President Donald Trump and former F.B.I. chief James Comey engaged this week in an extended game of "Liar, liar!" Or, more properly: "Liar!" "No, you're a liar!" Yes, it was "Super Bowl" week in Washington, folks!
For the first time in quite a few years, all the big broadcast television networks carried the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing with Comey live from start to finish. That's pretty extraordinary, but then so was the testimony.
Comey began -- within the first 10 or 15 minutes -- by explaining that he wrote notes after meetings with Trump for three reasons. The third was the "nature of the person" he was talking to:
I was honestly concerned [President Trump] might lie about the nature of our meeting. I knew that there might come a day where I might need a record of what happened, not just to defend myself and F.B.I. and the integrity of our situation, and the independence of our function.
I don't know why Comey would think that of Trump... unless, of course, it is related to the 623 documented times Trump has lied to the public, in just his first 137 days in office. Come to think of it, that might just have something to do with it!
Later, while totally rejecting the announced version of why he had been fired by Trump, Comey was even more direct:
The administration then chose to defame me -- and, more importantly, the F.B.I. -- by saying the organization was in disarray and that it was poorly led, that the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.
After a day-long Twitter blackout, Trump finally tweeted early this morning in response:
Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication ... and WOW, Comey is a leaker!
Got that? Comey was being totally and bigly honest when he was "vindicating" Trump, but everything else was "false statements and lies." Trump reinforced this doublethink today in the Rose Garden: "Frankly, James Comey confirmed a lot of what I said, and some of the stuff he said just wasn't true."
When asked directly if he had asked for a loyalty pledge from Comey, Trump responded:
I hardly know the man. I'm not going to say I want you to pledge allegiance. Who would do that? I mean think of it. I hardly know that man. It doesn't make sense. No I didn't say that.
Um, OK. Because that would be totally insane, right? Who would make thousands of people he didn't know pledge their allegiance to him? He'd have to be some kind of tinpot megalomaniac to do so, eh?
But Trump now has a personal criminal defense attorney, so he's not going to take any of this lying down. Marc Kasowitz has already filed a legal complaint against Comey, because he: "unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President."
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, speaking at the White House press podium, uttered a line which may come back to haunt her: "I can definitely say the president is not a liar." This prompted Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz to tweet:
"The President is not a liar" is almost as bad as Nixon's "I am not a crook.” Bad language. Bad strategy.
Florida GOP strategist Rick Wilson was even more direct:
Donald Trump could kill and eat a small child on the White House lawn and he would not be impeached be [sic] this Congress.
Of course, much of this game of "Liar, liar!" could be cleared up if there are actual recordings of those conversations Trump and Comey had. Trump was the one who suggested this, which was the stated reason Comey decided to leak his notes. Trump tweeted, less than a week after Comey was fired (and before Comey indirectly contacted the press):
James Comey better hope that there are no "tapes" of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
Since there has been some hair-splitting on the word "hope" this week, it's worth pointing out this is pretty close to the classic: "You got a nice place, here. It'd be a shame if anything happened to it." In other words, there's simply no other way to read Trump's statement than as mobster-style threat.
Speaking of hope, this led to one of the most-quoted moments in the hearing, when Comey said:
Lordy, I hope there are tapes. If there are tapes, it's not just my word against his.... All I can do is hope. The president surely knows whether he taped me.... Release all the tapes!
The White House had not yet even responded to questions about such tapes' existence (even though the president himself was the one to bring them up). Yesterday, reporters took another shot at getting an answer from Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Her flippant response: "I have no idea." When pressed, she snarked: "Sure, I'll try to look under the couches."
Trump, in the Rose Garden, tried to play it coy, when asked about his hint that there were tapes: "I'm not hinting at anything. I'll tell you about it over a very short period of time." Asked again, he responded: "I'll tell you about that maybe sometime in the very near future." When directly asked: "Are there tapes, Sir?" Trump said: "Oh, you're going to be very disappointed, don't worry."
There's only two ways to read that last one. Either "you're going to be very disappointed" when the tapes are made public and they vindicate Trump's version of the conversations, or the disappointment will be that there never were any tapes in the first place -- in which case, it will prove Trump was lying in his tweet. Guess we'll all have to wait until "sometime in the very near future" to find out which it is.
Of course, there's a third possibility, that Trump did make recordings of his meetings, but then subsequently destroyed them. That's a whole 'nother kettle of fish. If recordings were made, then microphones were deployed and the taping would have been monitored and archived in computers. How many tech guys and gals were necessary for that to have taken place? The name Rose Mary Woods springs immediately to mind, for anyone who lived through Watergate. These days, at a minimum some I.T. folks would be involved in the whole process. So if recordings were made and then later erased, more than just Trump's inner circle is going to know about it. Stay tuned, folks!
In other Trump scandal news, the president said he'd be happy to testify under oath to the special counsel, a statement which may come back to haunt him. Put Trump in a closed room with some very sharp people willing to question him in minute detail for hours over every interpretation of what Trump says? That's a recipe for all kinds of things going wrong, but Trump doesn't seem to realize it yet. Maybe his criminal defense lawyer will "clarify" this offer later today, who knows?
Paul Ryan had the most interesting defense of Trump, which can be summed up as: "He's just an ignoramus, what did you expect?" OK, that had a big side-helping of snark, so here are Ryan's actual words: "He's new to government. And so he probably wasn't steeped in the long-running protocols that establish the relationships between D.O.J., F.B.I., and White Houses. He's just new to this." But... but... didn't he promise us all he understood all this stuff better than any man alive, out on the campaign trail? I thought we'd all get tired of "winning," starting on "Day One"? Call this the "he doesn't know what he's doing and refuses to learn" defense, which was echoed by more than one sheepish-sounding Republican this week.
Speaking of doddering old men, John McCain was the most-tweeted-about questioner during the Comey hearing, for... um... well, we don't know what the heck he was doing, and neither did anyone else. He even apologized the next day for his meandering attempts to ask a coherent question, with a local-sports excuse: "I get the sense from Twitter that my line of questioning today went over people's heads. Maybe going forward I shouldn't stay up late watching Diamondbacks night games." Maybe that's a good idea. And maybe you should change that to "under" instead of "over," John. Just a suggestion....
And our final bit of Trump news of the week: several Twitter users are suing Trump because he blocked them on his Twitter account. The case they're making is that Trump's tweets (and access to the resulting threads of comments) are a "public forum" that the president cannot ban them from for their political views. This could be an interesting First Amendment case, but it'll take a long time before the Supreme Court gets to hear it, so we'll just have to wait.
This is already way too long a column, so we're just going to whip through all the non-scandal news before moving on to the awards and the talking points.
Under the radar news: Republicans in the House are busily gutting the Dodd-Frank law, so that big banks can operate free of onerous federal regulations. Because we all know how wonderfully that turned out, last time, right? Republicans in the Senate are busy. working on their Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill, and Mitch McConnell has set an arbitrary deadline: either there's a bill to vote on before the July 4th break, or the Senate is just going to punt on the issue altogether. The divisions within Senate Republicans might just be too wide to even agree on a bill.
In foreign news: Qatar is being diplomatically snubbed by their neighbors, including Saudi Arabia. Trump's reaction to this (and other foreign policy issues) now has the State Department reportedly "creating an alternate U.S. foreign policy." Bets are now open on how long this will continue before it blows up in Rex Tillerson's face....
Britain just had an election, and the conservatives lost, big time. Theresa May called the snap election in the hopes of winning a big vote of confidence. Things didn't turn out so well for her or her party, as Labour picked up dozens of seats in Parliament. Note to American readers (to cause envy of the Brits): their entire election season was only seven weeks long. Imagine a presidential election that completely happened inside of two months!
A high-ranking diplomat -- the former acting ambassador to China and the second-highest American diplomat in Beijing -- just handed in his resignation. As the head of the embassy until Trump's new ambassador arrives, David Rank was supposed to hand over the formal notification that America was withdrawing from the Paris Accord climate agreement. Instead, he resigned, stating that "as a parent, a patriot, and a Christian," he could not in good conscience do what was asked of him.
Puerto Rico votes on their future this weekend, as they consider the question of statehood. Will we get another star on the U.S. flag soon? This may be a heavy lift, though, since Republicans are likely to balk at adding two more senatorial seats that would likely go to Democrats.
The "Russia interferes in our elections" story got stronger with the leak of the fact that Russians tried to hack their way into election machines across the country this week. The improbably-named Reality Winners was immediately arrested for leaking the classified document, and was just denied bail.
And finally, we have to close on a very bad pun, just because. The story can be told in two sentences. Get ready to groan:
A bear in Vail, Colo., snuck into a home and briefly played the piano. Police who reviewed footage of the break-in declared the tune to be "unbearable."
Before we get to the main award, we've got a few Honorable Mention awards to hand out. The Hawai'i legislature and Governor David Ige get the first one, for being the first state to pass a law keeping the state within the Paris Accord climate agreement. Ige said on signing the bill: "Climate change is real, regardless of what others may say."
Elizabeth Warren joins Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton as "politicians with their own action figures." That's worth another Honorable Mention. They will reportedly be available before Christmas, for any liberals on your shopping list!
And we're awarding our very first (please note the spelling) Honourable Mention award, to British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for impressively beating all expectations in this week's election. The conservative Tories lost their majority in Parliament, even though they had expected the election to actually strengthen their position. Well done to Corbyn for his astonishingly good finish!
But our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week goes to one of California's senators, Kamala Harris. Harris has just begun serving in the Senate, and some are predicting she's going to attempt to take the "Barack Obama path" to the White House. It's always been known she's already eyeing the 2020 presidential race, but this week she had a few breakout moments in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings that have really launched her onto the national stage. In particular, her "she persisted" moment, on Wednesday.
When questioning Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about his involvement in the firing of James Comey, Harris got annoyed with the deflections from the witness. She shortened her question to "Yes or no, Sir?" but then got interrupted by the committee's chair, Republican Richard Burr. Burr was "extending the courtesy" to allow the witness to answer without being interrupted. He went on to chastise her for her persistence.
Salon sums up why this was so insulting:
Now, you may be saying to yourself, maybe Harris was just too aggressive with her questioning. To that I say, what about Ron Wyden? Or Angus King? Or Martin Heinrich? Sen. Wyden questioned Rosenstein as well, at some points using the same vernacular as Harris, and no one shut him down. He even came to Harris’s defense on Twitter, pointing out that fact. @SenKamalaHarris was getting facts onto the record. I was not interrupted by @senatorburr when I asked tough questions. She was. Sen. King went after N.S.A. director Michael Rogers for not answering his questions. Nobody cut him off. Sen. Heinrich called Rosenstein out for his inability to clearly answer a question, saying "At this point, you filibuster better than most of my colleagues." No one batted an eye.
This article finishes with a classic quote from (of all people) Bette Davis: "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch."
Harris has now even (very intelligently) turned the moment into her own political slogan: "Courage not courtesy." After all, "She persisted" was already part of the Elizabeth Warren brand, so this was a good move by Harris to build her own nationwide political brand.
Harris, so far, seems to be doing a great job of filling the shoes of the retired Barbara Boxer, in fact. Harris was impressive questioning the witnesses in both major Senate Intelligence Committee hearings this week, and she has so far been impressive in the face of casual sexism from the chair of the committee. This week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award wasn't even close. Courage, not courtesy! It's our bet we'll be hearing a lot more from Harris over the next few years, but she's certainly off to a good start.
[Congratulate Senator Kamala Harris on her Senate contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]
What with Trump and the Trump investigation sucking all the oxygen from Washington this week, we simply could not identify a Democrat worthy of the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week. Surely some Democrat did something disappointing somewhere, so we're (as always) open to suggestions in the comments, for stories we didn't hear about or forgot. But unless anyone's got a good nomination, we're putting the MDDOTW award back on the shelf until next week.
Volume 440 (6/9/17)
It's a real mixed bag this week, with some tweets, some quotes, and some just-plain talking points. And then things get medieval at the end, so there's that to look forward to. As always, use responsibly, and enjoy....
Where are the tapes?
This is the first talking point, because it really should be the first thing out of any Democrat's mouth being interviewed on television this weekend.
"I'd like to start by asking the White House and Donald Trump flat-out: Where are the tapes? Nobody has mentioned Oval Office tapes in Washington since Nixon left town, but all of a sudden Trump threatens James Comey with --in quotes -- 'tapes' of their conversations. Well, now it's time to put up or shut up, Mister President. Did you tape people in Oval Office meetings or elsewhere in the White House? Were there conversations with Comey that were taped? Do these recordings still exist? In this battle of he-said/he-said, we can all very easily get to the real truth just by listening to those tapes. So where are they? And, just to be sure, you are aware that destroying any such tapes would be illegal, as well as just confirming James Comey's recollection of those meetings, right?"
What's the matter with Kansas?
"The Kansas legislature just overrode a veto to raise taxes and desperately try to save the state from the economic toilet their governor has flushed them down. This is trickle-down at its worst, really. When Sam Brownback led the charge to slash tax rates, he predicted this experiment in conservative ideology would be 'like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.' Instead, it was like a shot of poison. The growth rate in Kansas has lagged not only the country as a whole since then, but also the Midwest region they're in. Government services like schools and road repair have almost collapsed. The state faces a billion-dollar budget shortfall. So a bipartisan group in the Kansas legislature did the only thing they could do -- throw out the massive tax breaks. Brownback vetoed it, but the legislature overturned the veto this week. This is important to note, since Donald Trump and Paul Ryan's budget ideas are exactly the same ones which just failed miserably in Kansas. Once again. Just like trickle-down has failed over and over and over again. What was it Einstein said about the definition of insanity?"
According to the White House, this was "infrastructure week." Trump's plan -- as usual -- fell far short of his lofty campaign promises. Representative Rick Nolan from Massachusetts pointed this discrepancy out: "I thought a trillion dollars for infrastructure meant a trillion dollars for infrastructure. He's talking about 90 percent from the private sector and 10 percent from the feds? It's not going to happen. It's exactly backwards." But it was Chuck Schumer who came up with the best talking point for Democrats to use:
When he called for a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill, we thought that was great. What they've proposed is privatizing most of our infrastructure to give wealthy financiers tax breaks on projects they were probably going to build anyway... it'll lead to "Trump tolls" from one end of the country to the other.
Trump's not doing so great with the public, these days. Sad!
"Trump's poll numbers are looking pretty dismal these days. He's down to the lowest average yet on Real Clear Politics -- only a flat 39 percent job approval. His job disapproval's over 55 percent for the first time as well. Even breaking the numbers down doesn't help, as Nate Silver recently noted -- the amount of people who 'strongly' support Trump (rather than just 'somewhat' support him) is falling across pretty much every demographic. His base hasn't totally deserted him, but they are now moving in that direction. As for the Russia investigation, 56 percent of the public thinks Trump is interfering with the investigation rather than cooperating, and 61 percent think he fired Comey to protect himself (rather than for the good of the country). The number of people who trust what Trump says about Russia's role in the 2016 election is down to roughly 1-in-5. All the trendlines look pretty dismal for Trump, at this point."
Trump influences European elections
On the whole question of "who can manipulate foreign elections best?" Donald Trump is falling far behind Vladimir Putin. So far his "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" endorsements of European politicians in France and Britain haven't exactly turned out real well. David Weigel of the Washington Post perfectly summed this up in one tweet:
Trump endorses Le Pen: She loses by 32 points. Trump cozies up to May: She blows a 25-point lead and maybe loses the leadership.
Graham cracks a good one
Al Franken's got some competition for "funniest sitting senator."
"Senator Lindsey Graham offered up perhaps the most succinct -- and most amusing -- version of the Republican talking point that Trump is just 'too naive to understand what he's doing.' Graham goes a step further, when dismissing Trump's multidimensional-chess-playing abilities: 'I don't believe Trump colluded with the Russians because I don't think he colludes with his own staff.' And don't forget to tip your waitress, folks, he'll be here all week...."
This isn't really a talking point, but it was the most amusing part of the Comey hearing, when he and Senator Angus King of Maine both had the same thought. For a brief moment, the hearing headed back to the twelfth century.
SENATOR ANGUS KING: You said [Trump] said, "I hope you will hold back on that." But when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like "I hope" or "I suggest" or "would you," do you take that as a directive? JAMES COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of: "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" KING: I was just going to quote that -- in 1170, December 29th, Henry II said: "Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" And then the next day he was killed. Thomas à Becket. That's exactly the same situation. We're thinking along the same lines.
-- Chris Weigant
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