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Comey Aside, the Divide is Wide

Terry H. Schwadron

April 17, 2018

Much as I may have wanted discussion of James B. Comey Jr.’s book, interviews and publicity campaign to help clarify anythingin fact-free Washington politics, in fact, it seems that the air is growing yet more poisoned.

What matters more than details of the interview is the now fully exposed, raw divide in the country over whether we even care about whether the president and others in his circle have broken the law. Or, file court actions to excuse themselves from standard legal procedures (discussed below). Indeed, listening to the Comey debate comes as The New York Times editorialboard published a pretty remarkable full-page plea to remember that no one in this country is above the law. You should read it, if you have not.

ABC’s much-hyped televised interview with the fired FBI director was odd enough by itself, mixing a walk through the old neighborhood and childhood photos with pieces of what was an edgy interview. It was a disjointed presentation that tried to entertain more than shed light, and it highlighted the most shrill sound bites rather than the more reasoned, nuanced responses that Comey seemed to be trying to offer.

Nevertheless, President Trump played offended victim, and brought his fortified Twitter weaponry — and publicity machine — to bear before and after the aired interview to once again attack Comey — even calling for his jailing. It’s a Trump whistle call to skip any examination or legal process for his opponent, and proceed — once again — right to “lock him up.” Cue the rally chants.

For his part, Comey seemed alternately ersatz folksy, professional law enforcement guy and citizen shocked, shocked to find out that public lying is taking place in the White House. He skipped lightly over parts where he himself has “leaked” unclassified documents, which, despite the Trump torch, seems to be totally legal, and where is allowed political awareness to govern his public actions about the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails.

In the end, the ABC presentation no doubt left most viewers exhausted and tired of the name-calling. Retelling his impressions of being asked for a loyalty oath, being asked oddly to drop any investigation involving former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, essentially being asked to drop to one knee before his new boss all came across as either recycled news spiced by new epithets. Putting it all in book form will prove less impressive than eventually serving as a witness in some legal setting that should result from allegations of obstruction of justice by the president.

What seems more lasting is the depth and breadth of the national divide — just as the investigation by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III is crowing, just as the reports that Trump wants to fire Mueller, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein, and anyone else in sight who is perceived as threatening, just as the special counsel investigation is metastasizing to the Southern District of New York in the form of a case against Trump fixer Michael Cohen.

In other words, there are either fears or concerted pressure, depending on which camp is talking, for the president to overturn the legal tables rather than face legal challenges of his own making.

The Times editorial noted “Of course, this president has been known to huff and puff, to bluff and bluster, and he may be doing no more than that now. He may choose not to fire either man. We know he has already twice told his aides he wanted Mr. Mueller fired, only to be talked out of such rash action. But if the president does move against the investigators, it will be up to Congress to affirm the rule of law, the separation of powers and the American constitutional order. The miserable polarization and partisan anger that have been rising in American life for decades will hit a new crescendo, and that will present congressional Republicans with a heavy burden indeed.”

I happen to agree with the editorial, which finds the general silence of the Republican congressional leadership to be baffling. “More Republicans need to make it clear that they won’t tolerate any action against either man, and that firing Mr. Mueller would be, as Sen. Charles Grassley said, “suicide.” After all, “The president is not a king but a citizen, deserving of the presumption of innocence and other protections, yet also vulnerable to lawful scrutiny. We hope Mr. Trump recognizes this. If he doesn’t, how Republican lawmakers respond will shape the future not only of this presidency and of one of the country’s great political parties, but of the American experiment itself.”

At the end of the day, I care far less about the name-calling between Trump and Comey and a lot more about the substantive questions.

The federal court in New York yesterday was host to another such sub-drama over whether Michael Cohen or the president could review their own documents obtained in the raid on Cohen’s home, office and hotel before they become evidence — a drama made necessary only because the president doesn’t want to settle for standard practice.

Among other things, the hearing surprisingly divulged that Fox commentator Sean Hannity is another of Cohen’s three clients, a fact that Trump-defender Hannity in commenting on the Cohen affair, has never disclosed. Not only does this make Hannity more a part of the story than someone, even an opinionated someone, who can speak to it, but it should raise serious questions for his employer, Fox News, about whether he has ever disclosed such a relationship to them.

I am hopeful that Mueller, through reports or criminal charges, can explain exactly what did pass as any level of cooperation or coincidence between actions of the Trump campaign and contacts with various Russians. I am hopeful that prosecutors can decide whether there are trial-worthy charges to emerge from activities of Cohen to make hush-money arrangements to silence personal critics of the president.

I wish I could be more hopeful that the people in Congress whose job is oversight will actually show up.


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