The War Between Trump and Comey Escalates, and It Won't End Well for Any of Us

Today's theme: Former FBI Director James Comey did not trust Donald Trump, who was pressuring Comey to prioritize fealty above the law and disregarding the professional boundaries Comey was trying to set. Now the revelations about why Comey did not trust Trump, and why he took such meticulous notes during meetings with him, are probably going to become the focus of further investigations.

At the New York Times, Michael S. Schmidt reports: Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.
Trump called the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, weeks after he took office and asked him when federal authorities were going to put out word that Mr. Trump was not personally under investigation, according to two people briefed on the call.

Mr. Comey told the president that if he wanted to know details about the bureau's investigations, he should not contact him directly but instead follow the proper procedures and have the White House counsel send any inquiries to the Justice Department, according to those people.

After explaining to Mr. Trump how communications with the F.B.I. should work, Mr. Comey believed he had effectively drawn the line after a series of encounters he had with the president and other White House officials that he felt jeopardized the F.B.I.'s independence. At the time, Mr. Comey was overseeing the investigation into links between Mr. Trump's associates and Russia.

Those interactions included a dinner in which associates of Mr. Comey say Mr. Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty and a meeting in the Oval Office at which Mr. Trump told him he hoped Mr. Comey would shut down an investigation into Mr. Trump's former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Mr. Trump has denied making the request.

...Mr. Comey described all of his contacts with the president and the White House — including the phone call from Mr. Trump — in detailed memos he wrote at the time and gave to his aides. Congressional investigators have requested copies of the memos, which, according to two people who have read them, provide snapshots of a fraught relationship between a president trying to win over and influence an F.B.I. director and someone who had built his reputation on asserting his independence, sometimes in a dramatic way.
There is much more at the link. The picture we get is of Comey trying desperately to draw boundaries with a president whose primary intent is to demolish those boundaries, because he wants the FBI Director's loyalty, not his professionalism.

Further fleshing out that narrative is Comey's personal friend, Benjamin Wittes, who identifies himself as one of the sources of the above NYT story in an extraordinary piece at Lawfare: What James Comey Told Me About Donald Trump.

Wittes carefully notes that he is not sharing his perspective on conversations with Comey at Comey's direction: "While I am not in the habit of discussing with reporters my confidential communications with friends, I decided that the things Comey had told me needed to be made public. As I told Schmidt, I did not act in any sense at Comey’s request." He did not, you'll note, say that he shared these observations without Comey's consent. I hope (and suspect) he had that.

The entire piece is worth your time to read, and ends thus:
I don't want to make a unified field theory out of these incidents, which are pieces of a much larger mosaic—a mosaic that surely includes whatever Comey knew about the Russia investigation, among many other things. But I am confident that these incidents tell a story about Comey's thinking over the months that he and Trump were in office together. And I think they also sketch a trajectory in which Trump kept Comey on board only as long as it took him to figure out that there was no way to make Comey part of the team. Once he realized that he couldn't do that—and that the Russia matter was thus not going away—he pulled the trigger.
According to a report by Devlin Barrett, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous at the Washington Post, Comey indeed seemed keenly aware of his numbered days and the need to document the dysfunctional and unethical relationship Trump was trying to forge: Comey Prepared Extensively for His Conversations with Trump.
FBI Director James B. Comey prepared extensively for his discussions with [Donald] Trump, out of concern that the president was unlikely to respect the legal and ethical boundaries governing their respective roles, according to associates of the now-fired FBI chief.

The associates recounted how worried Comey was about meeting with Trump and recalled conversations in which they brainstormed how to handle moments in which the president asked for details of an investigation.

...Comey was very apprehensive heading into a dinner with the president in late January, because of his previous encounters with Trump during the transition and immediately after the inauguration, according to one associate. Comey felt as if Trump did not understand or did not like the FBI director's independence and was trying to get Comey to bend the rules for him, the associate said.

...Before going to the dinner, Comey practiced Trump's likely questions and his answers with a small group of his most trusted confidants, the associates said, in part to ensure he did not give Trump any ammunition to use against him later.
All of this, of course, is not merely a condemnation of a president who is already well-known for demanding loyalty at the expense of ethics, but is a public defense of Comey being mounted by people who are on his side, for a number of reasons.

These things must be read within that context. Even if these accounts are true, they have also been carefully shaped to be as favorable as possible to Comey.

I point that out not only as critical context, but also as backdrop to the troubling but important observation I am about to make.

Increasingly, as I watch all of this unfold, I get the feeling that we're seeing dueling coups play out: The authoritarians vs. the bureaucrats. (Bureaucrats with heavy intelligence community bent.) Suffice it to say, I'm very squeamish, to put it mildly, about the idea that the bureaucrats are playing a game that is tantamount to a coup against Trump.

screen cap of text reading: 'One intelligence official who works on Russian espionage matters said they were more determined than ever to pursue such cases. Another said Comey's firing and the subsequent comments from the White House are attacks that won't soon be forgotten. Trump had 'essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI,' one official said. 'I think there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.''
[From the Washington Post, May 10, 2017.]

At the same time, given the Republicans' intransigence and the limited role of the courts here, I believe it's our best hope to save the nation from complete ruin.

And it's certainly preferable to a military coup. But it's far from ideal.

The intelligence community has its own reasons for wanting to consolidate its own power, which has frequently been abused. There is no history which suggests that the IC, given increased power through any means, is inclined to subsequently relinquish it.

(As an aside, if you want a good picture of what governance seized by intelligence can become, look no further than Russia: Putin is former KGB.)

The way this power struggle is currently shaping up, there are no good outcomes. Just less awful ones.

At the end of this, unless something fundamentally changes from a battle between the White House and the intelligence community (started long ago by Trump), I don't believe any result is going to be a net positive for democracy.

Which is all to say: We are not going to recover from this anytime soon, if we are able to recover at all.

UPDATE: A further observation on Congressional Republicans' responsibility in this mess.

One of the most urgent and intractable problems with the Congressional Republicans refusing to do their jobs is that accountability for the Trump administration, if it comes, will come via the further public release of covert recordings, leaks, and the like, which is inevitably going to foster an environment of profound distrust within the federal government.

That is incompatible with the transparency and trust that are crucial for a healthy democracy. We haven't collectively begun to contemplate how devastating this is going to be for the country, even if Trump is removed and his worst authoritarian instincts prevented.

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