Terry H. Schwadron
A lot seems to be riding on appearances before Congress of some of the main characters of the recent White House dramas. With so many developments crashing atop one another, it may be useful to see who’s being tossed aside by an increasingly isolated Donald Trump.
It’s part of a seeming trend — people who have been thrown under the bus by a petulant and imprudent Donald Trump, who wants only his version of events to be accepted as a normal and even courageous set of steps for a president to take.
The problem is that in aggregate, they spell lots of trouble for the parties involved and for Mr. Trump’s presidency.
The first is Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who made his day today tons easier for himself and more complicated for the President by naming Robert Mueller III, the former head of the FBI, (seen above) as a special counsel, a virtually independent voice, to oversee all things Russia, including any possible attempts by the President to stop the investigation.
Actually, news of Mueller’s announcement arrived like sunshine after weeks of rain.
It was Rosenstein whose letter outlining errors in the dismissal of former FBI Director James B. Comey Jr. was cited as the reason for the ouster before President Trump acknowledged that he wanted all along to fire Comey over the investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, is supposed to brief all 100 senators today.
At stake had been an explanation from Rosenstein someone regarded as a straight-shooter, about the sequence of who-said-what-when in the Comey dismissal. Since the President has owned up to ordering the dismissal with or without the memo, what is really at stake here is Rosenstein’s reputation; the President is already branded with inappropriate actions in the midst of an investigation. And last night, Rosenstein acted to protect his name by naming Mueller.
Importantly, Rosenstein has not had a public hand in the actual Russia-Trump investigations, but with the recusal of Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, he is the ranking official now, three weeks in office, to see the investigation through. You may remember that his argument about Comey was on the excesses of Comey’s part in publicly discussing carelessness and slipshod handling of classified information in Hillary Clinton’s emails — a far cry (and the opposing take on those events) from the President’s own view, but offered as rationale for Comey’s removal.
Comey, too, is being invited to a public hearing, though the venue keeps shifting from one of the various congressional committees to a similar briefing for a wider segment of Congress. It will also force the White House’s hand on turning over the threatened tapes — if they even exist. If they do, the tapes will be the unraveling of several of these meetings, including, presumably, meetings between the President and Flynn.
His statements, which will be sworn to be true, likely will pull the truth rug further from under the President. Comey and the President disagree about whether the President tried to interfere in the investigation, including the focus on Michael T. Flynn, the former national security adviser. No one will find the President, a serial liar, more credible than Comey, a fastidious, note-taking law enforcement agent.
At stake here, clearly, is the truth of whether there are written accounts that Comey wrote contemporaneously after meetings with Mr. Trump detailing efforts to interfere. That gets us a lot closer to serious charges, including potential criminal charges, and has fueled calls for impeachment. What other notes does he have.
Just tangentially, you can expect that some Republican congressman will also ask if he wrote contemporaneous notes to himself about Hillary, not to miss a chance to spread malicious, partisan charges anew.
Comey could further undermine Flynn, who looks to be facing various civil and criminal charges, and other Trump associates, though I’m sure he will not discuss matters still under investigation. Again, his reputation is at stake, as well as the President’s.
But there will be more.
Last night, it was The New York Times reporting again that divulged that Trump transition team members knew last November that Flynn was under investigation for his foreign dealings, and went ahead anyway to name Flynn as the keeper of the nation’s secrets. It boggles the mind.
The Times noted, among others, “the President’s appetite for chaos, coupled with his disregard for the self-protective conventions of the presidency, have left his staff confused and squabbling.” That, in turn, is sparking talk of repeal and replacement of key staffers. The Times noted that, according to its sources, the President’s mood “has become sour and dark, turning against most of his aides — even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and describing them in a fury as ‘incompetent,’ according to one of those advisers.”
Sound like the Mutiny on the Bounty’s Captain Queeg?
So, eventually, we will also hear again from Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, this time under oath, about what actually happened at the meeting with the Russian foreign minister and U.S. ambassador. McMaster, like Rosenstein, let his good reputation get used to help protect the President, only to have the President turn around overnight and tweet messages that undercut his reputation. Likewise, we will probably hear from Dina Powell, the assistant national security adviser, on topics that range from the meeting to how indeed the President does or doesn’t prepare for meetings with other national leaders, about whether the President retains intelligence they prepare for him, and whether they feel they must babysit him in meetings to keep him from blurting out classified details.
Those talking to The Times were brutal about this: “There is a fear among some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers about leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground. This has, at times, chafed the president, according to two officials with knowledge of the situation. Mr. Trump, who still openly laments having to dismiss his first national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, has groused that General McMaster talks too much in meetings, and the president has referred to him as “a pain,” according to one of the officials.
“In private, three administration officials conceded that they could not publicly articulate their most compelling — and honest — defense of the president: that Mr. Trump, a hasty and indifferent reader of printed briefing materials, simply did not possess the interest or knowledge of the granular details of intelligence gathering to leak specific sources and methods of intelligence gathering that would do harm to United States allies.”
The headlines on these hearings will be about the gap between what they speakers say and what the President says.
What they really are about are the lengths to which an ego-driven president will run over even the government’s most trusted in pursuit of his image.