Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Comey Hearing, or A Really Tall Guy In Front Of The Senate Intelligence Committee

Look familiar?
So the Comey hearing came and went and, much like that trip to Disneyworld you took when you were a kid in 1974, it didn't quite live up to all the hype. The left has been crowing that it is an indictment of trump and proof that he is a dastardly villain, missing only the black cape and handlebar mustache. The right has been shrieking about how trump has been completely vindicated, the Russia story is completely made up, and Democrats are nothing more than a bunch of crybabies.

Both of these groups are wrong, and both of them are indicative of the fundamental problem with our government these days. In addition to casting some much-needed sunlight on the shadowy dealings of the trump administration (fewer than liberals want, more than conservatives care to admit), it highlighted the basic dysfunction of our government: that every action, hearing, press conference, photo opportunity, floor speech, legislative debate, and so on is less about running the country than it is about scoring partisan points.

I realize at this point there are probably a bunch of you out there saying "Well, DUH," like I have taken complete leave of my senses and lost all capacity for critical thinking. To which I say, this is my blog, dammit, and I can say what I want. Moving right along ...

Of course, I can't expect you take my word for it, can I? Therefore, I am going to go through the hearing (I read the transcript. Twice. And took notes.) and present my thoughts on each observation. But first, the cast of characters.

There is James Comey, of course, and donald trump, and Loretta Lynch and Bill and Hillary Clinton make guest appearances. Then there's the Senate Committee on Intelligence, in alphabetical order:

Roy Blunt, R-MO, present
Richard Burr, R-NC, Chairman, present
Susan Collins, R-ME, present
John Cornyn, R-TX, present
Tom Cotton, R-AR, present
Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, Former Chairman, present
Kamala Harris, D-CA, present
Martin Heinrich, D-NM, present
Angus King, I-ME, present
James Lankford, R-OK, present
Joe Manchin, D-WV, present
John McCain, R-AZ (Ex officio), present
Mitch McConnell, R-KY (Ex officio), absent
Jack Reed, D-RI (Ex officio), present
Jim Risch, R-ID, present
Marco Rubio, R-FL, present
Chuck Schumer, D-NY (Ex officio), absent
Mark Warner, D-VA, Vice-Chairman, present
Ron Wyden, D-OR, present

So now the stage is set, and we can dive right in.

First observation: every single one of the Senators, with the exception of Marco Rubio, Martin Heinrich, Angus King, Tom Cotton, and John McCain took a moment to thank Comey for appearing, and most of those took an extra moment to acknowledge his service to country (some, like Jack Reed, were fine with a simple "Thank you for appearing," while others were more effusive). However, Rubio, Hienrich, King, Cotton, and McCain simply dispensed with all niceties and jumped right in to the questioning. Whether this is a good or bad I will leave up to the reader to decide.

What follows is a member-by-member accounting of what happened. I will attempt to remain as factual as possible; where I veer off into the realm of opinion I will very clearly identify it as such. So, in order of appearance ...

Richard Burr, R-NC (Chairman)
Senator Burr took several minutes to a) thank Director Comey for appearing to testify, b) provide an overview of the Senate Intelligence Committee's mission in general and in terms of this hearing in particular, and c) to provide the basic framework under which the other members would be operating (seven minutes for each member, and so on). He then turned things over to Senator Mark Warner.

Mark Warner, D-VA (Vice-Chairman)
Senator Warner took the opportunity to go into a little more detail as to the nature of the hearing: what it was about, what the committee hoped to accomplish by holding the hearing, and a brief summation of the relevant events up to that date.

Richard Burr again
Burr swore in Comey and advised him that he is now under oath. He recognized Comey and granted him the floor "for as long as you might need."

James Comey, Former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation
Comey gave a brief history of events and expressed his confusion and concern over the multiple stories coming from the White House concerning the reason for his firing, after which the questioning began.

Richard Burr some more
Burr pretty much kept to hard facts. He asked if Comey's written testimony had been reviewed and/or edited by the Office of the Special Counsel (it hadn't). He asked if Comey had any doubt that Russia was behind the intrusion into the DCCC's and DNC's computer systems (he didn't). He asked if he had any doubt that Russia was behind cyber intrusion into state voter files (he didn't). He asked if he was confident that no votes in the 2016 were altered, either electronically or otherwise (he was).

Comey also testified that, while trump was not directly under investigation, Comey was not able to get unanimous consent from his leadership in the FBI to publicly state this. The reasoning here is that the investigation was ongoing and one could never tell where it would lead (a la the Starr investigation into Whitewater which lead to the whole Lewinsky thing). In Comey's words, "when you start turning over rocks, sometimes you find things that are unrelated to the primary investigation that are criminal in nature."

In short, Burr confined himself to things that could objectively be verified. Unfortunately, this would be one of the only times we saw this even-handed approach, as several of the other Senators appeared to have axes to grind and viewed Comey as the perfect sharpening stone. But more on that as we come across it.

My opinion: non-partisan.

Mark Warner again
Senator Warner took a more partisan approach, albeit in the cloak of objectivity. His questions were respectful and factually based, but his overall tone suggested that he was trying to convict trump in this hearing and get it over with.

My opinion: Somewhat partisan

James Risch, R-ID
Senator Risch was the first to really dive into the weeds. The first part of his seven minutes was spent trying to discredit a February 14th article from the New York Times in which the Times alleged connections between Russian operatives and trump associates. He asked why Director Comey did not issue a statement to correct the article. Comey replied that it is considered common practice to not do so when the investigation involves sensitive material as it might compromise security.

Risch spent the rest of his time parsing the word "hope" in the context of trump asking Comey "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go." Comey maintained throughout that, given the fact that it was the President of the United States saying this in the Oval Office, even though it was not a direct order it would reasonably be taken as such, given the context. Risch replied "You don't know of anyone ever being charged for hoping something, is that a fair statement?"

My opinion? Blatantly partisan, trying to get trump off the hook in much the same way Warner was trying to hang him on it, but the partisanship was much more naked here.

Dianne Feinstein, D-CA
Feinstein started by asking Comey why he thought he had been fired from his position as Director of the FBI. Comey responded that he didn't know for sure but that, based on what trump has said, he was fired as a result of the Russia investigation.

Feinstein continued by acknowledging and paraphrasing what Comey had said to Risch: that the Oval Office could be an intimidating place, especially when the President is making a direct request. She then asked "But why didn't you stop and say, Mr. President, this is wrong. I cannot discuss this with you." Comey replied "I was so stunned by the conversation that I just took in. The only thing I could think to say, because I was playing in my mind -- because I could remember every word he said -- I was playing in my mind, what should my response be? That's why I carefully chose the words."

My opinion: Feinstein's focus seemed to be mainly centered around wrongdoing on the part of the trump administration. I rate her as being mildly partisan.

Marco Rubio, D-FL
Rubio seemed to be focusing on the asks from trump of Comey:

  1. Asking for Comey's loyalty.
  2. Saying that he "hoped" the Flynn investigation would go away. Not a formal ask, but when the President says he hopes something happens, and he says this in the Oval Office, it's not a stretch of logic to interpret this as a strong request, if not a direct order.
  3. Publicly state that trump personally is not being investigated.

To his credit, Comey did not comply with any of these.

My opinion: Rubio was trying for a partisan advantage, but his line of questioning turned out to be a dead end in that area and it didn't pan out for him. I rate this as non-partisan, but not for a lack of trying.

Martin Heinrich, D-NM
Senator Heinrich was the slickest of the bunch in that he was able to score partisan points without appearing to be partisan at all. To start, he gave Comey the opportunity to make the following statement:

"The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active measures campaign driven from the top of that government. There is no fuzz on that. It is a high confidence judgment of the entire intelligence community and the members of this committee have seen the intelligence. It's not a close call. That happened. That's about as unfake as you can possibly get."

Heinrich then shifted focus to the trump team attempting to "set up a sort of backdoor communication channel with the Russian government using their infrastructure, their devices, their facilities." Comey testified to this point that, in a hypothetical sense (he refused to comment in an open setting as to specifics), it was easier for the Russians because "[y]ou spare the Russians the cost and effort to break into our communications channels by using theirs. You make it a whole lot easier for them to capture all of your conversations."

My opinion: Heinrich created a partisan result from a non-partisan line of questioning. Kudos for skill on this one, but it still misses the "trying to be objective about this whole thing" point. I rate his performance as partisan.

Roy Blunt, R-MO
In one of the most blatantly partisan approaches of the entire hearing, Senator Blunt attempting to cast doubt on Comey's credibility by asking why he continued to take calls from trump even after he told Attorney General sessions that all communications should go through the AG. Apparently Blunt has never heard of the notion that when the President calls, you pick up.

He then sought clarification as to whether Comey's notes were official documents or personal ones. Comey said they were personal, and nobody else seemed to have an issue with this.

My opinion: Blatantly partisan, and in a particularly clumsy and inartful fashion.

Angus King, I-ME (he caucuses with the Democrats, though)
Senator King jumped right of the gate with a question as whether, in Comey's opinion, the Russian interference in the election was a one-and-done thing, or would we see future attempts. Comey testified that "it is a long-term practice of theirs. It's stepped up a notch in a significant way in '16. They'll be back."

King then sought clarification as to whether or not the dinner with trump was trump's idea or Comey's. Comey said that it was initiated by a phone call from trump, and manages to get in a shout-out to his wife when he said that he had been forced to break a date with his wife to have dinner with trump (again, when the President calls, you pick up), saying "I love spending time with my wife and I wish I would have been there that night."

King's approach seemed to be to cast doubt on trump's veracity (not that this would take much), by asking Comey whether it was true that Comey had called trump, as trump had claimed. Comey said "I never initiated a communication with the president."

My opinion: King, being an independent, is by definition non-partisan. However, because he caucuses with the Democrats, we have to view him in that light. That being said, I would rate his performance as slightly partisan in questioning, moderately partisan in results.

James Lankford, R-OK
Senator Lankford, apparently, was the Designated Republican Shill for this hearing. He started his questioning by asking Comey why he thought trump's "I hope we can drop the Flynn thing" statement was such a big deal when it was never mentioned again by trump, the White House staff, the Director of National Intelligence, the Attorney General, the Department of Justice, or the head of the National Security Administration. He followed this line of reasoning to a (flawed, obviously) implied conclusion that a) either trump never said this, at which point Comey is lying (forget that he's under oath and all that), or 2) it was never a big deal in the first place and Comey is overreacting.

Lankford is also trying to paint trump in positive light by pointing out that, even though he has the authority to stop the investigation, he has not done so. Granted, there is a very real possibility that trump is not aware of this ...

My opinion: Lankford was noting more than the token Wild-Eyed Republican whose main goal of the hearing was to vindicate trump of any and all accusations of everything and show everybody that he's really an awesome guy and if everyone would just let him do his thing the country would be great again and everybody wold have money, and fame, and more money, and fancy cars, and the world would be a wonderful place.

Of course, this only applies to rich white male Republicans. Everybody else can go screw themselves, because they don't matter.

I rate Lankford's performance as ludicrously partisan.

Joe Manchin, D-WV
Senator Manchin was lobbing softballs. He asked Comey about trump's interest in the Russia investigation (almost identical to the question asked by Senator Angus King), giving Comey the opportunity to wax poetic about how this was not a Democrat or Republican thing but an American thing, that "this great experiment of ours is a threat to them," and that "as difficult as we can be with each other, we remain that shining city on the hill."

He then asked about Robert Mueller, and whether or not he would be "thorough and complete" in his investigation as Special Counsel. Comey replied by saying that he would indeed, and that Mueller is "one of the finest people and public servants this country has ever produced."

My opinion: Manchin is, to some people, a DINO (Democrat In Name Only) in that he has pretty strong conservative creds and there have been rumors that he may defect to the GOP. Given that, I don't know if we can tag him as being partisan; if anything, he was anti-partisan, slightly boosting the Republican case that trump is NOT a serial liar, philanderer, and cheat. Therefore I will rate this performance as non-partisan.

Tom Cotton, R-AR
Tom Cotton is one of the most partisan members of the Senate, but without the intellectual power of someone like Mitch McConnell (who isn't really the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but who is very canny and shrewd). Cotton's questioning began with trying to get Comey to state that there was no connection between Russia and the trump team. Comey didn't fall for it, and that line of questioning fell flat.

Cotton's next gambit was to focus on a New York Times article form February 14th, headlined "Trump campaign aides had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence," by asking "Would it be fair to characterize that story as almost entirely wrong?" Comey replied in the affirmative.

My opinion: First, the tactic of trying to exonerate trump failed, and failed big. Second, the focus on the NYT article is irrelevant ... it's not the first time a major paper got a story wrong (remember "Dewey Defeats Truman?"). I would rate this performance as not only wildly partisan, but also flat-out stupid. Not that I would expect anything else from Tom Cotton.

Kamala Harris, D-CA
Senator Harris asked many questions of Comey, all of which got the same reply: "I cannot answer that in an open setting." It seemed like she was going for the spear that would slay the trumpian dragon, but fell short. Of course, once the closed session began, she may have gotten something ... we won't know for sure unless the hearing transcript is declassified.

My opinion: Harris was going for the jugular, partisanship-wise. The fact that she failed had everything to do with her asking about sensitive material. I rate her performance as highly partisan.

John Cornyn, R-TX
Cornyn started his questioning with a legit question: if an FBI agent becomes aware of criminal activity, is he or she under a legal obligation to report it? Comey replied that he did not know about a legal obligation, but there is certainly an ethical one.

Cornyn then focused the rest of his time on the Clinton email thing,  hammering the point that a special counsel was not named despite repeated requests from Congress to AG Loretta Lynch to do so (including from Cornyn). Comey said that he decided a special counsel would have been "unfair" because "I knew there was no case there."

He finished up his questioning by asking "Do you think it's unreasonable for anyone, any president, who has been assured on multiple occasions that he's not the subject of an FBI investigation, do you think it's unreasonable for them to want the FBI director to publicly announce that, so that this cloud over his administration would be removed?" To which Comey replied that it was a reasonable point of view, but that it was inadvisable because of the possibility of "a duty to correct."

My opinion: John Cornyn has always had a naked hatred of the Clintons, and saw this as an opportunity to beat that dead horse one more time. I rate his performance as off-the-charts partisan, and also a bit ridiculous.

Jack Reed, D-RI
Senator Reed asked Comey if the direction in which the Russian investigation was headed could include the president. Comey said in theory, yes, but was not willing to make a definitive yea/nay statement.

My opinion: Reed appeared to be trying to convict trump right off the bat, but was derailed by Comey sticking to the facts as he knew them. I rate is performance as highly partisan.

John McCain, R-AZ
Senator McCain's questioning was not quite as unhinged as everybody is making it out to be. Yes, he asked why the investigation into Clinton's email server was closed while the trump investigation was not, but seemed unable (or unwilling) to grasp the concept of the Clinton investigation being completed while the trump investigation is still ongoing. Comey explained that the Clinton investigation had run its course and did not turn up any prosecutable offense, but the trump investigation is still in the early stages and it is too soon to draw conclusions.

McCain then asked about Clinton's involvement with Russian interference in the election by saying "you made the announcement there would be no charges brought against then-Secretary Clinton for any activities involved in the Russia involvement and our engagement in our election." Apparently, the fact that Clinton had no involvement with Russian interference -- except, of course, as the primary target and intended victim -- didn't register with him.

My opinion: Yes, he came off as a little nutty, as that crazy old uncle that keeps getting invited to Thanksgiving even though nobody really likes him and all he does is rant about irrelevant topics, but he was also using blunt-force partisanship to try to cast doubt on Comey's testimony. I rate his performance as highly partisan, and possibly as an indication of impending dementia.

So there you have it. The entire hearing, wrapped up in a nice little package. Now, I would like to make some observations here.

First, I find these public hearings to be more than a little ridiculous. Let's face it, with subject matter like this, nothing of substance is going to come out of a public hearing because so much of the relevant information is classified and forbidden from public consumption. These hearings are nothing more than political theater, a chance for some Senators to get some face time on camera and burnish their partisan reputations. Out of the two and a half hours of testimony, all we heard was what Comey had written in his seven page initial testimony, released a few days ago ... it was just massaged and tilted this way and that to show different faces.

Second, this hearing points to a larger issue: both parties are concerned more with the balance of power within Washington than they are concerned with the lives of those outside the Beltway. This is actually nothing new; it's only the prevalence of social media and the 24/7 news cycle that has given it more visibility. However, the fact remains that, in any given situation, Congress is going to act according to what is best for the next election cycle, or what will bring in the most campaign donations, or what will make the other side look as ineffectual and ridiculous as possible, and everybody who is not a member of Congress of a big donor to their campaign coffers ... well, if it works out in their favor, it is sheerly by accident.

Third, the fundamental thing that everybody seems to be overlooking here is that trump is not a legitimate president. Yes, he won the Electoral College, but only because a foreign power put their finger on the scales. He lost the popular vote. He has alienated virtually every world leader, so much so that the leaders of European countries are going to bypass the President and the White House and go directly to the states when it comes to the Paris Climate Accord. He has approval ratings that would make Nixon gulp.

donald trump is turning the United States into a second-rate Third World nation, and the Republicans are doing nobody any favors by going along with it in the name of bolstering their short-term agenda. The Democrats aren't helping, either, by painting all trump supporters with the same broad "they're all a bunch of idiot yokels" brush.

The partisanship has to come to an end. Republicans and Democrats need to put party aside for a bit and focus on country, and the people therein. Otherwise we are all doomed to an endless display of petty bickering and constant games of one-upmanship, and the people of the United States -- you know, the ones for whom these clowns are supposed to be working -- are going to bear the brunt.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Is Trump Ushering In The Federalism Of Stupidity?

As trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, governors from several states -- California, Washington, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont -- joined forces to announce they would continue working toward meeting the goals of the accord. The very next day, the European Union announced it would work directly with American states and businesses to uphold the goals of the agreement. Which raises an interesting question: is the United States becoming irrelevant on the world stage?

President trump's actions in the international arena are, almost without exception, isolationist and protectionist in nature (they also demonstrate a profound lack of understanding of international affairs and diplomacy, but that is a topic for another article). From the "America First" rhetoric of his inauguration, to his abrupt (in diplomatic terms) shift in tone toward Germany, to his casual dismissal of the role of the United States in NATO, he has repeatedly shown a complete disregard for diplomatic norms and the standards of civil discourse.

The result of this has been a shift in tone among world leaders. Where, in the past, the President of the United States has been recognized as an authoritative voice in international affairs, one that was uniformly treated with at least a minimum amount of respect, trump's cartoonish bombast has been greeted with rolled eyes and giggles hidden behind closed hands. This set of circumstances was highlighted when the president announced an address to European leaders on May 25 that "Germany is very, very bad," labeling the "millions of cars they sell to the U. S." as "terrible" and threatening to "put a stop to it."

It is unclear whether trump is unaware of the number of vehicles built in the United States by German automakers, or just doesn't give a hot damn. BMW's largest manufacturing facility in the world is in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Mercedes-Benz builds as many cars in the U. S. as it sells here. Volkswagen has a large manufacturing plant in Tennessee. Slapping a 35% tariff on imported vehicles would have no effect on these cars, since they are built domestically.

As a result of this nonsense, the international community is coming to realize that they don't have to deal with trump at all, and that they can bypass him and go directly to the states, counties, and localities with which they would work on a variety of issues. Climate. Trade. Even defense, to a degree. All of these issues had formerly been the province of agreements between nations, but now are shifting away from trump and his Twitter-fueled tantrums.

What this means in the long term is unclear. On one end of the spectrum is the possibility that trump will awaken to the reality that he cannot bluster his way through an international agreement, and that he will therefore learn humility and diplomacy. On the other extreme, he continues -- and accelerates -- along his current path, further pushing the United States into the storage closet of history and reducing America to a caricature of itself.

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Changing tack

About a week or so ago I announced that I was taking a break from politics. As it turns out, this is not entirely true. In fact, I am taki...