissal, he committed no illegal act, or breach of ethics. This has even drawn criticism from Trump's own party, with Republican Senator John McCain expressing his belief that the sacking was not justified.

But more to the point, only a complete idiot would believe this pretext for a second. First of all, Trump and Jeff Sessions were wildly effusive in their praise over Comey's handling of the investigation during the election, for obvious reasons. Secondly these actions took place a year ago, so why are they only firing him now, six months into Trump's Presidency?

Comey was fired on the very day the Russia investigation issued its first batch of grand jury subpoenas against current and former associates of the Trump administration, one day after the investigation requested access to financial records of business dealings between Trump and Russia, and less than a week after Comey requested additional funds and personnel for his investigation from the Department of Justice.

Donald Trump wants us to believe that he fired James Comey for taking actions that helped Trump win the election, actions that both he and Sessions had supported previously, actions that took place a year ago, but rather than fire him at the time, they coincidentally waited until the very week that Comey's investigation against Trump was beginning to pick up steam. As a pretext it is almost laughable for how non-sensical and brazenly untrue it is. Only an astoundingly naive or wilfully ignorant individual could possibly be fooled by it.

And then there was the dismissal itself. Carried out while Comey was on the opposite side of the country so that he couldn't protect evidence, conveyed to the FBI by Trump's personal bodyguard, like some mafioso, so as to not tip off anyone with the Bureau. The dismissal letter itself. The letter is written with the pretext that this dismissal has absolutely nothing to do with Russia, and then Trump inexplicably adds the absolutely incredible paragraph "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgement of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau".

Why is this paragraph in the letter? If the dismissal has nothing to do with Russia, why bring it up? Why say this at all? Presumably Comey knows what he and Trump have discussed previously, so why does Trump need to remind him? There is literally no reason for Trump to include this paragraph in the letter, unless the intention is that other people read it and conclude that Trump is not under investigation over Russia. It is an utterly insane paragraph that reads less like a boss firing an employee and more like a five year old forging a letter to the headmaster from his parents. It makes absolutely no sense regardless of whether or not you believe Trump's ridiculous pretext. Again drawing criticism from his own party, Republican Congressman Justin Amash even went so far as to call it just plain "bizarre".

It is now undeniable: The President is trying to seize control of the police
The timing of this dismissal, along with the embarrassingly flimsy pretext, would seem to suggest a cover up.

Leaks from within the Trump administration appear to support this, reporting that Trump had become enraged over the continuing investigation into Russian connections, that he wanted Comey fired, and that about a week ago he had explicitly ordered the Department of Justice to come up with an excuse to fire him. Further leaks from the FBI state explicitly that they believe Comey was fired because he refused to give Trump his personal loyalty and because he refused to preview his testimony for Trump behind closed doors.

If it wasn't obvious enough that this firing was motivated by Comey's Russia investigation, consider that this appears to follow a concerted trend. This is the third person that Trump has fired who was involved in investigations into Russia, the others being Sally Yates and Preet Bharara. Correlation does not equal causation, but whatever the reason if you were investigating Trump's Russia connections, chances are you got fired by him, and that demands explanation.

Consider also the pattern of behaviour which includes sending threatening messages to those testifying on the Russia investigation, including Comey and Sally Yates on the day she was set to testify. Many have described these actions as textbook witness intimidation.

It's not a matter of ideology or affiliation, there is no one in Washington who seriously believes any of the rationale coming out of the White House. These are lies, so evident in their dishonesty that it's simply laughable. In the days that follow Comey's dismissal, Trump's people don't even seem to be pretending that it's true. Both Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Trump appear to have confirmed that the sacking was related to Russia, which would mean that at the very least Jeff Sessions violated his recusal, and Trump has committed obstruction of justice.

And yet, the official line coming out of the White House is that it is "time to move on" from the Russia investigation, in spite of what appears to be an obvious cover up. Most dangerous of all, the bulk of the Republican Party appears willing to acquiesce.

The complicity of the Republican Party
There has been a lockstep propaganda surge from all across the Trump administration and Republican Party. First there was the hard-to-believe claim from the White House that they had no idea that this action would cause an outcry. This was followed by a bizarre press conference from Sean Spicer, carried out while hiding in the bushes and demanding journalists turn off all lights and cameras. But perhaps most bizarre has been the performance of Huckabee Sanders, a petulantly hostile and wholly unprofessional press conference in which she unleashed vitriolic and petty insults on Comey, a career lawman.

The Republican information minister Kellyanne Conway went on TV trying to convince everyone that the fact that Trump wrote in his own letter than he was not under investigation was definitive proof that he was innocent, and that the fact that Trump didn't mention Russia in his letter (even though he did!) was definitive proof that the firing had nothing to do with Russia. Simply childish in its absurdity and obvious deceit. Then barely a few hours later Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated Conway's lines almost word for word. Word for word. It points to an obvious co-ordinated effort by all party members.

This response has been palpably absurd, and I'll say again, childish in how obviously deceitful the whole thing looks.

Through all of this, the Republican Party is refusing to authorise an independent special investigation, incredibly claiming that one isn't needed, since there is already an ongoing investigation in the Republican controlled House, the Republican controlled Senate, and the soon-to-be Trump controlled FBI. The Republicans seriously want us to believe that they are going to investigate themselves thoroughly and impartially with no oversight, and then when they inevitably conclude there to be no evidence of wrongdoing among their own ranks, they expect everyone to accept this as a perfectly valid and objective assessment.

This is the big difference between how the Trump scandal unfolds and Watergate. Nixon tried all the same tricks as Trump, but in that instance Nixon's fellow Republicans broke ranks and took a stand against their own party for the sake of country. So far this has not happened with the Republican Party of 2017. Several Republicans have expressed concerns, but as of yet none have displayed a willingness to put country before party. This is clearly hugely concerning from an administration of justice point of view, but more to the point if actual crimes are being committed, then it indicates the legal complicity of much of the Republican Party. This could get messy.

What does all this mean?
This is arguably an even greater scandal than Watergate. Watergate was a crime of petty political theft, abuse of power, and associated cover up. It was a test of American democracy, but no more than that. Trump's Russia scandal and its associated crises are no less than an existential threat.

A hostile foreign power has already managed to directly influence our elections. They appear to have compromised our very Government with the current administration absolutely lousy with apparent agents and security risks. The administration has spent the last 6 months attacking the free media and the independent judiciary, and now appears to be attempting to seize control of the police force. All the while, the Republican Party appears perfectly content to let these events continue.

This is no longer a functioning democracy. When a President wields absolute power and subverts the very rule of law, that's not what happens in America. That's what happens in a tinpot dictatorship or banana republic. If the President is seriously allowed to just fire the police when they pry into his personal business, it eliminates any sense of legitimacy or confidence in the authorities and the rules which protect the citizenry from abuses of power.

If Trump manages to get away with this obvious cover up, if the police ceases to remain independent, if media freedoms continue to be eroded, then America can no longer claim to be a free democracy, it becomes a sham like Putin's Russia or Erdogan's Turkey.

So what now?
Now we wait. As I said, things have progressed at a lightning pace in the days since this political bombshell.

On Friday, the FBI raided the Annapolis offices of a Republican Party consulting firm. Later that day, the new acting Director of the FBI indicated that the White House is no longer to be trusted, and won't be given progress updates on the investigation. Leaks from FBI sources are coming to light at an alarming rate. And there you have Huckabee Sanders, acting like a bad SNL parody, feigning disbelief that anyone is still even talking about Russia. Anyone remember Comical Ali?

Even more concerning have been Trump's actions since Tuesday, tweeting threats at private citizens, indicating that he employs a Nixonian policy of recording all White House meetings, and shifting wildly in his explanation behind Comey's sacking. It just gets more and more absurd.

But perhaps the most shocking event took place on Wednesday, mere hours after firing James Comey. Trump met with Russian foreign dignitaries in the White House, behind closed doors providing exclusive access to Russian controlled state media, and absolutely no access to American media. We've reached a point where the Russian Government has moved into the White House and shut out the free press. This whole sorry ordeal was perfectly summed up by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who when questioned about the Comey sacking, disdainfully and mockingly replied "Really? You're kidding! You're kidding!". The Russian Government is literally laughing at us from within the White House.

But there is still hope. As it stands, the FBI is still under the stewardship of Comey's deputy Andrew McCabe, by all accounts an independent and unimpeachable lawman. If he can step up the Russia investigation before Trump manages to install his own puppet, we may yet see justice. Then there are all the other good men and women within the FBI who will no doubt make every effort to resist political influence over the investigation. The FBI has always been a beacon of integrity for America, so don't count them out yet.

Elsewhere we should be watching Rod Rosenstein, the deputy Attorney General and by all accounts a thoroughly honest and independent public servant. With Sessions recused from all things Russia, Rosenstein is in charge of managing that process, and if necessary appointing an independent prosecutor. Rosenstein allegedly threatened to quit in the aftermath of the Comey firing, it's possible the only reason he has not is to ensure the neutrality of the investigation. He may yet blow this whole thing wide open.

Lastly there is the Republican Party. There are plenty of honest, good public servants in that party, and the pressure is now on for them to decide if they want to do what is right, or just follow the party line. If Trump's approval continues to decline following this outcry, expect to start seeing them jump ship. And if not, there's always the possibility for a Democratic wave in 2018.

This is probably the single greatest test to our national identity that we have ever faced. A great deal depends on whether the Republicans in power ultimately decide to put party first, or country, and even more so on whether Americans finally decide to start caring about politics and vote in 2018. What unfolds over the coming months and years will determine whether the most powerful nation on Earth remains free and democratic, or lurches into autocracy and corruption. This matters, and it's something to which we should all be paying close attention

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