Update for the week of May 8 – 14 on developments affecting S. 27, a bill To establish an independent commission to examine and report on the facts regarding the extent of Russian official and unofficial cyber operations and other attempts to interfere in the 2016 United States national election, and for other purposes.”
- Trump’s Firing of FBI Director Comey Dominated the News this Week and Trump Couldn’t Stick to Script
On Monday, Donald Trump fired James Comey, the FBI Director, by sending a short letter (1/3 of which was devoted to thanking Comey for assuring him he wasn’t under investigation, 3 times) via his bodyguard to FBI headquarter in Washington—but Comey was in California and learned about it on TV. The bodyguard and AG Jeff Sessions (who had recused himself from anything related to Trump/Russia) appear to have been Trump’s primary advisors on this decision. The White House first said Trump was compelled to act because of a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein outlining missteps Comey had made investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of email—despite the fact that the DOJ Inspector General was investigating Comey’s handling of the email issue and had not issued any findings. The story changed several times in the next few days. By May 11, Trump told Lester Holt that he was actually thinking about something not mentioned at all in the memo “when I decided to just do it”—that is, to fire Comey: “I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story; it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.”
Josh Marshall’s conclusion:
Trump is so undisciplined, so controlled by his anger and desire to dominate and be right that he cannot help going off script, adopting what is perhaps his third or fourth version of this story, and admitting what I think has to amount to an impeachable offense. He is saying what we know: that he fired James Comey to put an end to the Russia probe.
By the end of the week, Trump threatened Comey on Twitter:
“James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
To top it off, Trump blamed the press for the confusion in his explanations of the Comey firing and threatened to put an end to press conferences.
- Is Comey’s Firing a Threat to our Democracy?
There are two distinct but related issues. First are legal questions about the firing—does it constitute obstruction of justice? Is it an impeachable offense? According to legal scholars, the president is free to fire the FBI Director with or without cause—but the firing can be legally problematic if it was done with the intent of circumventing an investigation.
A second issue is whether Trump’s bombastic and egocentric style of governing can undermine the American system of government. Anne Applebaum, an expert in Soviet-era Eastern Europe, raised this question in the context of Trump’s meeting the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in the immediate aftermath of the Comey firing—“Don’t Forget Those Smiling Images.”
Due process, rule of law, all of the dull rules and procedures that deliver justice are uninteresting to men who believe in personalized power unconstrained by traditions, institutions or constitutions. Look at how pleased they were to see one another — and compare those pictures with Trump’s stiff and awkward news conferences with democratic leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May.
As Amanda Taub of the Times writes, the firing did violate a long-standing norm in American politics, that presidents should not remove an FBI Director without extreme justification to avoid politicizing law enforcement. These norms serve as “the soft guardrails of democracy.” In a healthy democracy, other institutions push back ensuring that violators pay a high price and the guardrails are preserved for another day. But in a collapsing democracy, the opposite happens. Warring parties take violations by their opponents as justification for breaking other norms in response. Are American institutions strong enough to withstand this test in an era of extremely partisan politics?
- Trump’s Financial Connections to Russia Were Also in the News
The White House released a letter this week from Donald Trump’s tax attorneys dated March 8 that in essence says an analysis of Trump’s tax returns for the past 10 years shows that he has no financial ties to Russia. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (who makes clear he is not an attorney) identifies some major problems with the analysis in the letter. First, Trump’s business model for the last two decades does not involved direct investment in projects, but rather licensing his name along with a deal to manage the property—so no one expected to find Russian investments in him/loans to him. Second, it’s documented that there were major inflows of capital from the post-Soviet states to Trump in the form of purchases, rentals, etc., none of which would appear as financial ties in a tax filing. Finally, Trump and Russian oligarchs/mobsters make extensive use of shell companies, and the letter does not make clear whether the attorneys’ analysis made any attempt to look behind the shells—and if they didn’t, the conclusions are meaningless.
Also this week, the Senate Intelligence Committee requested that the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) turn over documents related to Trump and his campaign officials. According to Adam Davidson of the New Yorker, FinCEN enforces money laundering laws and is familiar with Trump’s holding, the Taj Mahal casino, which paid a $10 milllion fine for “willfully” violating the law by letting many suspicious transactions go unreported. As Davidson reports, money laundering has historically been a source of revenue for casinos. While most casinos instituted robust monitoring procedures, the Taj Mahal did not. “FinCEN could have collected what are known as Suspicious Activity Reports from banks, casinos, and other places, about transactions involving any Trump projects. These reports could be used to create a detailed map of relationships and money flows involving the Trump Organization.”
A timeline of Trump ties to Russia from the 1980s has been compiled by Insight (in Medium). http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/the-trump-tax-returnrussia-letter-is-full-of-holes