THE MORNING PLUM:
The past 12 hours brought two very big revelations involving former FBI director James B. Comey, President Trump and the Russia investigation, and they must be looked at side by side to fully grasp their collective importance.
- Comey’s memos of his conversations with Trump have leaked in full. This came after Republicans interfered in the Russia investigation by threatening to subpoena them from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, leading him to release them to Congress.
- Comey confirmed to Rachel Maddow that before getting fired, he ordered an internal investigation into whether Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani had been privately tipped off by people in the FBI two weeks before the election that Comey would soon announce that “new” emails had been found, reopening the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Importantly, Comey confirmed to Maddow that he doesn’t know the answer to that question, because he was fired before that investigation concluded.
First, the Comey memos. When you cut through all the noise, what they really reveal is a senior law enforcement official struggling to figure out in real time how to handle efforts by the president to turn him into a loyalist devoted to carrying out his political will in wildly inappropriate fashion. Comey’s memos recount in new detail that Trump repeatedly demanded his loyalty and that Trump pressed him to drop his probe into his then-national security adviser Michael Flynn.
We already knew those things happened via dogged reporting and Comey’s previous testimony to Congress. But now that we have the memos recounting them in full, contemporaneously, the consistency and credibility of this picture become a lot firmer. Simply put, the memos confirm that Trump did, in fact, try to exert a level of control over his FBI director, and over an ongoing investigation into his and his cronies’ conduct, that is wildly at odds with norms dictating that law enforcement should be free of political and/or presidential interference.
The Republican reaction, incredibly, has been to claim the memos vindicate Trump of any charge of obstruction of justice. The GOP chairmen of the House oversight, intelligence and judiciary committees put out a statement claiming that the real takeaway from them is that Comey “never wrote that he felt obstructed or threatened,” adding that “he never once mentioned the most relevant fact of all, which was whether he felt obstructed in his investigation.”
This is an extraordinary response. For one thing, Comey’s failure to spell out explicitly that he “felt obstructed” has no bearing on the question of whether Trump actually did obstruct justice. “Comey’s feelings about this are not relevant,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told me this morning. “What matters, politically at least as much as legally, is Trump’s intent in doing what he did.”
For another, the obstruction question also turns on what happened after all of this, which is that Trump fired Comey. These memos, if anything, confirm more credibly than before what Trump’s frame of mind was in leading up to that firing — that is, the level of acquiescence that Trump wanted but did not get from Comey before firing him. These memos go further than before in supplying Trump’s likely motive for the firing.
Importantly, the Republican response shows not a scintilla of concern about the Trump conduct that was actually documented by Comey — zero concern about Trump’s demand for his FBI director’s loyalty or his effort to influence the probe. We don’t know what special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will determine about Trump’s intent or about whether he obstructed justice. But what we do know is that these senior Republicans are not even slightly troubled by the misconduct that Comey has already documented, quite credibly.
Here’s what real oversight would look like
This brings us to the second big revelation. On Thursday night, Maddow played clips of Giuliani repeatedly hinting that something big was coming just days before Comey announced the “new” emails 11 days before Election Day. Maddow asked Comey point-blank if people at the FBI had tipped off Giuliani. Comey replied:
“Not that I know of. But I saw that same publicity. And so I commissioned an investigation to see if we could understand whether people were disclosing information out of the New York office or any other place that resulted in Rudy’s report on Fox. … I don’t know what the result of that was. I got fired before it was finished.”
To be clear on what this means: It is still an open question whether FBI personnel tipped off a top Trump surrogate about the status of an investigation into his political opponent. Now, this very well might not have happened. But this episode helps illustrate the depths of the GOP abdication we’re seeing.
Republicans have perverted the oversight process, turning it into a kind of shadow probe designed to discredit the real, legitimate investigation into Trump. To that end, Republicans are attacking the FBI as hopelessly politicized and corrupt. But real oversight of the FBI — rather than bad-faith “oversight” designed merely to shield Trump from accountability — would scrutinize legitimately serious potential revelations about the FBI, such as the one revealed by Comey last night about Giuliani.
In short, Congress should want to know what came of that internal reckoning Comey ordered. “If there [was] a connection between the FBI and a committed surrogate of one of the candidates, that’s a very serious issue,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), the No. 2 on the House Intelligence Committee, told me, adding that functional oversight would want to determine “exactly what transpired between the New York office and the Trump campaign.” But that isn’t happening. Congress, Himes noted, has basically become Trump’s “defense attorney.”
To be clear, the fact that Republicans strong-armed the release of the Comey memos in the first place, and the fact that they promptly leaked, both set bad precedents when it comes to political interference in ongoing investigations. But now that it did happen, there’s no way to argue that this outcome is vindicating for Trump. The opposite is true.
* TRUMP’S ABSURD CLAIM ABOUT COMEY MEMOS: Trump is also claiming vindication:
Trump’s argument on obstruction is absurd, for the reasons noted above. His claim about collusion is even more ridiculous. The memos detail conversations between Comey and Trump. Why would evidence on collusion either way emerge in these conversations, coming so early in the investigation?
* TRUMP ADVISERS ‘ANXIOUS’ ABOUT CALLS FOR PROSECUTION: The Post reports that Trump has privately amplified his claims that Comey, former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and Hillary Clinton should be locked up:
Trump … loudly and repeatedly complained to several advisers earlier this week that … Comey … McCabe and … Clinton, among others, should be charged with crimes for misdeeds alleged by Republicans, the associates said. … the persistent grousing has made some advisers anxious, according to two people close to the president.
Yes, working for a raging, out-of-control authoritarian probably does get a wee bit taxing on occasion.
* WHY TRUMP HIRED RUDY: The New York Times reports on the real reasons Trump brought Giuliani on to his legal team:
In hiring Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Trump has turned to someone who is a reliable, loyal surrogate and an attack dog on television. … Mr. Giuliani, by contrast, is coming on board as a short-timer not only to appear on television but also to see if he can use his decades-long ties with Mr. Mueller to re-establish a working relationship with the special counsel’s team.
This is supposed to help with the negotiations over Trump’s sit-down interview with Mueller, as if Giuliani can somehow make Trump’s unfitness for this face off vanish.
* COHEN IS ‘CONSUMING’ TRUMP: CNN reports that multiple officials say Trump is far more worried about the case against his lawyer Michael Cohen than he is about the Comey book or Russia investigation:
The President has told multiple people this week at Mar-a-lago … that he believes Comey’s book has had little impact on him. … “So far he’s weathered Comey,” a Republican who spoke to the President at Mar-a-lago this week. “It’s Cohen that’s consuming him.” … Cohen is considered “a wild card that we can do little to nothing about,” one of the officials said.
Given what #Foxlandia has been saying about Comey, it’s surprising that Trump isn’t totally convinced that Comeypalooza has given him a huge boost.
* IN SENATE BATTLE, GOP DIVISIONS LOOM LARGE: The Post reports that GOP strategists are worried that intra-party battling could harm the GOP’s chances of holding the Senate:
McConnell’s allies have launched major ad campaigns against two Republican Senate candidates they see as potential liabilities in the general election — former coal baron Don Blankenship in West Virginia and Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel. Other races, in Indiana and Montana, are quickly becoming costly slugfests, distracting the party from its central mission of dislodging vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Republicans mostly vanquished this problem in 2014, enabling them to take over the Senate. But these divisions are taking on a whole new ferocity with the Trumpification of the GOP.
* REPUBLICANS FRET ABOUT TENNESSEE: The Post story also reports that Republicans are panicking about the Tennessee Senate race, after GOP Sen. Bob Corker praised Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen, who is challenging GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn:
The remarks set off alarm bells at the highest levels of the Republican Party … Trump called Blackburn … and promised to help her campaign … McConnell told Corker his comments were unhelpful — both in the Tennessee race and in the larger battle for the Senate majority.
If Dems can somehow win Tennessee, the path to the Senate majority becomes a lot more plausible, since Dems need to net only two seats and both Nevada and Arizona are in play.
* McCONNELL RUSHES TO CONFIRM JUDGES: Politico reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), worried that Democrats might take the Senate, is rushing to confirm as many judges as possible to reshape the courts:
Trump has already nominated 69 judges, but there are 149 total vacancies. GOP leaders say McConnell is intent on filling as many as he can this year, in part out of concern that Democrats take back the Senate … McConnell allowed only 20 confirmations of district and circuit judges during Obama’s last two years, a modern low according to congressional statistics.
This could have long-term repercussions. And don’t forget McConnell’s successful theft of a Supreme Court seat, which will also leave a mark for who knows how long.
* WITH TAX CUTS FAILING, WHAT WILL GOP RUN ON? Paul Krugman notes that the GOP tax law is failing as a messaging weapon and asks what Republicans will run on instead:
Claims to be the defenders of family values have lost their punch partly because the public has become far more socially tolerant .. Flag-waving … are much more problematic for a G.O.P. that looks more and more like the party of Putin. Still, Republicans needn’t despair. After all, they’ll always have racism to fall back on. … I predict that we’ll be seeing a lot of implicit — even explicit — appeals to racism in the months ahead.
Indeed, in places such as Virginia and Pennsylvania’s 18th District, we’ve already seen Republicans ramp up the xenophobia and Trumpism, and this will only get worse.