THE MORNING PLUM:
With President Trump’s blessing, Republicans are preparing to launch a major counter-offensive against former FBI director James B. Comey, who is set to embark on a book promotion tour that could make explosive claims about Trump’s conduct, CNN is reporting this morning.
Comey’s new book is set to drop next week, and it will likely trigger a huge spin war over its revelations. There will be a powerful temptation for neutral observers to proclaim that both parties are being equivalently inconsistent about Comey. But this is wrong, and caving to this temptation will only help bad-faith actors accomplish their goal of obfuscating the true nature and points of disagreement in this debate, which have important public consequences.
CNN reports that the Republican National Committee’s battle plan includes digital ads and a new website that will brand Comey as “Lyin’ Comey.” One key to this line of attack will be Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, about which Republicans will push several claims:
“Comey has a long history of misstatements and misconduct,” including damage caused to the FBI because of “bizarre decisions, contradictory statements and acting against Department of Justice and FBI protocol.”
“Comey isn’t credible — just ask Democrats.” The digital ads will show several Democrats calling for Comey’s resignation after he injected himself into the 2016 presidential race …
CNN reports that Republicans will argue that Comey overstepped his boundaries — a reference in part to his decision to announce at a July 2016 news conference that he had closed the probe into Clinton while also strongly criticizing her. Republicans, then, will cite Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, and Democratic criticism of it, as reasons that we should question Comey’s credibility.
But at the time, Republicans themselves repeatedly used Comey’s criticism at that press conference as ammunition against then-candidate Clinton. This includes the Republican National Committee, which ran ads featuring footage of Comey’s presser. Trump himself quoted Comey’s comments to blast Clinton (though he completely misrepresented those comments) as a “disgrace and and embarrassment to our country.” The Republican argument, then, is that Comey’s criticism of Clinton — which Republicans and Trump themselves repeatedly cited — is grounds to question his credibility right now.
This display of disingenuous bad-faith nonsense mirrors what we’ve seen right from the top. Trump himself absurdly used Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe as his phony pretext for firing Comey, even though he had wielded Comey’s criticism as campaign ammo. Now he’s going to cite it to delegitimize Comey’s criticism of his own efforts to obstruct and derail the investigation into his and his cronies’ conduct, a good deal of which is a matter of public record at this point.
Republicans will muddy the waters further around this by pointing out that Democrats criticized that Comey conduct then, and by arguing that they are merely making the same argument now that Democrats did. Republicans will say on this basis that if Democrats currently seize on Comey’s criticism of Trump, it’s inconsistent. But there simply isn’t an equivalent inconsistency here. The Democratic argument is that Comey’s conduct toward Clinton was wrong — their argument is still the same on this front — and that Comey’s current testimony about Trump’s conduct has legitimate revelatory value.
We should of course reserve judgment about the second point until we hear what Comey has to say. But there’s nothing inherently contradictory or inconsistent about making those two arguments simultaneously. Both of them can easily coexist as correct. Comey’s current claims very well may have inherent news value for what they tell us about the current president’s conduct — we can evaluate these claims against an existing set of known facts about that conduct — and there’s no reason that critics of Comey’s previous conduct toward Clinton are somehow disqualified from saying so.
Republicans are not simply offering an argument that is the partisan inverse of the Democratic argument. If they were doing that, they’d say something like, “Comey was right when he criticized Clinton, but he’s wrong about Trump.” But they are saying something different, something like this: “Even though we cited Comey’s criticism of Clinton at the time, we’re now saying he was wrong to offer it, which proves his criticism of Trump is not to be believed.”
This is just the old Republican fog machine at work. And it may be effective. But observers who succumb to the seductive idea that there is an equivalence in partisan rhetorical gamesmanship here will just be rewarding the asymmetric disingenuousness and bad faith that suffuses the GOP argument, by helping to spread the confusion — and distraction from potentially legitimate revelations about Trump’s conduct — that it is designed to sow.
* GOP SENATOR: FIRING MUELLER WOULD END TRUMP PRESIDENCY: Bloomberg Politics reports on Sen. Bob Corker’s latest comments:
“I’ve shared with the president it would be a tremendous mistake on his part to fire him. I think it would end his presidency as he knows it. I don’t think he understands how vehemently people would respond to that, because we have faith in Mueller. We do not believe he is corrupt.”
Sure, but can that compete with all the voices in #Foxlandia telling him that firing Mueller would be the just and strong response, and would be greeted with public accolades?
* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT HOLDING SENATE: The New York Times reports that Republicans increasingly think the House may be gone, and thus urgently want to hold the Senate. Note this from former Mitch McConnell chief of staff Billy Piper:
“It seems clear now that the fight is to hold the Senate. The first thing a Democrat House majority would do is begin impeachment proceedings. The second would be to undo tax reform. A GOP Senate will stop both of those things and continue to put conservatives on the bench at a record pace.”
In other words, the dream of the achievements of one-party rule has given away to an urgent desire to stave off impeachment and protect their one big gain — tax cuts.
* RYAN’S DEPARTURE COULD LEAD TO MORE RETIREMENTS: Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman explains how Ryan’s retirement could have a broad impact on GOP efforts to hold the House:
Ryan’s announcement … is a deep blow to his party’s morale … his early lame duck status could hamper the ability of his PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, to raise money to defend other GOP incumbents badly in need of air cover. … As of today, there are still 19 states where filing deadlines haven’t passed, home to 58 GOP members who are currently running for reelection but still could retire.
Wasserman also calculates that 80 GOP-held House seats are currently “in play.” More retirements could edge that number upward.
* RYAN’S DEPARTURE COULD HARM GOP FUNDRAISING: The Washington Examiner’s David Drucker reports on more fallout:
Veteran GOP operatives and nervous House Republicans … warned that Ryan’s decision … would handicap the fundraising power of the speaker’s gavel, removing a crucial weapon from the GOP arsenal … In the Republican-held seats where control of the House is likely to be contested, Trump tends to be unpopular, and the GOP badly needs money to hold on amid the expected Democratic onslaught.
On the Democratic side, fundraising will be driven by massive grass-roots energy and anger at Trump, potentially further exacerbating this problem for Republicans.
*REPUBLICANS ANGRY AT WHITE HOUSE BUDGET GAMES: Trump is angry about having signed the big omnibus spending bill, and now wants to somehow undo some of the spending in it. Politico reports that Republicans are in revolt:
More than a half-dozen appropriators … have voiced skepticism about the Trump administration’s proposal to cancel billions in spending. Nearly all said they feared that it could erode the GOP’s bargaining power in future budget talks. … The White House is seeking to essentially take a scalpel to last month’s $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill, scratching out any funding that Trump doesn’t personally back.
It’s very hard to believe Trump’s anger is rooted in objections to specific spending provisions, as opposed to rage over not getting to build his Lego border wall.
* RYAN’S REAL LEGACY: E.J. Dionne Jr. reminds us that, while Paul Ryan has rhetorically backed away from harsher expressions of his Ayn Randian ideology, he stuck with it to the end, which is why he enabled Trump:
His policies suggested he never abandoned his core faith: If the wealthy did best when given positive incentives in the form of more money, the less fortunate needed to be prodded by less generous social policies into taking responsibility for their own fate. … it is unsurprising that he would prop Trump up as long as the president was willing to embrace a modern-day social Darwinism … The retiring speaker really does believe that this is the path to the good society. To pursue it, he’ll take help wherever he can get it.
Exactly right. Ryan probably viewed enabling Trump as a relatively small price to pay in exchange for realizing this vision. Good thing he didn’t get very far.
* AND THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, TRUMP CHAOS EDITION: The Post reports that White House advisers were blindsided by Trump’s tweet yesterday about sending “nice” and “smart” missiles into Syria. As one West Wing aide rants:
“It’s just like everybody wakes up every morning and does whatever is right in front of them. Oh, my God, Trump Tower is on fire. Oh, my God, they raided Michael Cohen’s office. Oh, my God, we’re going to bomb Syria. Whatever is there is what people respond to, and there is no proactive strategic thinking.”
Good thing a successful businessman with one of the world’s great temperaments is in charge.