1. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli” Department: We expect that most of our readers have heard about the release of James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty. Press coverage has been obsessive and thorough, and Comey himself has made the rounds discussing his book, including: the controversy over his firing; Trump’s character; the “loyalty oath” demanded over a strained dinner; his decision to announce the Clinton email investigation (and the decisions of October and November to announce the reopening and then closing of the investigations after the discovery of the Weiner files).
It all made for much drama, though perhaps not much new was really learned, at least for those who had been following the stories of the Mueller investigation, the Russia dossier, and the controversy over the Comey firing. We can divide the story roughly into two parts. First, there is the “what” of the book, and how Comey has discussed it, first on Sunday on ABC with George Stephanopoulos and in subsequent interviews. Second, there is press evaluation and reaction to Comey’s story and to the book itself.
A. We begin with the takeaways. After the ABC interview, The Washington Post headlined, “Comey says Trump ‘morally unfit to be president,’ possibly susceptible to Russian blackmail.” Read their useful summary here: https://www.washingtonpost.com
For those who missed the interview on TV, The New York Times provides a useful annotated summary, as well as a link to the full transcript: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/0
For those who would rather listen to Comey give the same basic narrative on a radio interview, he appeared with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air on Tuesday. Listen, or download a podcast, here: https://www.npr.org/2018/04/17
B. For those who wish to read reviews of Comey’s book, both The Washington Post and The New York Times have provided initial impressions. The Washington Post had an early review on Tuesday. The reviewer, Carlos Lozada, sees the book as a kind of moral apologia: “Running through the book, a sort of geek chorus, is Comey’s doctrine of ‘ethical leadership,’ an often preachy and sometimes profound collection of principles that he believes should govern those who govern. ‘A Higher Loyalty’ is the brand extension of James Comey: the upright citizen turned philosopher, the lawman as thought leader.” But Lozada is unimpressed with Comey’s justifications (self-justifications) for informing Congress in late October that he was reopening the Clinton email investigation. Though Comey claims that “transparency” was the only honest approach to a difficult decision, Lozada (and other commentators as well) suspects that “transparency” was not Comey’s only motivation; his political assumptions played a role, too. “Assuming, as nearly everyone did, that Hillary Clinton would be elected president of the United States in less than two weeks, what would happen to the FBI, the Justice Department, or her own presidency if it later was revealed, after the fact, that she was still the subject of an FBI investigation?” It is possible, Comey acknowledges, that “my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.” This is a startling admission for someone who has said repeatedly that political considerations should play no part in law enforcement decisions. Comey tries at time to finesse the question by saying it may have been an “unconscious” political assumption. How clear this is has been questioned by Lozada and other commentators. https://www.washingtonpost.com
The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake suggests that Comey, in suggesting he does want to see Trump impeached—“[because that] would let the American people off the hook and have something happen indirectly that I believe they’re duty-bound to do directly [at the voting booth]”—is attempting to avoid the hard political questions because he does not want to seem to be trying to pull down the other candidate in the 2016 race: https://www.washingtonpost.com
Sharper criticism of the book comes from Jack Shafer in Politico, who ain’t buyin’ any of it. About the above impeachment dodge, Shafer says, “On what planet are the American people on the hook? Does Comey mean to include the American people who voted against Trump? ‘People in this country need to stand up and go to the voting booth and vote their values.’” Shafer finds this pontificating. But most important, he makes the case that the book and the blitz tour will only serve to create sympathy for Trump. “[Y]ou’d imagine that Comey had viewed himself through life’s mirror often enough to realize that overdressing himself in the vestments of truth and honor might backfire. But there he goes in the book and interview, posturing like the deacon of justice he obviously thinks he is.” https://www.politico.com/magaz
On the other hand, in a brief but pointed essay in The Hill, Gregory Wallance defends Comey, who, as Comey himself says, had no good options in October once new emails were discovered on the infamous Weiner hard drive: “The discovery in October of the new emails left Comey with two options. One was marked ‘damned if you do’ He could supplement his testimony by disclosing the discovery of the new emails to Congress just days before the election and then face howls of outrage at the FBI from Democrats. His other option was marked ‘damned if you don’t,’ which meant leaving the public with the continuing misimpression that the email server investigation was over. If Clinton had won the election, the Republicans would have howled with outrage at the FBI when the existence of the new emails inevitably became known.
“Comey went with ‘damned if you do.’ Donald Trump won, the howls came from the Democrats, and the wisdom of his choice will be debated forever.” But, Wallance points out, “Democrats should stop averting their eyes from an ugly truth they don’t want to talk about in public: There never would have been a Clinton email server investigation if there hadn’t been a Clinton email server. [emphasis added] When Clinton became secretary of State, she set up a private email server in her home and used it for official business.” When State’s IT people warned about this, they were put off with “’the matter was not to be discussed any further’ because there had been a legal review (there hadn’t). In the end, at least 30,000 emails concerning official business, some classified, were sent or received on her personal email server. A subsequent investigation by the State Department inspector general found that Clinton had violated State Department policy and federal record retention regulations. Clinton argued that her five predecessors had done the same thing. In fact, most of them hadn’t.” She refused to be interviewed by the IG. In the end she had to apologize. But by then the whole issue had been weaponized.
Perhaps Wallance’s point should be remembered, whatever we think of Comey: “Unfathomably, in the minds of Democrats, Comey is the overarching villain. But Clinton and her supporters can scapegoat Comey for her loss only by ignoring the existence of the private email server — and the impossible circumstances that Comey found himself in.” http://thehill.com/opinion/cam
We encourage readers to read and study commentary and make up their own minds. But the point of Comey’s criticism of Trump as “morally unfit,” a kind of mafia don, will not be lost on our readers. It may be, though, that those of us who have been following the weekly dramas are a bit jaded to the shock that some will feel hearing this from the former director of the FBI. While we are not surprised by the judgment, it is worth remembering that some voters, some lower-information citizens, may be shocked and surprised to hear such a narrative coming from a former high law enforcement official.
2. “Make her an offer she can’t refuse” Department. The other news from La Famiglia last week was, of course, the shocking FBI raid on President Trump’s fixer, and sometime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. Says former federal prosecutor Ken White, in a New York Times op-ed on Apr. 10, “The F.B.I. search of the office, home and hotel room of Mr. Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen is such a [shocking] development. It’s historic, even in the lofty context of a special counsel investigation of the president…. it reflects that numerous officials — not just Mr. Mueller — concluded that there was probable cause to believe that Mr. Cohen’s law office, home and hotel room contained evidence of a federal crime. A search warrant for a lawyer’s office implicates the attorney-client privilege and core constitutional rights, so the Department of Justice requires unusual levels of approval to seek one. Prosecutors must seek the approval of the United States attorney of the district… the search [also] demonstrates that federal prosecutors and supervisors in the Justice Department concluded that Mr. Cohen could not be trusted to preserve and turn over documents voluntarily…. [and it] suggests that prosecutors most likely believe that Mr. Cohen’s clients used his legal services for the purpose of engaging in crime or fraud.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/0
What could that crime have been? It is not likely that the agreement with Stormy Daniels is a target of such an investigation. At worst, it might constitute campaign finance fraud, if it were a hush payment by the Trump campaign. But such infractions would normally be dealt with by the FEC as a civil matter. Nonetheless, news reports do suggest that both Cohen’s hush payments to Daniels and others, as well as his own business dealings, are under scrutiny.
Also, “The Times reported that the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, was looking into a $150,000 donation to Mr. Trump’s charitable foundation from a Ukrainian billionaire that was solicited by Mr. Cohen during the 2016 campaign. In addition, Mr. Mueller has examined Mr. Cohen’s postelection role in forwarding to the administration a Ukraine-Russia peace proposal pushed by a Ukrainian lawmaker. And Trump-Russia investigators have also examined the 2015 Moscow deal that Mr. Cohen pushed at a time when his boss was campaigning for the Republican nomination for president.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/0
But one of the most suggestive analyses comes from conservative Andrew McCarthy, an editor of The National Review. McCarthy was himself a prosecutor in that Southern NY DA office. For his part, McCarthy does not believe that there is convincing proof that Trump obstructed justice or that there was any Russian conspiring. But, he believes, the Cohen affair may spell real legal trouble for Trump. He points out that all the hushed people had the same LA attorney, a Keith Davidson. Is the FBI looking into whether Davidson was actually in cahoots with Cohen, and so both would be involved, possibly, in coercion and fraud. “Trump and Cohen both say that Cohen did not tell Trump about the Clifford arrangement. Sounds implausible, but on its face it means there was no attorney–client relationship regarding that transaction. More important, if a lawyer is involved with a client in a criminal conspiracy, the crime-fraud exception to the attorney–client privilege strips their communications of privileged status. It seems evident that prosecutors are investigating on the theory that Clifford, McDougal, and perhaps others were defrauded or extorted into silence. The fact that they accepted money does not foreclose the possibility that their agreement to remain silent was procured, in part, by trickery or threats.” See his very interesting essay, “The Real Investigation,” in The National Review, Apr. 14: https://www.nationalreview.com
So: who IS Michael Cohen? See the long profile of him, and his history of “fixing” for Trump, in The Atlantic, “What Exactly Was Michael Cohen Doing for Donald Trump?” Author David Graham gives one example, when Buzz Feed tried to report on a claim that Trump had raped his wife Ivana, a claim later retracted. “’I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know. So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?’ On matters of law, however, he was shaky, arguing that one could not legally rape a spouse—which hasn’t been true in New York since 1984.” Graham suggests that “Cohen filled the void in Trump’s circle left by Roy Cohn, the infamous lawyer who had once represented Joe McCarthy, but while Cohen has a similarly bellicose personality, he lacks Cohn’s accomplishments as an attorney.” https://www.theatlantic.com/po
3. Waiting to Exhale Department. Like many on the left, you may be waiting breathlessly for the Mueller report, like the oracle at Delphi, to speak the truth and vanquish the lies and the tyranny. Breathe. And think again. In a Washington Post op-ed, Greg Sargent points out that even if Trump does not fire Rod Rosenstein, the Mueller report may not be made public. “If Trump does remove Rosenstein, his replacement would also have a great deal of discretion over whether — and how much of — Mueller’s determinations ever see the light of day. [emphasis in original] ‘Whoever the president chooses to supervise Mueller can make his own decision about what to release to Congress and the public’ Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin [said]…. Under the relevant regulations, Mueller will provide a ‘confidential’ report explaining his conclusions to the deputy attorney general (because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself). That person is then supposed to provide leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees with an ‘explanation’ for the decision to end the probe, which he can release publicly if he chooses….A replacement for Rosenstein could not only decline to release something publicly, but could also sharply limit how much information gets sent to Congress.” https://www.washingtonpost.com
This is why it is so important for Congress to pass legislation to protect not just Mueller but also his findings. So The Washington Post on Wednesday editorialized against Mitch McConnell’s statement that no such legislation would ever come to the floor: “LAST WEEK, President Trump gave the clearest indications to date of wanting to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III or his Justice Department bosses in an effort to foil his investigation. This week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) responded by refusing to allow the Senate to consider legislation to protect Mr. Mueller’s tenure.” https://www.washingtonpost.co
Read more about how McConnell has put party over country, supporting his president and obstructing Russia investigations, here, in Jennifer Rubin’s Wednesday column in The Washington Post, “Mitch McConnell is inviting a constitutional crisis,” https://www.washingtonpost.com
4. One poll makes you larger and one poll makes you small Department. So how is this turmoil affecting Trump’s popularity in the country? True, most polls do show Americans’ support of the Mueller investigation is strong. But there is a strong partisan divide, and in fact Trump’s overall popularity in a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows, as they headline it, “Trump’s approval rating is back near first-100-day levels.” The upshot: Trump’s general approval rating is 40%; however, by an almost 2-1 margin, Americans have an unfavorable view of Trump “as a person.” 59% of Americans living in rural areas approve of his presidency; among white rural Americans, the figure rises to 65%. Among whites in general, his approval has risen to 53%; whites without college degrees, 60%; white males without degrees, 70%. https://www.washingtonpost.com
That poll was released on Apr. 15. But the same day, “The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll also released Sunday showed Trump’s approval rating down four points from last month to 39 percent. In both polls, more than half of Americans—56 percent in the WP/ABC poll and 57 percent in WSJ/NBC—disapprove of Trump.” So reports Slate: https://slate.com/news-and-pol
For what it is worth, the aggregator FiveThirtyEight has had approval ratings between 40 and 41% this week. https://projects.fivethirtyeig
5. GOP leaders appear to be actively attacking Rod Rosenstein by demanding he release to Congress the raw memos of James Comey’s meetings with Trump. “Does anyone really believe Republicans are motivated by nothing but pure oversight impulses here? There are two other reasons they might want these memos. The first is to deliberately provoke Rosenstein into declining to provide them all — which could create a pretext to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress or even for Trump to fire him.” So reports Greg Sargent in Thursday’s Washington Post. “The second reason for getting these memos — and let’s not pretend this isn’t perfectly plausible — would be to selectively leak from them, to mislead the public by, say, creating phony impressions of misconduct on Comey’s part that could provide more fodder for Trump and his allies to delegitimize the investigation.” https://www.washingtonpost.com
On Thursday night, the memos were released in redacted form. The New York Times has summarized the content. We now have documentary evidence of what Comey has been saying in his book and interviews. 1)Trump was obsessed with the dossier and its notorious “golden shower” tape; 2) portions of the dossier were corroborated by US intelligence; 3) Trump was obsessed with alleged anti-Trump bias on the part of Andrew McCabe; 4) the ambiguity over whether then chief of staff Reince Priebus knew about that private dinner with Comey; 5) Priebus tried to find out what Comey knew about the investigation into Michael Flynn; 6) both Trump and Comey wanted to pursue leakers, but Comey said that it was not a good idea to go after journalists and jail them. Read the full story and the Friday morning summary here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/0
6. “Lower the cone of silence” Department. As for scandals, The New York Times on Apr. 17 printed a scathing editorial criticizing Scott Pruitt, the ethics-challenged head (and self-appointed demolisher) of the EPA. “Despite stiff competition, Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is by common consensus the worst of the ideologues and mediocrities President Trump chose to populate his cabinet. Policies aside — and they’re terrible, from an environmental perspective — Mr. Pruitt’s self-aggrandizing and borderline thuggish behavior has disgraced his office and demoralized his employees.” Our readers may have heard about the $43,000 soundproof booth he installed in his office—to keep not the Russians but his employees from overhearing him. And the expensive flights and security details he has demanded. But there is more: “The Times reported this month that five agency officials — including Mr. Chmielewski — who objected to Mr. Pruitt’s costly requests and security upgrades were dismissed, reassigned or demoted. One frequently overlooked truth about Mr. Pruitt amid these complaints is that for all his swagger he has actually accomplished very little in terms of actual policy — a wholly desirable outcome, from our standpoint.” Most of the demolition work of taking out regulations has been stalled procedurally or in the courts. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/0
7. “You must invite the vampire across your own threshold” Department. Facebook has of course been on everyone’s minds, though dropping it is not an option for many. Though there may be individual things people can do to protect their private data, in fact, says a report in The Nation, the only real solution is regulation. That is unlikely, of course. But Bruce Shapiro concludes, “Don’t Delete Facebook, Regulate It. It should be treated like any other vital utility.” [emphasis added] “I’m not joining the exodus,” says Shapiro. “—at least not yet. I still find Facebook a valuable and important self-publishing and communication platform. For all its flaws, it remains a vital tool for political activism….
“But the root of the problem isn’t Facebook. It is about ideas and about politics: the mindless corporate libertarianism that dominates this company and the entire tech industry. Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google—the whole field is built on the idea that an individual’s data is a commodity to be mined, without regulation, like bauxite or titanium. Silicon Valley clings to the conviction that ‘free speech’ means that host corporations have no responsibility for the consequential falsehoods, threats, or exploitative images published on their profit-making platforms; that the vast wealth generated by these ventures can be concentrated in the hands of a tiny technocratic elite; and that these companies and their satellites are justified in incorporating in tax havens to protect themselves from even the minimal civic responsibilities incumbent on ordinary businesses. The liberal veneer of the tech industry on social issues masks broader rapacious betrayals of the broader social contract.” Shapiro emphasizes that this a problem that neither entrepreneurs nor technologists can fix. Only pulling social media into the light of public regulation is any real solution. https://www.thenation.com/arti
But in a New York Times response to such calls for regulation, economic and business editor Eduardo Porter says, “Facebook is Creepy. And Valuable.” He points out that we currently have no idea how FB accumulates data or to what end. And some of these ends may actually increase social welfare. “[Congress either] doing nothing [or] overreacting make sense when you have no clue of what is going on. And we don’t. The cloud of questions aimed at Mr. Zuckerberg — Is Facebook too dominant? Does it censor information? Whom does it share our data with? Does it help sell OxyContin? — suggests that we don’t really know what the problem with Facebook is. It also suggests we don’t understand what Facebook does….The crucial issue for Congress, government regulators, members of the public and even Mr. Zuckerberg is how much all this data-driven stuff is worth to us. What do we stand to lose by, say, sharply limiting the data these companies can collect? What do we stand to gain?… We don’t know.” He calls for more study of the effects of regulation.
On Thursday, The Guardian reported on new European regulation of FB and other social media. “Despite the political theatre of Mark Zuckerberg’s congressional interrogations last week, Facebook’s business model isn’t at any real risk from regulators in the US. In Europe, however, the looming General Data Protection Regulation will give people better privacy protections and force companies including Facebook to make sweeping changes to the way they collect data and consent from users – with huge fines for those who don’t comply.” Under the new GDPR, “people get expanded rights to obtain the data that a company has collected about them for free through a ‘data subject request.’ People will also have the ‘right to be forgotten,’ which means companies must delete someone’s data if they withdraw their consent for it to be held. Companies will only be able to collect data if there’s a specific business purpose for it, rather than collecting extra information at the point of sign-up just in case.” Read the details, which only apply in the EU, here: https://www.theguardian.com/te
8. Unsafe at any Speed, including 5G Department. This is one you won’t want to miss. Is your cell phone safe? You may have read various debunkings of the brain cancer risk in the popular press. But a new investigative report from The Nation claims that “Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe.” [emphasis added] Investigative reporters Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie describe “The disinformation campaign—and massive radiation increase—behind the 5G rollout.” They report on efforts by Tom Wheeler, then president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, to squelch the science and suppress the findings of possible dangers. He hired George Carlo, an epidemiologist and lawyer deemed friendly to the industry, to conduct a “Wireless Technology Research project (WTR), whose eventual budget of $28.5 million made it the best-funded investigation of cell-phone safety to date.”
“[Carlo] and Wheeler would eventually clash bitterly over the WTR’s findings, which Carlo presented to wireless-industry leaders on February 9, 1999. By that date, the WTR had commissioned more than 50 original studies and reviewed many more. Those studies raised ‘serious questions’ about cell-phone safety, Carlo told a closed-door meeting of the CTIA’s board of directors, whose members included the CEOs or top officials of the industry’s 32 leading companies, including Apple, AT&T, and Motorola.
“Carlo sent letters to each of the industry’s chieftains on October 7, 1999, reiterating that the WTR’s research had found the following: ‘The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled…in cell phone users’; there was an apparent ‘correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head’; and ‘the ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive….’
“Carlo urged the CEOs to do the right thing: give consumers ‘the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wish to assume’ especially since some in the industry had ‘repeatedly and falsely claimed that wireless phones are safe for all consumers including children.’” The industry even contributed to the WHO, which was studying the cancer connection, and influenced their report. The WHO eventually decided to call cell phone exposure a “possible” [rather than probable] carcinogen. The WHO is due to reevaluate its findings this year.
“The scientific evidence that cell phones and wireless technologies in general can cause cancer and genetic damage is not definitive, but it is abundant and has been increasing over time. Contrary to the impression that most news coverage has given the public, 90 percent of the 200 existing studies included in the National Institutes of Health’s PubMed database on the oxidative effects of wireless radiation…have found a significant impact,” the authors say.
Moreover, with 5G service coming, we do not know how much increased radiation we will be exposed to, since industry has often suppressed the science. “[T]he massive increase in radiation exposure this would unleash, raises the stakes exponentially. Because 5G radiation can only travel short distances, antennas roughly the size of a pizza box will have to be installed approximately every 250 feet to ensure connectivity. ‘Industry is going to need hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of new antenna sites in the United States alone.’ said [Joel] Moskowitz, the UC Berkeley researcher. ‘So people will be bathed in a smog of radiation 24/7.”’ Read the full investigative report in the March 29 The Nation: https://www.thenation.com/arti
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