Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
May 17th, 2017
The cascade of high level leaks; the mounting evidence of obstruction of justice by the president; the now casual talk of impeachment. These things are as disorienting as they are dispiriting - and they are certainly not normal. And events are moving at such warp speed that even those of us experienced in dealing with complex political issues can feel overwhelmed.
I believe it is not an overstatement to explain it this way. America is in the midst of a power struggle between a president who consciously denigrates some of the country’s most important institutions – the judiciary, the intelligence community and the news media - and those who are fighting back to save these institutions in whatever way they can. In a sense, it is a battle for the very soul of the country.
If the president seems to be losing for now, it’s because he is his own worst enemy. Two weeks ago in this space, I concluded that President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey was a sign he was trying to quash the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible complicity with Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. I did not anticipate that in a network TV interview the day after the firing, and a series of statements he would later make, including to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office, Mr.Trump would effectively admit that was precisely why he fired Comey.
Many more things have come to light in just the past two weeks- partly because of the excellent, aggressive reporting of the New York Times and the Washington Post- and, it must be admitted, thanks to some important leaks that appear to have come from within top levels of the Trump White House itself. One of those leaks involved Trump’s meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. This drew the particular attention of Michael Gerson, a former senior advisor to President George W. Bush, and now a Washington Post columnist. This is part of what Gerson wrote this past week.
“In a New York Times article, Trump is quoted as saying, ’I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy and a real nut job.’ Aside from the irony of the statement itself, it is appalling that an American president should be caught boasting about obstructing justice to the representative of a power that is so expert on the subject….And yet. How in God’s name did the reporter gain access to a discussion in the Oval Office? According to the article the ’memcon’- memorandum of conversation- was ‘read to the New York Times by an American official.’ Let that sink in. This is a document of very limited distribution. According to sources I consulted, it typically would not even been given to the director of the CIA. This was a leak of an extremely sensitive and highly classified document by a very senior person…….Whoever read this material over the telephone to a reporter was playing for the highest stakes. He or she was also risking not only a career but a prison term.” For the record, Gerson disapproves of such leaks. Still, he has given them context and defined their significance.
We have also learned in the past two weeks, from close associates of former FBI Director Comey, that he had documented in contemporaneous memos, descriptions of his recent interactions with President Trump, most notably one in which the president seemed to be asking Comey to drop his investigation of the former National Security Adviser General Michael Flynn. (He has since threatened to take the Fifth Amendment to avoid a subpoena to produce certain documents being demanded by the Senate Intelligence Committee)
Meantime, Comey has subsequently agreed to testify publicly under oath before that Committee, a much anticipated event which was supposed to take place after Memorial Day.
But due to another major development in the past two weeks which I have yet to even mention, Comey’s public appearance and/or what he can now say, has been placed in some doubt. I am talking of course about the appointment by the Deputy Attorney General of Robert Mueller to be special counsel to investigate Trump’s ties to the Russians. Mueller headed up the FBI for twelve years and has bi-partisan support. He will be taking over the FBI investigation, with an expanded mandate now to include issues of obstruction of justice - so he may not want Comey to tell all in public at this point. We'll see.
There’s even more that's new in recent days. But in the space remaining I would like to offer some thoughts on impeachment. As you may recall I raised the subject many weeks ago when it was quietly being mentioned here in Washington. Now it’s an idea being bandied about daily, mostly by those who little understand it.
Frankly, I think it serves no useful purpose for Democrats to appear to be pushing the idea. They don't have the power to make at happen. And talking it up it merely gives Trump and his supporters another excuse to blame Democrats for his problems.
Make no mistake, Trump is facing growing political and possibly legal problems. But ultimately impeachment can only occur when a majority in the House of Representatives wants it to happen. And then the president can only be removed from office if two thirds of the Senate were to find him guilty.
Given the Republican control of both chambers it is going to require more than we know now to change that many Republican minds. Depending on the outcome of the various investigations and if Trump's job approval numbers continue to fall, that could conceivably happen. But better for Democrats to emphasize elections in open House seats - and put the stress on winning the House in 2018. That would be a way to block Trump's more outlandish ideas - and it is an achievable goal. It may also be more desirable than having a President Pense, which would be the product of any successful impeachment.
I welcome your comments. To post your thoughts, click the word "comments" below.