Director James Comey’s Statement: A Complete Guide

Image Credit: Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

This post was written on the night of 7 June 2017, in anticipation of former FBI Director James B. Comey’s public testimony before members of the United States Congress, slated to take place 8 June 2017.

If you’re reading this post, you are probably aware that former FBI Director James B. Comey is going to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, on the morning of 8 June 2017 (10 AM). If you’re not 100% sure about why Comey is giving this testimony, or why he is no longer the FBI Director, check out this post from last month.

On 7 June, Committee Chairman Richard Burr and Ranking Member Mark Warner released this seven-page testimony from Director Comey, a “preview” of the events to come. At the opening of this hearing, Comey will read this statement out to the audience and the Senators on the dais, before taking questions and elaborating over the course of the morning and early afternoon. The seven pages of remarks were released at the behest of the former FBI Director in order to save time and help the Senators on the panel come up with good follow-up questions ahead of time. The Senate wants to know the answers to the following questions (for some of these, they have the answers to these questions but they want the Director to verbally reaffirm them):

 

  • Why did Pres. Trump remove Director Comey from office?
  • Did Pres. Trump attempt to coerce/influence the FBI’s investigation into Lieutenant General Flynn’s conduct and ties to Russia/Turkey, or the larger investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign? (We now know the answer is a yes)
    • Did Pres. Trump do this knowingly?
  • Did Pres. Trump attempt to coerce/influence Director Comey into publicly stating that Pres. Trump himself is not under investigation?
  • Why did Director Comey document all his conversations with the President in memos? (We pretty much know this one too – Trump was acting weird and unethical and Comey was uncomfortable the whole time)
  • Did Trump ask for a pledge of personal loyalty – a pledge that would clearly violate Comey’s oath of office? (Comey says possibly, Trump says no)
  • Is there any other official in the executive branch, current or former, who witnessed any of these events and can provide honest testimony?
  • Does Director Comey believe Pres. Trump acted unethically or criminally?
  • Are there any pertinent details that aren’t included in the seven pages?

 

That’s a lot of questions to follow (even more if you go with TheHill’s list of 49 questions), and while I can’t give objective insight into all of them (especially the last three), I can give it my best shot here, using (relinking for ease of access) Director Comey’s remarks here in conjunction with evidence attained over the past month.

Why did Pres. Trump remove Director Comey from office?

The White House made an initial, ineffectual claim (see also: lie) that Director Comey was fired over the manner in which he investigated Hillary Clinton’s e-mail controversy. If you want evidence for why that claim is malarkey, check out my earlier post on Comey’s firing or look up posts by any news organization that covered the issue. Because President Trump himself has repeatedly muddied and contradicted that explanation, the White House is no longer actively peddling that story.

Given that President Trump has shown himself to be so concerned about the FBI’s Russia investigation (now Bob Mueller’s Russia investigation), and that it continues to provide new sources of controversy, I find it far more likely that Pres. Trump removed Comey over frustration that Comey did not actively defend him in the context of the investigation. Comey shows evidence of Trump’s frustration in the matter with excerpts from his opening remarks:

 

I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on
exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those
Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump.
I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need
to get that fact out.” (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department
of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an
open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because
it would create a duty to correct, should that change.) The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.

He finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to
make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he
wasn’t being investigated…

On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had
done about his request that I “get out” that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job.

 

The facts of the past several months in conjunction with Comey’s prepared remarks creates a pattern about his firing and raises an immense cloud of suspicion over this issue.

Pay attention to this question during the hearing – Comey may shed light on this.

 

Did Pres. Trump attempt to coerce/influence the FBI’s investigation into Lieutenant General Flynn’s conduct and ties to Russia/Turkey, or the larger investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign?

According to Director Comey, yes. Comey wrote this in his remarks:

 

The President then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying, “He is a
good guy and has been through a lot.” He repeated that Flynn hadn’t done
anything wrong on his calls with the Russians, but had misled the Vice President.
He then said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” I replied only that “he is a good guy.” (In fact, I had a positive experience dealing with Mike Flynn when he was a colleague as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency at the beginning of my
term at FBI.) I did not say I would “let this go.”

I immediately prepared an unclassified memo of the conversation about
Flynn and discussed the matter with FBI senior leadership. I had understood the
President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls. Regardless, it was very concerning, given the FBI’s role as an independent investigative agency.

 

This is largely dependent on Comey’s word, given under sworn oath in front of members of the United States Senate. Given that Director James Comey is a career legal official who has decades of experience in Republican and Democratic administrations, and that he has stuck by his story for months, I have little doubt in my mind that the United States Senate will take his word as fact, or at least give it great weight. Remember, Director Comey documents his conversations with the President in written memos. President Trump, on the other hand, has… more a few issues with credibility and honesty. If the House and Senate take Comey’s word over the White House’s (the latter being that they were not trying to obstruct the course of justice), that could end up being… problematic for President Trump.

There’s another layer to this issue – did Trump do this deliberately/with a guilty mind? One of the stranger defenses of the President’s actions revolves around this explanation: This defense asserts that he did attempt to influence Director Comey’s investigation, but only did so because he is a political outsider who doesn’t know better. The White House tried it after Trump called NATO an obsolete institution during his campaign, and attempted to do so whenever they had to square any incident of inexperience on Trump’s part. If this is true (and it is certainly possible), it does not change any potential crime (after all, ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking it) but it does change how any potential impeachment hearings would go, because it would show that Trump made a mistake instead of acting with malice. Often, decisions to impeach a public official over their misconduct requires malicious intent. The same applies here.

This case runs into some serious trouble pretty much instantly: First off, Donald Trump is the President of the United States. Anyone who supports his presidency should not defend him by saying “well I guess he just didn’t know what he was doing is wrong,” because the President of the United States is the single most powerful person on the planet, and he should always know what he is doing, right or wrong. Electing a President who doesn’t know things as simple as “don’t try to interfere with federal investigations” and “we deliver nuclear weapons to our enemies with underground silos, missile-carrying submarines, and aerial bombers” makes him woefully unprepared to be a United States Congressman, much less the LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD.

Second off, according to Comey’s testimony, President Trump only tried to interfere with the Russia investigation (namely as it related to Michael Flynn) in private, one-on-one conversations. On one occasion, President Trump was holding a meeting with a number of intelligence officials, then ended the meeting but kept Director Comey behind and said “he wanted to speak only with me” and nobody else, waiting until Attorney General Sessions and Jared Kushner left the Oval Office. The White House Counsel, Don McGahn, was absent from this one-on-one meeting, and in removing all the witnesses from the room he may have demonstrated knowledge that his request was shady and a possible breach of government ethics.

This excuse of “he didn’t know any better” falls apart when we also consider that Comey allegedly told the President about the need for separation between the President and the FBI:

 

At one point, I explained why it was so important that the FBI and the
Department of Justice be independent of the White House. I said it was a paradox: Throughout history, some Presidents have decided that because “problems” come from Justice, they should try to hold the Department close. But blurring those boundaries ultimately makes the problems worse by undermining public trust in the institutions and their work.

 

It is Comey’s belief that Trump attempted to influence the FBI’s investigation into General Michael Flynn and that such an attempt made him so uncomfortable that he recorded it in a memorandum. It appears unlikely that Trump made this request by accident, and if ends up that he did try to interfere in the investigation by accident, it would reflect incredibly poorly on the President and his ability to run the government of the United States. The more likely explanation is that President Trump did not stumble into this scenario by accident given the above reasons, because that would require an immense amount of impropriety and incompetence on President Trump’s part. Of course, Comey will likely do his best to clarify and elaborate on these remarks in his upcoming testimony. Next.

 

Did Pres. Trump attempt to coerce/influence Director Comey into publicly stating that Pres. Trump himself is not under investigation?

According to Director Comey, yes. More than once. I listed these excerpts from Comey’s prepared remarks earlier in this post – emphasis mine:

 

I explained that we had briefed the leadership of Congress on
exactly which individuals we were investigating and that we had told those
Congressional leaders that we were not personally investigating President Trump.
I reminded him I had previously told him that. He repeatedly told me, “We need
to get that fact out.” (I did not tell the President that the FBI and the Department
of Justice had been reluctant to make public statements that we did not have an
open case on President Trump for a number of reasons, most importantly because
it would create a duty to correct, should that change.) The President went on to say that if there were some “satellite” associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out, but that he hadn’t done anything wrong and hoped I would find a way to get it out that we weren’t investigating him.

He finished by stressing “the cloud” that was interfering with his ability to
make deals for the country and said he hoped I could find a way to get out that he
wasn’t being investigated…

On the morning of April 11, the President called me and asked what I had
done about his request that I “get out” that he is not personally under investigation. I replied that I had passed his request to the Acting Deputy Attorney General, but I had not heard back. He replied that “the cloud” was getting in the way of his ability to do his job.

Trump has also made it a point to publicly say that he himself is not under investigation,. He even mentioned it in his letter when he removed Director Comey from his post at the FBI despite the letter ostensibly being about Comey’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation:

 

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the conclusion of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.

 

Why did Director Comey document all his conversations with the President in memos?

According to Director Comey, his personal contacts with the President made him distinctly uncomfortable. Director Comey headed up the FBI from 2013 to 2017, primarily during the tenure of President of the United States. He says this multiple times in his prepared remarks:

 

I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect
in a memo. To ensure accuracy, I began to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle
outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting. Creating written
records immediately after one-on-one conversations with Mr. Trump was my
practice from that point forward. This had not been my practice in the past. I
spoke alone with President Obama twice in person (and never on the phone) –
once in 2015 to discuss law enforcement policy issues and a second time, briefly,
for him to say goodbye in late 2016. In neither of those circumstances did I
memorialize the discussions. I can recall nine one-on-one conversations with
President Trump in four months – three in person and six on the phone.

My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this
was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part,
an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly, given the FBI’s traditionally independent status in the executive branch.

 

By creating an extensive trail of written remarks and memos, Comey is strengthening the veracity of his claims and provides “real-time” documentation of his interactions with President Trump. It’s the closest thing Comey can get to screenshotting and archiving text messages and placing them in bags marked “evidence.”

 

Did Trump ask for a pledge of personal loyalty – a pledge that would clearly violate Comey’s oath of office?

Possibly – according to Director Comey, at least:

A few moments later, the President said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the
awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The
conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our
dinner.

Near the end of our dinner, the President returned to the subject of my job,
saying he was very glad I wanted to stay, adding that he had heard great things
about me from Jim Mattis, Jeff Sessions, and many others. He then said, “I need
loyalty.” I replied, “You will always get honesty from me.” He paused and then
said, “That’s what I want, honest loyalty.” I paused, and then said, “You will get
that from me.” As I wrote in the memo I created immediately after the dinner, it is
possible we understood the phrase “honest loyalty” differently, but I decided it
wouldn’t be productive to push it further. The term – honest loyalty – had helped
end a very awkward conversation and my explanations had made clear what he
should expect.

 

As the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey did not pledge his loyalty to the President of the United States, and no federal official should ever do so. In fact, the oath of office for all federal officials is such (and if you don’t believe me for some weird reason, here’s Comey saying these words himself):

 

I, [name], do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the CONSTITUTION of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office of which I am about to enter.

 

By asking for Comey’s loyalty, Trump may have been asking for Comey’s personal loyalty, an act that would violate Comey’s own oath of office. Comey tried to deflect, saying he would always be honest with the President, or “honest loyalty,” as he put it. From what is written above, it’s not 100% clear that Trump wanted personal loyalty, but it is implied. Trump doesn’t need to ask federal officials if they are loyal, because they swore an oath to be loyal to the Constitution – asking them again in a one-on-one setting has… different implications. If Trump did intend to attempt to get Comey’s personal loyalty, that would be a highly unethical and inappropriate request because it would conflict with Comey’s loyalty to the Constitution of the United States. You don’t have to take my word for it – take Speaker Ryan’s.

 

When Chairman Burr gavels out Comey’s hearing, we’ll have a much better understanding of the Russia investigation, but the Democrats probably won’t have any “smoking guns” to wave around at an impeachment hearing. Unless Comey really drops some bombshells during his testimony, the House of Representatives will not be meaningfully closer to impeaching the President. Right now, with a solid Republican majority, Congress needs more than just James Comey’s testimony to pin the President or anyone else to the wall. Comey is one man, and while the United States Senate has great faith in him (as do I), they can not/should not pin the President or anyone else to the wall with just the word of one man.

To put it another way, if you’re reading this post dreaming about President Trump being led out of the Oval Office to a waiting helicopter, you may have to wait a while longer.  But that day may come a little bit sooner as a result of this hearing.

Comey’s testimony is still INCREDIBLY important for the course of this investigation into the Trump campaign and Trump’s conduct as President. It could very well shine a credible light on shady, unethical, and possibly illegal actions on the part of the President, and it will have a crapton of political implications. After all, while distrust of public officials is at a shockingly low level, Comey appears to have more public trust than the President, and if Comey points a finger at Trump it will damage the White House immensely.

Watch the testimony. Most networks are going to be covering this live, including CNN, NBC, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and god knows how many others will cover it as well. Watch it on C-SPAN if you have to.

Trump Fired Director Comey Because of Russia (Probably)

On 9 May, President Trump ordered the dismissal of FBI Director James Comey with a written letter. In true Trump Administration fashion, Comey learned of his dismissal by watching a news report and only received the letter afterwards. If you want to read the letters from the President, Attorney General Sessions, and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, the Washington Post has a copy.

If you don’t feel like reading a long letter by a Deputy AG, allow me to summarize: Rosenstein recommended that Comey be fired because of his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation, in which he publicly announced that no charges would be pursued, and that Secretary Clinton acted extremely carelessly with her private server. If you remember, that announcement back in July rocked the Clinton campaign and drove Democrats like me up the wall. In fact, when I went over Mr. Rosenstein’s letter, a lot of the talking points sounded like they could be taken straight from the mind of an anti-Comey Democrat:

The Director was wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority on July 5, 2016, and announce his conclusion that the case should be closed without prosecution.

Compounding the error, the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.

The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial. It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.

Mr. Rosenstein continued, citing a number of former DOJ officials like Eric Holder (Obama Admin.), Mike Mukasey (Bush Admin.), and Alberto Gonzales (also Bush Admin.) who expressed dismay at Comey’s willingness to go public with his fifteen-minute statement. The quotes, which took over a third of his entire report, summed up to saying that Comey’s public response was unconventional and out of line with DOJ policy. With all that being said, Rosenstein ended his letter by saying that Director Comey’s actions damaged public confidence in the Bureau and that Director Comey could not be expected to help repair that level of trust.

If we just take Mr. Rosenstein’s letter in a vacuum, this dismissal makes some degree of sense. Granted, it is extremely strange for an FBI Director to be fired for any cause, because it has only happened once in the FBI’s history, when President Clinton dismissed Director William Sessions after he refused to resign over ethics violations. Holding an unconventional public statement about the conclusion of an investigation is certainly different from the private use of FBI resources. Of course, this doesn’t make the dismissal a crime or even particularly suspicious, because the President doesn’t actually need a reason to remove an FBI Director from his post.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

If Comey were truly dismissed over his handling of the e-mail controversy, that wouldn’t be a problem at all. Is it unnecessary? In my opinion, yes. While Comey’s actions were infuriating and frustrating, I retain full confidence in his ability as a lawyer and law enforcement officer (by the way, at age 56, he has plenty of time left in his career – if Trump’s successor decides that he/she wants to pick someone new for the Director of National Intelligence, CIA Director, or Attorney General of the United States, I believe Comey’s name should be on the shortlist).

However, does anyone really think that Trump, AG Sessions, and Deputy AG Rosenstein actually care about his handling of the investigation enough to fire him? As stated earlier, Mr. Rosenstein’s letter reads like that of an unhappy Democrat DOJ official, not like one who works for a Republican President whose campaign very clearly benefited from Comey’s public presence in the 2016 election (and while the cited Comey Effect is just an observation and not a conclusive finding, imagine how the election would have gone if Comey hadn’t publicly criticized Secretary Clinton or sent this letter to Congress – Secretary Clinton certainly has). It is possible that Mr. Rosenstein’s presented the true rationale, but I can confidently rattle off a list of things that should raise doubts about the White House’s official story. To put it another way, this is why the official White House account does not add up. At all.

  1. Timing: The White House’s letter gives the impression that they lost confidence in Director Comey’s leadership ability as a result of his involvement in Secretary Clinton’s e-mail investigation. However, his public statement came on 5 July 2016, and his bombshell letter to Congress came on 28 October 2016. The current administration has known since 9 November 2016 that James Comey would continue to serve as the FBI Director under President Trump, and they raised no serious questions about his competency and legitimacy until very recently. Trump would have been within his rights to ask for Comey’s resignation in private, but he obviously did no such thing. Hell, in January it became public knowledge that the new White House wanted to keep Comey. Since then, Comey has only landed in hot water twice – once when the DOJ-OIG (see below) began an official investigation into his conduct, and once when he misspoke about the scope of Huma Abedin’s e-mails to Anthony Weiner. However, neither incident has been cited in the letters provided to the public. For the White House to bum around and sit on their hands for seven months before getting rid of Comey over a ten-month-old issue makes no sense at all.
  2. The Inspector General’s Report Is Unfinished: Back in January, the DOJ’s Office of the Inspector General reported that Director Comey was under investigation for his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation. No public report has been released since then, and considering how terribly leaky this White House is, there appears to be no indication that the Office of the Inspector General has released a private report either. Given that the news of his firing took Comey by surprise, it’s not unreasonable to assume Comey hadn’t seen the report either (again, because there probably was no report at the time). If I were the sitting President of the United States and I wanted to discipline the FBI Director over his handling of an investigation, I would probably wait until I could read an official report on the handling of the investigation, just to be sure of my reasoning. Failure to do so would mean that I would be removing a distinguished officer of the federal government without a complete wealth of evidence and analysis, an action comparable to convicting a defendant and sentencing him to prison before his trial can even start. Of course, I’m not the current President, and you can tell because I speak in complete sentences and because I don’t say or do stupid shit on a regular basis (note: those are all separate links).
  3. Deputy A.G. Rosenstein Is VERY New to the Job: The man who wrote the full letter to Sessions and the President, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, has only been in office since 25 April. The day he wrote his letter, 9 May, was his fourteenth day on the job. That doesn’t add up at all – why or how was a Deputy Attorney General with only fourteen days of experience (less, really, since he was only confirmed on 25 April and was only midway through Day 14 on writing the report) able to come to the conclusive determination that an FBI Director with three years of experience as Director should be fired? I don’t care if he’s a pro-Trump Republican or a fervent long-time hater of Director Comey, there is no reasonable way that he can make such a forceful conclusion after only two weeks on the job. Did he spend all fourteen days and nights interviewing colleagues and subordinates about Comey’s conduct? Did he manage to gain access to an unpublished DOJ-OIG report (see above)? Remember, this guy was not privy to any special access while Director Comey was stirring up his pre-election controversy. I find it highly improbable that Mr. Rosenstein was able to come to an independent, impartial determination that Comey deserved to be dismissed after such a short period of time. What is far more likely is that a senior official, possibly Trump himself, wanted Comey out and needed Mr. Rosenstein to write (or at the very least, sign his name) on a harsh report recommending his dismissal. In fact, new information shows that Mr. Rosenstein may have actually threatened to resign his post last night after everyone pointed their fingers at him for this hatchet job.
  4. Trump Had Praised Comey For This: If you were living under a rock until two days ago, you wouldn’t have had any reason to doubt Mr. Rosenstein’s letter regarding the firing of Director Comey. However, it is critical to note that until recently, President Trump absolutely loved Comey’s actions (the same ones he’s supposedly being fired for), praising him repeatedly on the campaign trail and capitalizing on his comments. Instead of criticizing his conduct like a bunch of people in the Democratic Party, he adored it. Like I said earlier, it’s common knowledge that if it weren’t for Comey’s actions in July and October of 2016, Hillary Clinton would have won the election to become the 45th President of the United States (even if only by a very slim electoral vote margin – obviously the campaign had other problems in the Rust Belt, but considering how slim her losses there were, even the smallest of factors could have tipped the balance). Hell, Trump even gave him a reassuring handshake and a compliment back in January over his conduct, saying with a grin that Comey had become more famous than he was. By the way, for those following that link, it’s worth noting that Comey is 6’8″, which is why he towers over Donald Trump and everyone else in the room. It’s not the camera angle, he’s just enormously tall. With this in mind, it’s extraordinarily strange for anyone to assume that Donald Trump, Jeff Sessions, and Rod Rosenstein found a sudden moment of clarity by adopting Democrat criticisms of Director Comey. Until Tuesday, I was under the impression that the White House was just going to let it slide. By suddenly reversing course, the Trump Administration appears to be agreeing with Democrats opposed to Comey, an unprecedented and eyebrow-raising act which doesn’t gel with how we have seen the Administration act before.
  5. This Is the Culmination of a Week-Long Hunt for an Excuse to Fire Comey: Because this administration doesn’t do anything without being blatantly obvious about their true intentions, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that multiple outlets are reporting that Trump wanted an excuse to fire Comey, and wanted Sessions to find that excuse. This is obviously abnormal because the administration wanted Comey out, and this hunt for an excuse was a way to find cover to get him out. Usually, a good administration will find a fire-able offense first, and then decide whether or not someone should be removed from office. In fact, while I started writing this piece on Tuesday night, information released Thursday afternoon has revealed that Donald Trump may have wanted to fire Comey for a much longer time than he previously let on.
  6. The Last Fired Director Was Committing Ethics Violations, a Far More Serious Offense: As I noted earlier, Comey is only the second FBI Director to have been fired. The first was Director William Sessions, who was repeatedly asked to resign over concerns of ethics violations (specifically, using public money to install a private security system in his house and flying an FBI jet for personal use), but refused. Everyone else has either retired, been promoted to a different job, or resigned under polite political cover (where a President offers an official the chance to quietly resign instead of becoming the face of a drawn-out scandal). Comey’s “offenses” are minuscule in comparison – holding a public announcement to conclude a private investigation, then telling Congress about the reopening of said investigation.
  7. Acting Director McCabe Contradicted Claims of Lost Confidence: In statements made to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Acting Director McCabe shot down allegations that Comey had lost the trust of his colleagues and subordinates at the FBI. This came in direct conflict with statements by Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders (who, by the way, is Mike Huckabee’s daughter), who tried and failed to downplay the Russia investigation and disparage the level of trust that Comey enjoyed. At best, the White House has some serious miscommunication issues between the FBI and the Office of the Press Secretary. At worst, the White House was lying. Again.

The dismissal of an FBI Director should not be taken lightly by anyone, especially when it is obvious that the White House is obscuring and concealing their true rationale for such an act. To believe that the White House got rid of Comey primarily because they genuinely did not like his handling of the Clinton investigation requires a massive suspension of disbelief. The White House has tried to pin a year-old controversy on a Director whom they previously praised OVER HIS HANDLING OF SAID CONTROVERSY, and did so by getting an administrator with barely two week’s experience to pull the trigger on him, ignoring legitimate and traditional procedures of investigation and discipline. With this level of shady concealment, it has become painfully obvious that the Trump Administration is lying to the public about why they fired Comey. Here’s some free advice to anyone who might end up becoming the President one day: if you have to fire the nation’s top law enforcement officer, don’t lie about why you did it. I suspect some people might be reading this and thinking: “Lying? Isn’t that a little harsh?” Not at all – the letters said that the White House fired Comey over the e-mail investigation, when it’s fairly obvious that wasn’t the reason.

I don’t even deny that the other point in the letters – that Comey lost the confidence of the American public – is valid. While I have always respected Comey, albeit through gritted teeth at times, most Democrats and a sizable number of Republicans don’t trust his ability to lead the Bureau. However, while the letters asserted this point, they muddy the waters by providing flimsy supporting evidence based around the e-mails.

So … why take the strange step of firing Director Comey, and why do it now when he is so busy? There are two reasons that come to mind. One is excusable, albeit petty. The other points towards months, if not years, of investigations and hearings, or impeachment if things really go downhill.

THE TRUE EXPLANATION, PART ONE: Comey was way too independent for Trump.

As everyone knows by now, James Comey is not anyone’s puppet. The following is taken from Comey’s 2007 testimony to Congress, backed by reports from FBI Director Robert Mueller, Solicitor General Ted Olson, and a bunch of others. In 2004, Comey was the Deputy Attorney General under Attorney General John Ashcroft and President George W. Bush. One night, Ashcroft fell ill and had to be taken to the ICU at GWU Hospital, leaving Comey in command of the Department of Justice. At the same time, the Bush Administration was trying to get authorization to continue a domestic intelligence program that didn’t require warrants for wiretaps. Ashcroft and Comey knew it was illegal, and didn’t want to sign the authorization form, much to the chagrin of President Bush, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and White House Counsel (later Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales. When word got around that Attorney General Ashcroft was in the hospital, Card and Gonzales tried to circumvent Comey’s refusal to sign by heading to Ashcroft’s bedside. Their hope was to convince a delirious, heavily-medicated Ashcroft and get him to sign the authorization and overrule Comey. Comey was already on his way home from the DOJ when a colleague called him about Card/Gonzales’ shenanigans. Instead of continuing home, he told his driver to speed to the hospital, where he jumped out of the car, sprinted up the steps of the hospital, and rushed straight to his boss’s bedside, accompanied by an armed security detail.

Comey arrived just in time – Card and Gonzales arrived just minutes later with the authorization form and tried to get Ashcroft to sign the form. Luckily, Ashcroft was aware of his surroundings and refused to sign the form, then pointed at Comey and said he [Comey] was in charge. Of course, had Comey not arrived and Ashcroft been slightly more drugged up, Ashcroft very may well have been tricked into signing that order.

Anyways, the next day Comey, Ashcroft, their staff, and FBI Director Mueller threatened to resign their posts, but President Bush talked them out of it. That was Lesson #1 from the “Comey doesn’t take crap from nobody” Academy, and although he retired shortly thereafter to work for Lockheed Martin, that story impressed President Obama enough that he appointed Comey to become his FBI Director in 2013. Because FBI Directors are supposed to be generally independent (fun fact: the reason Directors get ten year terms is to outlast Presidents and act generally independent of them), President Obama figured that he could get him passed through the Senate and that Comey would keep him honest. Hell, up until last year, Comey was a registered Republican.

The incident with his public remarks on Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation (and the subsequent letter to Congress) is just more proof of Comey’s independent streak.

President Trump did not like this go-it-alone nature one bit. It’s common knowledge by now that he values personal loyalty as one of the most important traits in a subordinate, refusing Rex Tillerson’s request to hire Elliott Abrams as the Deputy Secretary of State. Why? Because Abrams opposed Trump during the election, writing this piece in the conservative Weekly Standard newspaper. I wouldn’t be surprised if Trump had given this same cold shoulder to Mitt Romney (who was briefly under consideration for the job of Secretary of State) because of his scathing 2016 speech to the Hinckley Institute. This stuff is classic Trump, because we’ve all seen how he treats his opponents and less-than-loyal colleagues: with disrespect, belittlement, and punishment (when was the last time he said anything nice about Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio?). Imagine how livid the President must have been when Comey said that he felt “mildly nauseous” about having influenced the election, that there was no evidence to support the President’s claims about being wiretapped/microwave-tapped by President Obama, and that his campaign was under FBI investigation.

Oh, wait. We don’t have to imagine his anger, because we have a fairly good idea about how pissed off he was. If this is true (and there’s no reason to suspect it isn’t true – at the very least, it’s very plausible considering what we know about Donald Trump), this would be one of the pettiest and most embarrassing reasons to fire a senior administration official in our time. Is he within his rights to fire someone for not being completely subservient? Yes. Does that mean it’s a good idea? No.

Trump has over the course of past couple months several times expressed frustration “they can’t all just make this go away.”
“He was mad at Sessions when he recused. Really mad,” the friend said. “Mad at his lawyer and the staff. Mad at you guys on TV. Mad at the committees. Mad at Comey. “
Perhaps Trump wanted Comey to be subserviently loyal for another, more obvious, and more nefarious reason :o.
PART TWO: Comey was investigating the Trump campaign and its ties to the Russian government, as well as the latter’s interference in the election, and was getting close to something.
If Trump were getting rid of Comey solely because of his lack of total obedience, it would be an innocent, if unusual and immature, move. The same characterization would apply if Hillary Clinton had done the same thing. However, that doesn’t explain the timing of Director Comey’s dismissal, nor does it fully explain Trump’s hatred of Comey. Consider this:
Before his testimony about Russian interference and Russian collusion (which, for now, are two separate issues), the administration publicly supported Comey and gave little to no indication that he would be removed from office. Cut to 20 March, when Director Comey appeared before Congress and dropped this fun revelation (credit to Director Comey for his testimony and ThinkProgress for selecting this quote – emphasis mine):
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
That same day (in the same hearing, in fact), Director Comey shot down Trump’s claim that the intelligence community concluded that Russia didn’t influence the election. This, coupled with the above quote by the Director, probably didn’t put Trump in a good mood. Just a few weeks later, on 12 April, Trump began to hint at a lack of confidence in Comey, an act which he hadn’t done in quite some time (note: check that ThinkProgress link for a full timeline). This continued with Trump’s now-mildly-infamous Twitter rant last week (this one during Comey’s testimony to the United States Senate), in which he said the following:
FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds! The phony Trump/Russia story was an excuse used by the Democrats as justification for losing the election. Perhaps Trump just ran a great campaign?
Ask any Democrat if Comey gave Hillary Clinton a free pass and the answer will be a definitive no. Not prosecuting someone isn’t the same thing as a free pass, especially when it’s replaced with a public dressing-down and followed up with a letter to Congress. In his tweeting, Trump both disparaged Comey’s conduct (a relatively new deed) and then tried to muddy the waters about “Trump/Russia” to downplay the importance of the FBI investigation. At other times, Trump and his staff repeated the claim that the intel community had definitively concluded that there was no evidence to support any collusion with the Russians, when in reality they have not found any evidence yet (unless you count Lt. General Flynn and then-Senator Jeff Sessions declining to report contacts with Sergey Kislyak, which isn’t evidence of collusion, but it does warrant further investigation). Comey, of course, wasn’t playing along with that (as mentioned earlier) and chose to continue the Bureau’s investigation into the events surrounding Russia and the Trump campaign.
Just last week, Director Comey filed a request with the Justice Department for extra funds and manpower to aid in his investigation into Russia. I don’t need to tell you what “I’m going to need more staff” means when one is talking about a large counterintelligence investigation. This is pertinent when we discuss the firing of Director Comey, because it’s very unusual for a President to fire a FBI Director under any circumstances, and it is extraordinarily suspicious to do so when said FBI Director is conducting a significant investigation into activities pertaining to said President’s campaign and a foreign power.
To make matters more obvious, Trump’s letter to Comey does not even reference the e-mail investigation (as Mr. Rosenstein’s letter had), rather it includes this little excerpt:
While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation [by the FBI regarding Russia], I nevertheless concur with…
Weird that Trump would bring this up in a letter firing Comey ostensibly over his involvement in the e-mail investigation. His letter doesn’t actually mention the word “e-mail” or anything comparable once, instead focusing on Comey’s Russia investigation. If Comey’s removal is a result of the e-mails, then bringing up Russia would be irrelevant and impertinent. Trump has stuck with this line, saying in interviews and press briefings (the latter via Sean Spicer and Sarah Sanders) that he and Comey discussed the Russian investigation at least three times. Incidentally, that happens to be a significant breach of DOJ protocol (remember the Bill Clinton/Loretta Lynch lesson – don’t talk to the people investigating you/relatives), which raises the question of why Trump was trying to talk to Comey about this, and if Comey’s answers were coerced or prompted in any way. But that’s not the main point here; the main point here is that Trump clearly has his mind on Russia more than the e-mail investigation.
A lot of pundits are referring to the firing as the “Tuesday Night Massacre,” a reference to the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre when President Nixon offed Archibald Cox (and had to go through the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General to do so) from his role as the Watergate Special Prosecutor because he disagreed with his conduct. Cox, of course, was busy investigating Nixon, his re-election campaign, and his White House staff, so his firing made it look like President Nixon was getting rid of one of the few people in America with the power to investigate and have oversight over him. This did not go over well with Congress and the American people, who saw the firing as a gross abuse of power as well as a massive breach of Justice Department protocol. The investigations intensified, and public opinion swung sharply against the Nixon Administration.
Ten months later, President Richard Nixon resigned his post as President of the United States.
I don’t want to give the impression that Nixon’s firing of Archibald Cox and Trump’s firing of James Comey are equally serious, or that the latter is a criminal offense (it’s not, at least not by itself). However, they are definitely comparable situations. In each case, we have an embattled President firing someone in the middle of said someone’s investigation over said President under shady pretenses. However, Cox’s removal led to a bipartisan intensification of scrutiny over Watergate, and I suspect the removal of Director Comey will have a similar, if somewhat diminished effect. It is unclear what level of involvement Trump has in this whole Russia story (personally, I suspect he’s literally too narrow-minded and patriotic to intentionally collude with the Russians, although there is a mounting level of evidence that suggests a number of his advisers have shady Russian connections, and there is a high degree of certainty that the Russians intended to assist his run for President – with or without his consent), but it is very clear that the White House was not motivated to fire Comey based off the Clinton e-mail story, and that the specter of Russia is involved.
I said earlier that I started this article Tuesday night – in the span of 48 hours, I have done a sizable amount of research and reading, not because this is a huge case, but because the case keeps changing. When this story broke at around 5:45 Eastern Time, I figured that it was the result of the Russia investigation. When I checked again a few minutes later, details emerged alleging that the Trump Administration objected to Comey’s handling of the e-mail investigation. By midnight, that story had so many holes poked in it (by bajillions of media outlets) that they had to change. Yesterday – Wednesday – the White House tried to claim that Comey had lost the trust of his agents (which Acting Director McCabe summarily debunked today) and that the Russia investigation was actually fairly insignificant (also debunked by Mr. McCabe). Today, I woke up to a crapton of CNN alerts, including one saying that Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein wanted to resign over this issue, and that President Trump had wanted Director Comey out for weeks and even admitted that this was a pretext.
To put it another way, in the time it took for me to write these ~4800 words to debunk the White House’s lie of a story, they debunked it themselves, and then encouraged a government official to tear it apart further. If I had more time, I would have gone into much greater detail about the Russia story, including speculation on why Attorney General Sessions was involved in the firing (given that he recused himself over false testimony to Congress about the Russians), but I’m somewhat concerned that if I take another two hours, the White House will mess up and reveal their true rationale there too. In fact, I just checked a goddamn BuzzFeed article about “frorks” (at 11:23p ET) because I wanted to see what a friend of mine was reading in her Snap, and I found out from the goddamn sidebar that Trump confirmed that he was thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired Comey.
Ordinarily, for controversies critical of the Trump Administration, I would point you to do further reading with center-left sources, like the Washington Post or the New York Times, or nonpartisan papers, like TheHill or something. However, this controversy is so ridiculous that Trump is getting heat from conservatives like the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro and multiple commentators at the National Review, so I guess I don’t have to. Anyways, have fun, and keep an eye on the news, just in case more shoes start dropping.
 
So… yeah. Keep an eye out for these Russia shenanigans, because as much as Trump wants them to go away, his actions are highly suspect and do not represent the proper channels of investigation and discipline. While I disagree with many of Director Comey’s past actions (because if he hadn’t done them, we would have a President capable of speaking extemporaneously in complete sentences), I have nothing but respect for the man and I hope that he will one day return to the federal government and continue his public service under another, more competent, President. I also hope that Comey’s firing will just intensify the level of bipartisan scrutiny over the Trump/Kremlin debacle, such that the American public will get a better feel for how Russia has interfered in the 2016 Presidential Election, and if any of their operatives attempted to manipulate, blackmail, or otherwise screw with members of the Trump team. I am confident that the Senate Intelligence Committee and that the United States Intelligence Community will not be deterred by this or any other distraction, and I know for certain that the public is not deterred by the White House’s less-than-credible, self-debunked excuse to fire Director Comey.
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The 41-Vote Calculation Part II: Electric Boogaloo

At 9:30 AM on 10 April 2017, Neil Gorsuch’s official job title changed from “Judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit” to “Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.” Welcome to the bench, Justice Gorsuch, and congratulations.

Normally, any nomination to the bench requires 51 “yes” votes on the nominee and 60 votes to proceed with the actual confirmation vote (in other words, a Senator can agree to hold a confirmation vote on a nominee he/she disagrees with, or vote to continue a debate and postpone the nomination).  This means that every Supreme Court nominee must meet a certain level of bipartisan support, because we rarely see situations where the nominating President’s party controls all sixty necessary seats. Presidents Bush and Obama managed to clear this threshold with their nominees, maintaining a general atmosphere of bipartisanship and good vibes. Even Justice Samuel Alito, who only received 58 votes in his actual confirmation vote, cleared the 60-vote threshold when 72 Senators (including more than a few Democrats) decided to go ahead with the vote.

As you all know by now, this threshold no longer exists for Supreme Court nominees. On Thursday, Majority Leader McConnell held a simple majority vote on Senate parliamentary procedures, eliminating the Supreme Court filibuster. The reason? Democrats were trying to filibuster then-Judge Neil Gorsuch. If you read my previous post, the 41-Vote Calculation (Part I) this is what I call the aftermath of Scenario One.

At the beginning of last week, Minority Leader Schumer cleared the 41-vote “anti-Gorsuch” threshold when he gained the support of all but three Democratic Senators. In a normal world, this would only happen if Gorsuch were a horrible candidate with no respect for the Court and no legal mind whatsoever, but here it’s different. It turns out Gorsuch is a pretty vanilla conservative, and unlike Harriet Miers or Robert Bork, he’s not that objectionable of a candidate. Sure, I don’t agree with him on most things and there’s that little issue about blatantly plagiarizing medical texts, but philosophical disagreement isn’t grounds to block a vote on a Supreme Court nominee, just grounds to cast a “nay” vote.

I may be stating the obvious, but the main reason the Senate Democrats tried to block him was payback for the way that Majority Leader McConnell ignored last year’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland. Schumer knew it was never going to work, but he did it anyways.

Why?

Because it’s a fight, and that’s how Democrats roll now.

Come to think of it, the casualties on “our side” weren’t that severe. Gorsuch got to the bench, which was gonna happen no matter what. Instead of replacing someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Stephen Breyer, he’s replacing the late Justice Antonin Scalia, so the Court isn’t getting any more conservative than it was before Justice Scalia’s passing. Three vulnerable Democrats (Sens. Manchin, Heitkamp, and Donnelly) defected, but out of political necessity more than anything. Even the nuclear option hasn’t done that much damage, at least in the short term. There was no practical scenario in which Senate Democrats could have filibustered one of Trump’s appointees without McConnell pressing a metaphorical big red button. The same applies to future nominees, too. Unless Trump truly loses his few remaining marbles and appoints a disgraced lawyer with a fake Bachelor’s degree, his nominees will have the support of most, if not all, the Senate Republicans.

Does the nuclear option set a bad precedent for bipartisanship? Yeah. Is it the end of the world? Not really. As long as progressive activists don’t take Manchin/Heitkamp/Donnelly’s votes the wrong way and try to primary them (again, they may be some of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, but they’re the only liberals who can come from West Virginia, North Dakota, and Indiana these days), I don’t anticipate any short-term political losses among Democrats. Besides, Democrats and Republicans alike have been sliding towards nuclear parliamentary procedure for decades now, so it’s not like it could have been averted last week.

Trump got his nominee. This battle is a loss, but it’s no devastating blow. We’ll get him next time, I guess.

 

 

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Brief Thoughts: On DNC Chairman Tom Perez

Today, 435 of the Democratic National Committee’s 447 members voted to select their Chairman. With a majority of 235 out of 435 votes, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez edged out Representative Keith Ellison and secured his place as the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

As Chairman, Perez has the ability to help dictate and shape a national strategy to retake over a thousand lost seats in a bunch of state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress (oh, and the White House). Perez also has the responsibility to help unite the Democratic Party after months of tense ideological conflict between its “establishment” and “progressive” wings, in part because he himself is a progressive Democrat who became the race’s establishment candidate by default.

His first act out of the gate was to nominate Representative Keith Ellison as the DNC’s Deputy Chair, serving directly under Perez. I was initially a little worried that the two friends would be unable to help bridge the DNC’s ideological differences, but it appears my worries are unfounded. Of course, the party is going to have a tough time balancing hardcore progressive activists against more moderate/centrist incumbents, but with their message of unity, I suspect that there’ll be less focus on primarying candidates of an insufficient level of ideological purity, and more focus on taking down Republican candidates in general elections (yay).

Both Perez and Ellison have an immense amount of organizing ability, and the two will make a formidable team in conducting the new Democratic agenda. Among his many stated goals, Perez wants the party’s organizers to focus on the following (paraphrasing here):

  • Regain seats in every office, from state legislatures to Senate seats to school board seats.
  • Pick up seats in traditionally red states and preserve existing ones, like Jon Tester’s Senate seat in Montana and Claire McCaskill’s in Missouri.
  • Bring back rural and suburban areas (see: states like Iowa) to the Democratic Party.
  • Ensure that Donald Trump is a one-term President.

Because Perez’s role as DNC Chairman and Ellison’s role as Deputy are both based around fundraising and organization, they don’t have a whole lot of power in actually setting policy. Both men want a $15 minimum wage in every state, along with a more effective social safety net and civil liberties for everyone, but they can only effect that change through indirect means (see also: $$$$$). In order to attain the Democratic Party’s favored policy measures, Chairman Perez needs to start raising metric buttloads of cash and funneling them into vulnerable swing districts and Senate campaigns. “Money out of politics” is a catchy chant, but ultimately the donations of a gajillion committed Party members (+ support from business, let’s be real here) will decide the victors of state, local, and federal elections. Previous chairmen like Howard Dean came up with organizational strategies like the “50-state strategy” with the intent of allowing Democrats to become competitive in every possible state, maintaining majorities in stronghold states and sizable oppositions in red states. If we repeat that strategy, the Democratic Party will need to pull in tens of millions of dollars each month just to keep pace with the Republican Party’s deep coffers.

With Chairman Tom Perez at the helm (and Deputy Keith Ellison at his side) I have little doubt in my mind that the DNC’s fundraising goals can be met and surpassed. There’s a crapton of energy in this nation at their disposal, and if anyone can harness it, it’s going to be a progressive* Labor Secretary and an even-more-progressive Congressman with the credentials, energy, and ideals to take back the United States government. The two have connections to a bunch of labor unions, grassroots organizations, and previous connected party leaders.

(*Side note: Chairman Perez isn’t quite as liberal as Ellison, but they’re pretty close. The attribution of Perez as an establishment figure comes from supporters like me who are more moderate, and are therefore slightly more inclined to follow Perez’s brand of progressive ideology than Ellison’s. For instance, Perez supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Ellison does not.)

If there is a road leading to the successful reconquest of the political majority, I suspect these two leaders have just taken the first step down that road.

 

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Really Brief Thoughts: General H.R. McMaster

Today, 20 February 2017, President Trump nominated Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster to fill General Michael Flynn’s role as his National Security Advisor.

I don’t know much about General McMaster’s current policies and how he stands on Iran and Russia and stuff, but I can say that McMaster is one of the most highly-respected field commanders in the United States Army, having served as an Army Captain in the magnificent ass-kicking that was Operation Desert Storm. Others probably know him as a prolific writer who has been more than willing to challenge old ideas and general status quo stuff. General McMaster also has a pretty clear idea of what the military is and how it should be used: According to McMaster, military deployments require clear and achievable plans of action, and that civilian leaders need to be challenged and prompted for details if no such plan is provided. That means vague concepts like “stopping communism by propping up a weak South Vietnam indefinitely” and “nation-building” fall by the wayside because of their subjective nature. His most famous book (which criticized Vietnam), Dereliction of Duty, is on the USMC reading list because it’s just that good.

But enough about important policy specifics that have the potential to shape the way that Trump will use the military, I just want to talk about McMaster’s exploits in Desert Storm, namely at the Battle of 73 Easting (yes, that’s the name of the place – its longitude was at 73 degrees east).

Back in 1991, Captain McMaster and his troop of tanks deployed to Iraq as a component of Desert Storm. His troop of M1 Abrams tanks was going about their day, rolling across the Iraqi desert with the intention of blowing up any hostile Iraqi Republican Guard forces and securing the area for continued ground operations. On 26 February, McMaster’s Eagle Troop found themselves a bunch of Republican Guard tanks, personnel carriers, and assorted trucks and stuff. In terms of sheer numbers, the Republican Guard’s twenty-eight tanks vastly outnumbered McMaster’s nine. Worse yet, the Republican Guard commander was a graduate of a US Army training program based in Fort Benning, so he knew his stuff.

Unfortunately for the Iraqis, McMaster knew his stuff too, and his nine leading tanks blasted the hell out of their opponents, riding through battle while launching wire-guided missiles and explosive rounds. To avoid enemy fire, McMaster’s forces did what tacticians called the “kick ass” approach. Instead of dodging shells and undergoing complex maneuvers, McMaster’s forces took a shortcut and just blew up every hostile vehicle in sight. In all, Eagle Troop took down twenty-eight Iraqi tanks and around fifty other vehicles in a little over twenty minutes, leaving the battlefield with zero casualties and a bunch of prisoners in tow.

For his actions at 73 Easting and in other Desert Storm engagements, Captain McMaster won the Silver Star. Six days short of the twenty-sixth anniversary of the 73 Easting engagement, now-General McMaster is the President’s National Security Advisor. While I have no illusions about Trump’s immense leadership/character flaws, I’m happy that General McMaster is in his inner circle to keep him relatively level.

 

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The United States Election of…2017?

If you thought November 8th marked the end of the election season and a brief respite from the barely-organized chaos of political campaigning, think again.

It turns out that while the United States only holds federal elections for the Senate and House every two years, there are some states that hold elections for their governors in certain off-years. If you’re a resident of New Jersey or Virginia, this is your lucky year.

That’s right – this is happening again, and the stakes are pretty high. Even though this won’t affect the balance of the Senate or the House of Representatives, this year presents an opportunity for the Democratic Party to retain electoral control over the Governor’s Office in Virginia and reclaim the Governorship of New Jersey. It also presents the chance for Democrats to retake the Virginia House of Delegates, which is currently controlled by a Republican majority.

Why This Matters

Right now, only sixteen states have Democratic governors, and the Party only controls twelve state legislatures (only five of which actually overlap). While it’s a lot more fun to focus on the big-ticket races for the Presidency or Senate seats, individual states still have a lot of power over determining the politics of the nation.

  1. Governors can nominate replacements for Senators in some states, including Virginia and New Jersey. This means if New Jersey Senator Cory Booker becomes the President or Vice President of the United States, the Governor can put up a replacement to serve the remainder of Booker’s term. The same applies to New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, who might be in a bit of hot water to the tune of fourteen federal corruption charges (haha oops) and might have to resign at some point in the next year or two.
  2. This is the Patient Freedom Act of 2017, also known as the Cassidy-Collins bill. Its goal: replace Obamacare by giving all fifty states the option to do what they wish with their implementation of Obamacare. Republican state governments are going to do their best to proceed with repealing those implementations, and Democratic state governments are probably going to go ahead with maintaining it, creating a series of state-level Romneycares. Because most states have Republican governments, that means Obamacare would be in some pretty serious danger if this bill passes.
  3. When religious-right conservatives talk about letting gay marriage remain a state-level decision, this is what they mean.
  4. Guess who gets to map out House districts every ten years? That’s right – state legislatures!

Obviously, states have a lot more power than I’m going to go into, considering that they act as small-scale incubators for all sorts of policies, control vast amounts of resources, and can have their local AG offices do things like challenge ridiculously un-nuanced travel bans in court. The point is, they’re a big deal and deserve significant attention from voters.

If your goal is to resist the new Trump administration and limit its power, don’t pass up this election. It’s the first of many in which the Democratic Party can demonstrate resistance to the White House’s extreme and amateurish form of governance. When President Obama says “don’t boo, vote!” this is what he’s talking about.

Alternatively, if you’re a Republican/Trump supporter living in New Jersey or Virginia (and I know at least one of you is reading this (hey how u doin’)), I’m sure everything will be fine and you won’t need to do anything this November, so just take the day off and catch up on some light reading.

New Jersey Gubernatorial Election

I will be referencing some polling numbers in this section, which I have lifted from a recent Quinnipiac poll. If you wish to play along, catch it here.

If the extreme unpopularity of Governor Chris Christie (17% approval) is any indication, Democrats stand a good chance of retaking the Governor’s mansion this November. Throw in the fact that Donald Trump’s Presidency is pretty poorly-received in New Jersey (36% job approval, 34% think his policies will be good for the state) and the Republicans are in for a very rough time this November.

Chris Christie isn’t up for re-election (yay term limits) but his Lieutenant Governor – Kim Guadagno– is running to replace him. She’s not a close supporter of Trump like Christie is, but the immense hatred towards Christie and his association with Trump may yet deal a good deal of collateral damage to her general election campaign. The election is still in the primary stage, but Lieutenant Governor Guadagno is the favorite for the nomination, so I reckon it’s probably safe to refer to her as the Republican candidate.

The job of opposing Guadagno will likely fall to Phil Murphy, a businessman and the former Ambassador to Germany. He’s a Democrat and while he hasn’t officially locked down the nomination either, he has a big war chest and the support of a number of prominent New Jersey Democrats including Sens. Booker and Menendez. In the polling question that asked respondents about Murphy and Guadagno, the two are roughly tied in terms of favorability thanks to their lack of name recognition (21% and 18% respectively). However, Murphy’s lack of connections to the Christie administration and his affiliation with the Democratic Party in a super-blue state means that he’s already leading by a sixteen point margin.

Obviously, the contest isn’t over – Murphy and Guadagno are going to square off in at least one gubernatorial debate this summer/autumn, which means she can pick up some momentum from seven years of experience as the Lieutenant Governor and two as a county sheriff. That said, if Murphy does a decently good job in the debates, makes some good speeches on the trail, and doesn’t contract a case of smallpox or something, he’s got a good-to-fair chance of becoming Governor of New Jersey.

I happen to think that Murphy’s victory is more of a probability than a possibility, but that doesn’t mean the election is over. Complacency among Democrat-leaning voters and a willingness to go third-party ended up being one of the strongest factors that led to Hillary Clinton’s defeat on Election Day, and while the anti-Trump fervor is somewhere between “intense” and “ferocious” right now, it could easily die down between now and this November (and by die down, I mean drop from “intense/ferocious” to “vocal/aggressive”) and lead to fewer votes for Murphy. Because this is a gubernatorial race, the size of the electorate is smaller, and therefore every vote counts. 

Anyways, be sure to vote this November. Retaking one Governor’s Mansion won’t do much, but it’ll be the first in a number of electoral victories that the Democratic Party desperately needs.

Virginia House of Delegates Election

I don’t know much about Virginian legislative politics, considering that >90% of the time I’ve spent in the state of Virginia was getting to/from Reagan National/Dulles International or sitting around in the latter. In fact, the majority of my knowledge about the workings of the state government comes from NPR talk show hosts and their guests talking in the background. I don’t really think that the Democrats can take back the House of Delegates considering that most of the state is rural and conservative, but it’s not impossible. At the very least, the Democratic Party stands a good chance of taking back a handful of seats. I guess.

Virginia Gubernatorial Election

This is the dangerous one. I’m fairly confident that with some organizing and voter motivation, the Democrats can retake New Jersey, but I’m not so sure that we can hold on to the Governor’s Mansion in Virginia. As of now, Virginia is a lean-blue swing state at the federal level, having voted for President Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008/2012/2016. It also has two excellent Senators: Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Unfortunately, the gubernatorial election is significantly more dicey.

The incumbent governor, Terry McAuliffe, is term-limited and cannot run in this November’s election. The Democratic and Republican nominations are less concrete in Virginia than they are in New Jersey, but right now the frontrunners look like Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Republican operative/former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie (R). Right now, Northam has the support of Governor McAuliffe and Sens. Warner and Kaine, and his only opposition is a former US Representative, though the primary could certainly heat up. Gillespie is a traditional Republican with good credentials and a background as a Presidential Counselor during the Bush Administration, and he nearly beat Senator Mark Warner in the 2014 election, so his ability should be noted. Right now, he’s facing off against two Trump-style Republicans, and although the majority of primary voters are undecided, Gillespie has somewhere around 31% of the primary vote locked in.

Like I mentioned above, Virginia is a lean-blue state at the federal level, but Democratic candidates still have to rely on the heavily-populated areas of Northern Virginia to offset opposition in the south of the state, and must maintain a respectable amount of support across the state. In 2014, Mark Warner nearly lost his Senate re-election because of complacency among voters and a surprisingly high amount of support for Gillespie, but it was NoVa that pulled through for him. I haven’t gone back to check every other major statewide race between 2008 and 2016, but I bet this has been the case for most Democratic victories in the state in that period.

Gillespie is a traditional conservative, which means it’ll be difficult for Lieutenant Governor Northam to really tie him down with any direct associations with Donald Trump (assuming Trump is still super-unpopular by November). Still, it’s incredibly important for everyone in Virginia (including everyone in places like Fairfax, Arlington, Charlottesville, and Blacksburg) to get out and vote this November because a Gillespie election means that the Republican Party (which, despite Gillespie’s refusal, is a pro-Trump institution now) would regain control of another state government. Just like in New Jersey, Virginia state races are smaller such that every vote matters a great deal.

Election Day is November 7th, 2017. Save the date, Virginians/New Jerseyians.

 

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Brief Thoughts: The Yemen Raid

Donald Trump is in the process of learning why every Commander-in-Chief before him has left the office of President with way more gray hair than normal. I think we should cut him some slack on this one.

On 29 January, a daring Navy SEAL raid infiltrated a Yemeni village with the intent of capturing or killing a top al-Qaeda commander and seizing a large amount of digital intelligence. The operation succeeded in securing a treasure trove of data, but not without cost – a V-22 Osprey aircraft was destroyed, thirty civilians died, and Chief Petty Officer William Owens was killed in action. Last Wednesday, his remains were brought to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware where the President and his daughter stood to receive them.

I don’t claim to have much of a clue as to what goes on in Donald Trump’s head, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that his visit to Dover was probably a somber conclusion to one of the darkest moments of his Presidency. I can only imagine how he must have felt.

There are a lot of questions about the planning and approval for this raid, many of them involving the manner in which the raid was green-lighted. I’m not going to talk about them now, because these details are disputed between the White House, the Pentagon, former White House/DoD officials, and multiple media outlets. They are serious questions regarding the readiness of our military and Trump’s preparedness to be the C-in-C, but I am not equipped to comment on them at this time.

I’m here to say that raids aren’t always perfect operational successes. In fact, it’s pretty common for operations to go wrong, even if all the planning was done flawlessly. In this case, things did go wrong – a SEAL lost his life, USS Makin Island was unable to provide sufficient medevac support, an Osprey went down, and a number of civilians lost their lives. The reality is that this sort of thing happens all the time, regardless of whether or not the President is particularly well-equipped to handle this situation.

I don’t like basing articles off of anecdotes where I cannot point to, or do not wish to point to, specific evidence, but this is an exception because I have been hearing a lot of criticism thrown towards the conduct of this raid, as if Trump himself were responsible for the casualties of the operation. While he obviously is responsible for the operation itself, it’s unreasonable to suggest that he is responsible for the loss of life and the failure to meet all of the raid’s goals, especially because we do not yet know the full extent of what happened that night (for instance, some of the civilian casualties could have been from an explosive detonated by the occupants of the stronghold or stray bullets from those same terrorists). Had this been President Obama or either President Bush at the helm, this operation still could have gone south, and it wouldn’t necessarily have been their fault.

The historic raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound was a massive success – no SEALs were killed and the operatives were able to kill bin Laden and retrieve an ungodly amount of data. However, it came dangerously close to failure on at least one occasion, even though the generals and admirals in charge of the plan had gone through nearly every contingency. At the beginning of the raid, two stealth Black Hawk helicopters made their way to the compound and descended into its courtyard – one Black Hawk stalled out and plummeted several stories to the ground, crashing with its tail propped up against the wall of the compound. The SEALs escaped the wrecked chopper and continued with their mission, but it’s entirely possible that helicopter crash could have killed a number of operatives and forced the team to abandon the operation altogether. While this was going down, the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State/woman-who-should-have-been-President (grumble grumble) were all watching in anxious anticipation at the White House Situation Room, not knowing if they had just witnessed a catastrophic failure or a daring save.

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Situation Room, Pete Souza.

You’ve probably seen this picture a hundred times. According to photographer Pete Souza and President Obama, this shot was taken just as news was coming in of the Black Hawk crash. The President and Secretaries Gates and Clinton all said that the 38-minute raid represented the longest minutes of their lives.

As we all know by now, the operation was a success and Osama bin Laden was neutralized along with a number of his loyalists, but the mission easily could have been a disaster for the Obama Administration and for the United States. Still, this was the best opportunity the White House had to stop bin Laden, and they gambled and won.

Anyways, getting back on point, I don’t know the full story about the raid in Yemen, other than the fact that there were some heavy losses despite an overall success – like I said, there are obviously a lot of questions that need to be answered over the next few weeks. I just want to provide some perspective here, showing that things can, and often do, go horribly wrong. Often, the President cannot control or divine how successful an op can be. Don’t be too hasty to dismiss the raid’s casualties as a result of Trump’s inexperience, because this sort of thing happens. We like to think of SEALs as invincible god-like troopers, parachuting onto destroyers to save Tom Hanks from pirates, sniping insurgents from mountains, and ending the reign of terror of the most wanted man alive, but they put their lives at risk every day. Raids like this happen all the time, and we can’t always expect them to go 100% smoothly. Maybe this was a factor of bad planning, maybe it was just a few unlucky shots.

 

ESR ODIKYU VLIEXB UET RN OROATN.

Why “Take the Oil” Is a Terrible Idea

Early in his unfortunately-historic campaign for President, Donald Trump said that he would get rid of ISIS by bombing the bejesus out of their oil fields and getting American oil companies to set up shop and “take the oil.” Said companies would then extract as much oil as possible and send it to the U.S., thus depriving ISIS of Iraqi oil money while enriching the American people. This comment raised a bunch of eyebrows, but it didn’t get the attention it should have, especially from his more hawkish political opponents in the Republican primary campaign.

I don’t usually read or agree with the National Review (considering that it’s a conservative news magazine founded by William F. Buckley) but they actually did a pretty good job of tracking down all the times Trump has supported this idea in the past. As the article mentions, he said the same thing in April 2011 when NATO forces launched combat operations in Libya (in this case, stopping Iran and al-Qaeda from taking the oil in each country). Since the article’s publishing, his idea has popped up from time to time, notably at Matt Lauer’s Commander-in-Chief forum this September (quoted below) and in front of the Wall of Heroes at the CIA (also quoted below). All emphasis mine.

TRUMP: …Matt, what happens is, we get nothing. You know, it used to be to the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victor. But I always said: Take the oil.

One of the benefits we would have had if we took the oil is ISIS would not have been able to take oil and use that oil…

LAUER: Let me stay on ISIS…

TRUMP: … to fuel themselves.

From his CIA visit:

The old expression, “to the victor belong the spoils” — you remember.  I always used to say, keep the oil.  I wasn’t a fan of Iraq.  I didn’t want to go into Iraq.  But I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong.  And I always said, in addition to that, keep the oil.  Now, I said it for economic reasons…

Now, it’s certainly true that ISIS managed to profit massively from seizing Iraq’s oilfields and selling around 45,000 barrels/day of black-market crude to bring in somewhere around a million dollars a day. For a large organization like ISIS, that’s plenty to offset personnel costs and maintain a limited amount of infrastructure and government across their territory in Iraq and Syria. If Trump were to suggest that the United States should bomb Iraq’s oil infrastructure and then stop there, that would make sense. After all, that’s what we’ve been doing for years, specifically since 2014. Crippling the ability of terrorists to profit off of illegal oil sales is the first step in loosening their hold over territory – less money means fewer soldiers get the salaries they were promised. Anyways, crackdowns and airstrikes have severely reduced their revenue, and the loss of territory means they can’t sell refined oil products to as many of their subjects. Obviously, this has to be followed up with ground forces to secure the oilfields and/or put out the fires raging from them.

If Trump had just said “we should bomb the oilfields that ISIS is using,” that would have been fine. Hell, I would have commended it for being more reasonable than, say, Ted Cruz’s idiotic suggestion to carpet bomb ISIS forces (but not civilians) until the sand glows red (another military policy comment that made me groan out loud in the middle of a Republican debate).

  • To briefly sidetrack for those who are not versed in strategic warfare, the practice of carpet bombing is another way to say “we’re going to turn an entire city into a parking lot.” There is no such thing as precision carpet-bombing where you can kill terrorists and leave everyone else unharmed, because the whole point of carpet-bombing is that an entire grid of land is reduced to rubble. For Ted Cruz, a sitting United States Senator with assignments to the Senate Armed Services Committee and the associated Subcommittee on Strategic Forces (you know, the kind that deals with oversight regarding strategic bombing), the notion that one can order an attack wing of B-52 bombers to blow up all ISIS forces in Raqqa and Mosul without harming any civilians is beyond mere stupidity. It has ascended into complete, total assclownery unbecoming of a United States Senator or any American citizen with a high school diploma.
    • Ted Cruz thinking he can carpet-bomb ISIS with minimal loss of civilian life is like William Tell thinking he can shoot an apple off his son’s head with a truck bomb.

Getting back to the point, Trump didn’t just stop at saying “we should bomb the oil.” He said that we should have taken over Iraq’s oil supply in 2003 and kept the revenue for ourselves, and suggested that we should have done the same in Libya in 2011. His idea now is to make up for lost time by sending enough ground forces to take over the ISIS-controlled oil fields and set up oil rigs to guarantee that the United States can start drawing a profit from the War in Iraq. He assures us that if we had just followed his advice, we wouldn’t have ISIS to deal with, and we would make a lot of money from our invasion. That’s what “to the victor goes the spoils” means – a return to the wars of conquest in the name of money and resources.

UNFORTUNATELY, TAKING IRAQ’S OIL IS AN INCREDIBLY BAD IDEA.

Let’s break our Commander-in-Chief’s genius plan down a little bit, to see why it’s loaded with a bajillion legal, logistical, tactical, and strategic issues.

PROBLEM NO. 1: IT’S A WAR CRIME

Trump doesn’t really care about what the rules of war say, because he seems to view them as a hindrance more than anything else. In fact, until Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Trump that torture is a bad idea, he was espousing his love for waterboarding at every opportunity. Unfortunately, torture is clearly defined as a war crime, and we happen to be signatories to a UN treaty saying that it’s a war crime.

On that same note, there is no indication that Trump cares (or even that he knows) that his actions would be in violation of the text of one article of the United Nations Charter.

Article II (2) of the United Nations Charter:

Section 3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

Section 4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

 

Given that the purpose of the United Nations is to prevent wars, particularly petty ones, we’re already in warm water. Considering that Trump’s aim with Middle Eastern wars is to invade, then “secure” it by taking over their oil supplies, one could very easily argue that such a war violates the purposes of the United Nations because we would be violating the sovereignty of another nation with a motivation to enrich ourselves. That in turn disrupts the international order of peace, security, and justice, because the entire world will have just witnessed the United States breaking Iraq’s kneecaps and running off with its wallet. If you want to get the United States in scalding hot water with every single nation on Earth, this is how.

PROBLEM NO. 2: IRAQ DID THE SAME THING TO KUWAIT, AND WE STARTED THE GULF WAR OVER IT

In August 1990, a murderous dictator named Saddam Hussein got pissed that Iraq wasn’t doing so hot (after all, Iraq had just lost to Iran in the aptly-named Iran-Iraq War) and decided to revitalize the national morale and his flagging economy by invading the small oil-rich nation of Kuwait. After only a few days of fighting, Kuwait was under Saddam’s control and Kuwait’s oil reserves fell into his hands.

Almost instantly, the rest of the world sprung into action. The President of the United States, George H.W. Bush, ordered the immediate imposition of economic sanctions and deployed US military forces to Saudi Arabia. Within weeks, a massive multi-national military coalition had assembled on Iraq’s doorstep, ready to deliver an ass-kicking of astronomical proportions. On 16 January 1991, coalition forces launched Operation: Desert Storm, and the rest is history.

The lesson that most people took from the Gulf War? Don’t invade nations if one of your goals is to take their stuff. Donald Trump seemed to have missed that lesson.

PROBLEM NO. 3: PEOPLE CAN GET PISSED IF YOU STEAL THEIR ECONOMY

Trump’s main justification for “taking the oil” is that the deprivation of oil wealth would have stopped ISIS from being able to pay its soldiers and administrators. Without a source of financial fuel, he claims, ISIS and similar terrorist organizations wouldn’t have even gotten off the ground.

Unsurprisingly, that’s wrong. This isn’t wrong from a liberal point of view, it’s wrong from a common sense point of view. According to data from 2014, the oil industry made up 60% of Iraq’s GDP and provided somewhere around 90% of the government’s revenues. Doing some back-of-the-napkin math, that indicates that out of a total GDP of 227 billion US dollars, around 136 billion dollars comes from oil. Despite this, Iraq is one of the world’s poorer countries, with a per-capita GDP of somewhere around $7,100 a head. Like many poor countries, Iraq has a problem with terrorism. Cut out 136 billion from 227 billion and Iraq becomes, like, twice as poor. Government revenue grinds to a halt, people stop working, and the utility infrastructure stops working.

Poor countries are susceptible to terrorism, insurgency, and civil unrest because its people are usually impoverished, sick, and generally unhappy. They often feel their government doesn’t put any effort into trying to protect or assist them. In fact, one of the main criticisms of our failed “nation-building” program in Iraq was that it did little to address widespread poverty and infrastructural collapse in the years after our invasion. As a result, the government lost authority in the eyes of its people, and pissed youngsters started signing up for radical insurgent groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. That was when we were trying to not actively destroy the Iraqi economy and retool it for our own needs. Imagine how bad it would be if we were siphoning off billions of barrels of oil for ourselves.

To put it another way, imagine what would happen if your government had collapsed and the United States Army was responsible for stealing the majority of your economy? How would you react if you were in a nation with a high proliferation of firearms and explosives? Returning to the perspective of us Americans, would you want to be an enlisted soldier patrolling in 120 degree heat with the creeping suspicion that everyone in the country hates you and your buddies for no fault of your own?

The easiest way to get an entire country to take up arms against an army is to destroy their way of life and occupy their homeland. ISIS may not have been able to secure the oil fields in the north of the country, but I guarantee that at least a dozen other terrorist organizations would have sprung up in their place, motivated by the complete and total collapse of the Iraqi economy, the government, and a bitter, burning hatred for an occupying force. To rephrase, we would be angering a nation of 34 million people for no good reason, creating an unnecessary security risk.

By the time we finally skip town, we would be leaving an impoverished war-torn country (again, this country happens to be filled with unlicensed guns and explosives) with zero oil/natural gas sector and no functioning government. Guess what’s going to spring up in its place? A gargantuan refugee crisis and a massive outpouring of terrorist activity. I’m no expert, but that doesn’t sound like a win to me.

PROBLEM NO. 4: THE OCCUPATION WOULD BE STUPIDLY EXPENSIVE, NOT TO MENTION HORRIFYINGLY DANGEROUS

Under Trump’s proposed “take the oil” plan, US forces would have had to remain on the ground indefinitely, guarding the oil rigs and pipelines from insurgents (which, by the way, would take a GINORMOUS amount of manpower). Setting aside the obvious fact that the President would be placing thousands of men and women in harm’s way for a mercenary-type cause, we would be conducting a gargantuan military operation. Oil is profitable, but it’s not cheap to run an oil infrastructure when you need north of two hundred thousand troops making sure that nobody tries to blow up the pipeline or take a potshot at some Lance Corporal trying to go about his day. To successfully run an occupying army with the aim of siphoning off their entire oil/natural gas sector, we would need to effectively pacify the nation of Iraq for as long as we desire.

Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t have an exit plan for his brilliant idea – the only specifics he’s given are “we’ll have Exxon and Chevron set it up” and “we’ll give some to the Iraqis but keep the rest for ourselves.” Of course, it’ll take decades to actually get a decent amount of oil out of the ground, and to fund that endeavor we’d need a MASSIVE train of military logistics keeping hundreds of thousands of troops fed and supplied in large, secure permanent bases. We would need a god-awful amount of resources just to secure the pipelines, rigs, and refineries as well, because that involves conducting house-to-house raids to eliminate potential terrorist plots as well as constant aerial surveillance.

Oh, yeah, and there’s the slight problem of the Iraqi military. In 2011, we left for two reasons: Firstly, we were sick and tired of hanging around in Iraq and figured Nouri al-Maliki could take things over from there (lol). Secondly, we were no longer welcome – the Status of Forces Agreement, which governed our presence and the hospitality of the Iraqi government, expired on 31 December 2011. Any continuing US military presence after that date would have been in violation of this treaty and we would become an illegal occupying force. I’m a fan of global American might, but I really don’t like sticking around in a country where the inhabitants and the government want us dead.

PROBLEM NO. 5: LOSS OF AMERICAN REPUTATION

This last problem isn’t new. While the United States found near-universal popularity after the understandable First Gulf War, we didn’t enjoy nearly as much luck the second time around. Our reputation as the world’s trusted policeman nearly collapsed, and trust in the ability of George W. Bush (who, outside of Iraq, had a pretty clear and understandable foreign policy doctrine) to lead the Free World eroded. Turns out, people get pretty unhappy when we invade countries with only a shaky legal basis. Our allies questioned our judgment, our enemies mocked us, and other potential “victims” worried if they were going to be ‘next’ in line to get mugged.

I will freely admit that we invaded the nation of Iraq with at least some good intentions (the exact amount is up to some debate, but I think we can all agree that President Bush was pretty sick of Saddam Hussein’s shenanigans, and so was the public, although that didn’t necessarily mean the public wanted to go to war over it). We tried our best to make something of a crappy invasion, and we weren’t actively/intentionally trying to destroy the entire nation of Iraq or its economy.

Trump’s off-the-top-of-his-head “take the oil” idea would have shot our international reputation in the face. Not only would the United States be known as the nation that accidentally invades countries without a solid casus belli, we would also be known as the nation that has no problem with shamelessly exploiting an entire economy to try (and fail) to cover the costs of the invasion. Our foreign policy doctrine would be tainted with the direct promise of oil money and the spoils of war, like a modern-day Roman Republic where leaders led military expeditions for cash and glory rather than good will and peace.

SO, WHAT’S THE TAKE-AWAY FROM ALL THIS?

Luckily, Trump’s “take the oil” idea is just that – an idea. It’s something he’s brought up before, and while it should have gotten him disqualified in the eyes of Republican primary voters, it’s not likely to progress now. Right now, Trump’s Secretary of Defense is an honorable man, a former USMC four-star-general named James Mattis. Mattis is an opponent of torture (because it doesn’t work), and he’s a capable commander who knows the risks involved in war. If Trump tries to bring this idea up in the Situation Room, Mattis and Chairman Joseph Dunford (another USMC general) are very likely to smack it down. For all of Trump’s brashness, he tends to listen to these people. For that, I am grateful.

This was a thought exercise in which I spent nearly 3000 words attempting to tear apart the argument of a man who is presently the single most powerful leader on Earth in command of the entire United States military. Unfortunately, this barely even scratches the surface of it. The role of Commander-in-Chief is one that takes a solemn attitude and a calm, nuanced approach to the manner in which our world operates. Trump may be doing some on-the-job learning, but the ideas he espoused during the campaign border on the ridiculous.

If you disagree with my take on foreign policy and the way in which our military should conduct itself abroad, I understand – your input is always welcome, especially if you believe “taking the oil” is a good idea.

After writing this article, I found an interesting source by the Washington Post about this very issue. Give it a read here.

 

 

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The 41-Vote Calculation

 

Last Tuesday, Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the ninth seat on the United States Supreme Court, replacing last year’s nomination for Judge Merrick Garland. Gorsuch’s nomination may fill the shoes of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who had served thirty years with distinction as the Supreme Court’s conservative lion.

In picking Gorsuch, Trump has found a constitutional originalist who will uphold the original intent of the Constitution and not try to, in the words of many conservative commentators, “legislate from the bench.” Judge Gorsuch is a brilliant, warm jurist who respects all his colleagues and gets along with just about everyone. He even clerked for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who happens to be the Court’s conservative-ish swing vote – it’s not outside the realm of possibility that he could influence some of Kennedy’s own opinions during debates. Gorsuch doesn’t have a controversial paper trail, and he’s got great credentials that any Senator would like. The icing on the cake: Gorsuch is a 49-year old skier from Colorado, which means that the Court’s ninth seat is going to someone who is functionally immortal.

To put it another way, I’m freaking out.

Senate Democrats have publicly expressed interest in two options: the first is to confirm Mr. Gorsuch for the United States Supreme Court in a traditional, albeit grueling series of hearings and debates. The second option is a revival of the same kind of obstructionism that Republicans used on Merrick Garland – an attempt at payback for what Mitch McConnell did just a year ago.

The first option – confirmation – is unpleasant for Democrats, myself included. It means that the Supreme Court is going to get another opponent of abortion and government regulation, and we’ll be handing Donald Trump one of the easiest wins of his Presidency. It also means we’d be caving to the Senate Republicans who held up Merrick Garland’s confirmation for 293 days and proving that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley can trigger a constitutional crisis and come out the other side practically unscathed. While the balance of the Court won’t shift all that much on paper (remember, we’re replacing one conservative with another), Gorsuch is going to be on the bench for somewhere around three decades along with the not-too-old Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts. Even if the confirmation takes months, it’ll still happen, and the Court will once again be a 5-4 conservative court.

Like I mentioned above, there’s a second option – obstruction. All it takes to stall Gorsuch’s confirmation is a filibuster supported by 41 Senators, thus stopping the Senate’s ability to hold a final confirmation vote. With 48 Senators, the Democrats don’t have enough to stop Gorsuch in the actual vote, but they do have enough to prevent the vote from ever taking place. Yay?

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Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Let’s sort this out into two big scenarios in order to get a feel for just how screwed we (the Democrats) are.

SCENARIO ONE: The Filibuster.

While the filibuster will shore the Democratic base and make the Senate leadership look strong in their impassioned defense of Merrick Garland and all the policies Gorsuch opposes, it’s doomed to fail. You may have heard of a little something called the “nuclear option” lately, and if you haven’t, I can explain. The nuclear option is a tool placed in the hands of the Senate majority to remove the power of the filibuster and reduce the Supreme Court confirmation process to a simple up-or-down vote. It’s called the nuclear option because nobody wants to use it until they feel they have to use it. Even if all 48 Democratic Senators support the filibuster (which they won’t if they want to survive, see below), Mitch McConnell can rally his caucus and nuke the filibuster entirely. The Senate Republicans would then be able to conclude Gorsuch’s hearings on schedule and usher him to the highest court in the land with little to no trouble at all.

The Aftermath:

  • A failed filibuster will do little to stop Gorsuch, and the invocation of the nuclear option will mean that the minority party (in this case, the Democrats) will be powerless to stop future Supreme Court nominations in the future. If the Republicans are kind, they’ll reinstate the option at the conclusion of the term, but they won’t.
  • The 2018 elections are already looking pretty dicey for Democrats in conservative states – out of the 33 seats up for grabs that November, ten are in states won by Trump and five (the seats held by Tester, Heitkamp, Donnelly, Manchin, and McCaskill) are in reliably red states. If those Senators try to filibuster Gorsuch, they’ll be painting a ginormous target on their backs for their Republican opponents. It’s hard enough getting elected to the Senate if you’re a Democrat in a Republican state, but their races will get demonstrably harder if the airwaves are filled with ads going “JON TESTER TRIED TO BLOCK NEIL GORSUCH’S APPOINTMENT TO THE SUPREME COURT BECAUSE HE TAKES HIS ORDERS FROM NEW YORK COASTAL ELITES LIKE CHUCK SCHUMER.” It’s not a coincidence that those five Senators are open to talking to Gorsuch before making any decisions to oppose him.
  • The silver lining here is that we’ll look like we have a spine. It proves a willingness to fight the good fight, even if we know we’ll get a monumental ass-kicking. I’m opposed to this idea because it’ll end in failure, but the sentiment is noble and quite appealing. Plus, forcing McConnell to nuke the filibuster makes him look bad, and it’ll sully Gorsuch’s appointment.

 

SCENARIO TWO: The not-Filibuster.

By declining to step into McConnell’s nuclear option trap, the Democrats can avoid the destruction of one of the last tools they have left. After all, Trump may get a second Court nomination if Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Stephen Breyer decide to retire, and he might pick a nominee that the Democrats can really oppose. In this scenario, Judge Gorsuch will still have to go through months of hearings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he’ll face no serious battle on the path to becoming an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (unless he makes a huge gaffe or gets embroiled in some big personal scandal or something). When the time comes, Chuck Schumer will instruct his caucus to “vote their conscience” and stand aside to let the final confirmation vote happen. At that point, the majority of the Democratic caucus will voice their disapproval and vote no, but the nuclear option won’t have to be used. Blue Dogs and at-risk Democrats can save face by voting for the nomination if necessary for their survival.

In summary, not filibustering the confirmation is a political calculation based around saving face for those with tough re-election battles. It’s a crap move, and I only endorse it because it’ll lower the possibility that the Democratic Party will lose five of its most vulnerable Senators. But this wouldn’t be a trap if Chuck Schumer could just back out of the filibuster and avoid a crisis.

The reality is that the Democratic Party base is super pissed, and for a number of very good reasons. The second Trump announced Neil Gorsuch’s name for the court, protesters rolled up to the steps of the Supreme Court with Gorsuch’s name hastily written onto their signs. Gorsuch is an opponent to almost everything I believe in, and his nomination is the direct result of a constitutional crisis imposed and aided by Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. Even if many members in the Democratic Senate caucus are taking their time with Gorsuch, there are still a bunch who are out for blood. While those who don’t oppose Gorsuch may avoid a bolstered challenge from the right, their conciliatory attitude would open themselves up to primary challenges from liberal candidates who may get angry that their incumbent Senator didn’t fight hard enough against Trump’s pick. This isn’t idle speculation, considering the calls for Senator Schumer and the Democrats to oppose Trump at every possible opportunity.

Sooooo yeah, this is kind of a lose-lose situation. The Senate Democrats can’t filibuster because their filibuster will get nuked, and even if they could maintain their filibuster they’d risk their most vulnerable members. If they don’t officially sanction the filibuster, they’ll save face and political capital, but open themselves up to a bunch of primary challenges. Right now, the proverbial ball is in Chuck Schumer’s court – he gets to make the call as to how Democrats should proceed. He’s got some time – the first hearing for Gorsuch won’t take place for another month – but he’s probably having a pretty crappy time nonetheless.

…at least the nominee’s a nice fellow. Small consolation, but still.

 

 

BUTR RANESR ODIKYU VLIE E NOOT.

Brief Thoughts: Diversity and the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court could use some diversity. I don’t mean racial diversity, by the way (though that sort of thing is also welcome). I mean law school diversity, because right now there are only three law schools that have a presence on the bench of the Supreme Court: Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. At multiple points during his tenure, the late Justice Antonin Scalia recommended that more justices and clerks come from different top-tier law schools such that the court would better represent the nation. Granted, he said that in his dissent on Obergefell v. Hodges, where he was criticizing the Supreme Court’s tendency to act as a legislative body, and said that the Court’s judicial activism was in part problematic because the Court didn’t look like the nation, but still.

 

I have no expectation that Donald Trump will suddenly nominate a liberal at some point during his term, but I think it’s worth noting that he has the opportunity to nominate lawyers from other schools, and that his pool of great minds is open to other schools. As of the time of writing, Trump is considering filling Justice Scalia’s seat with one of three conservatives: Judge William Pryor (Harvard), Judge Neil Gorsuch (Harvard), and Thomas Hardiman (Georgetown). By the aforementioned metric, Judge Hardiman would be a nice break from the usual Harvard+Yale+Columbia court makeup. In the future, if Trump (or any upcoming President) finds good judges from Duke, Michigan, Stanford, or Chicago, I would highly recommend they be given a tiny bit of extra attention for the Supreme Court bench. The same applies to nominees to individual circuit and appellate courts, because it turns out that the lower courts do a lot of legal legwork.

To be clear, I have nothing wrong with Harvard Law, Yale Law, or Columbia Law – they’re consistently ranked as three of the nation’s top law schools for a reason. I also don’t think that this should be a major consideration, rather one of the minor criteria that Presidents should consider along with everything else.

The following image is sourced from FiveThirtyEight’s article on elite conservative and liberal law schools:

roeder-lawschools-table

Even for people who aren’t particularly well-versed in the machinations of the Supreme Court, this table shows a pretty neat trend. Harvard, Yale, and Columbia produce the most Justices by a long shot, and although the University of Chicago has educated over a hundred clerks, they have zero Justices on the Court (though this is likely because Harvard Law has been around since 1817, and Chicago Law was founded in 1902, so they’re kind of behind).

Anyways, think about it. I’ve given it some thought, and I think everyone should as well. It’s not the most important component of Justice nominations to the Court, but it’s worth your time. This applies doubly if you, the reader, happens to be named to the Senate Judiciary Committee at some point in your lives.

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