Monday, May 15, 2017

Comey Comedy

In case you were backpacking in Borneo last week and hadn’t heard, the Most Powerful Man On Earth (and Grand Imperial Poohbah) fired his insufficiently loyal FBI Director.

That was the easy part. Trump was either always planning to fire Comey (after being outraged that Comey didn’t insist Hillary be indicted) or blowing kisses at him (literally and figuratively) after Comey’s yes-she-did-no-she-didn’t just before the election, or “furious” that Comey hadn’t set the entire FBI to the sole purpose of finding leakers, or whatever else he might have been thinking at any moment since then. You can check with his crack communications staff to get an annotated hour-to-hour sense of the Trumpian mood, with an approximate 50% certainty that it would be half right.

Exhausting, isn’t it?  Watching the Good Ship Trump is like chasing a gaggle of 4-year-olds after the video-game and candy-corn portion of a high-end Pre-K graduation party. The well-groomed parents practice their proud-but-tolerant-but-slightly-pained smiles as they watch the future heirs to the throne thoroughly wreck the place.  All while praying that none of this goes viral since there are still a couple of kids on Kindergarten wait-lists.

OK, we can leave the future grown-ups and return to the present superannuated children, because at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s always one big party, with Donnie hacking at the Twitter piñata, and Spicey playing hide-and-seek.  

And life goes on. Trump hires, Trump fires, Trump blurts out nonsense and threats, Trump signs an Executive Order mandating all Federal Employees wear MAGA sleepwear (manufactured in China), Trump invites strange people with Russian accents to the White House, Trump goes to his favorite safe spaces (Mar-A-Lago, Fox, Liberty University). Trump is just Trump-like.

Can’t something be done to stop this lunatic? Not really. Forget the 25th Amendment: Trump isn’t voluntarily stepping aside and, despite all the arm-chair psychologists out there, “shouldn’t be President” isn’t incapacity.  Impeachment? Lawrence Tribe has a piece in the Washington Post where he lays out a lawyer’s case for impeachment.  It’s well-written, but completely divorced from reality.

Let’s start with the legal hurdles. “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” lacks a specific Constitutional definition, but being a crass potty-mouthed bully doesn’t meet the standard.  Nor ignorance in policy, nor serial truth-massager, nor tawdry, nor just about any other pejorative you can lay on him. Even “grifter” isn’t going to be dispositive, since a lot of grifting is just “grifty” and not necessarily “emolumenty”.

Now, to the political. First is a straight-out numbers game. To impeach, you need a majority of the House and 67 votes in the Senate. Suffice to say that’s not happening any time soon. Impeachment wouldn’t even get out of committee right now. Remember, 90% of Republicans profess public support for Trump, and many of those believe that he’s being unfairly persecuted by a biased media and bitter Democrats. After 2018? Forget it. Even if Democrats take back the House (a longshot) they will be lucky to just hold their serve in the Senate.

Second, Trump is, on the fly, reinventing what normal is.  Previous Presidents of both parties displayed a certain public decorum and went by a group of largely unwritten rules about what was and was not acceptable. A visit to Trump-land rewrites every single one of them. More accurately, it covers them with graffiti to the point they become almost unrecognizable. In just four months, Trump has taken us past the point where we feel shock. We may never do this again with any other President, but as it applies to Trump, excesses are simply superfluous.

Why Trump? Yes, some of this is just political expediency—there’s no question that the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of the world are fully aware of the Faustian Bargain they have made. But with Trump’s real base, the ones he’s made an emotional connection with, there’s something different going on, almost a peculiar folie à deux, a sharing in a certain view of the world. “I just want to get things done”, I heard from a Trump supporter last week.   

In a nutshell, I think that’s what saves Trump. Trump isn’t Teflon—rather he’s an entirely different species that has rendered the term “gaffe” irrelevant. His supporters will not judge him the way they would just about any other politician. They aren’t really engaging in hypocrisy, they are just throwing out the script entirely.

Trump is acutely aware of this, and it liberates him to act the way he does, on impulse, with apparent disregard for the consequences.  But it has risks for him as well—he’s insulating himself from alternate views and ever-narrowing his horizon. He’s not paying attention to the details of what he signs—regardless of whether it would adversely impact the very loyalists who would go to the ramparts for him.  And he’s lost his ear for any music other than his own. 

The Comey firing is Exhibit A in this. Trump (and whatever advisors he happened to trust at the moment) assumed that this was comparatively risk-free. They whipped up a soufflé of a memo from Rod Rosenstein, the Deputy AG, coupled it with a solemn recommendation from the distinguished Jeff Sessions, and rolled it out there. They counted on (and got) mostly lockstep Republican support.  But they misjudged the Democrats, whom they expected to cheer. What they failed to realize is that Democrats don’t have lingering nostalgia for Hillary—rather they have a sense of being personally cheated. The Rosenstein Memo actually added fuel to the fire.  Comey made two seminal decisions—to break with Department policy with regard to Clinton’s emails, and to keep to Department policy with regard to Trump’s Russian contacts. From the Democrats’ perspective, Comey was bitter medicine they had to accept—and now Trump was pushing away the poisoned chalice before he had to take his sip.

There are a lot of Democrats who are convinced that the Russian angle will never be properly investigated. We won’t see Trump tax returns because Donald says no. There’s not going to be an Independent Counsel, because Senate Republicans won’t permit it. In the end, Judge and Jury are going to be picked by Trump. The “recused” Jeff Sessions will help select Comey’s successor. That successor, whomever he or she is, is going to take the job knowing full-well what The Boss wants, and that service is at the pleasure of an easily displeased President. As to the FBI itself, the general professionalism of the rank and file is beyond question, but every one of them will have a consciousness of the environment in which careers are made or sacrificed.

Is there hope for normalcy, post Comey? I’m pessimistic. There has been talk of a White House shake up, but it’s hard to see how Trump changes himself enough to be willing to bring in professionalism and voices other than his own. The drift of the Republicans in the Senate is to dislike Trump personally but to work around him so a legislative agenda can be enacted. They will run interference for him as long as it profits them, and that could be quite some time. Ryan has an entirely different problem—first, Devin Nunes embarrassed him more than he would admit. Second, he runs a Gerrymandered House caucus where the firebrands are calling the tune from safe districts, while more centrist Republicans are at risk next year.  And Ryan looks weak—lacking in integrity and stature. He may not have the juice to shift the House into a more independent mode when the time comes.

That leaves us with all Trump, all the time. Four years of him.

Where are the laughs?

May 15, 2017

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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