One clear message shone through like a flash of lightning from James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday morning: Hillary Clinton was right about Donald Trump.
His testimony painted a picture of a president who neither understands nor respects the norms and values that underlie the constitutional order, lacks the information necessary to do his job properly, and doesn’t have the humility to seek or accept appropriate advice about how to get better. Comey knew it from his very first meeting with Trump.
“I felt compelled to document my first conversation with the President-Elect in a memo,” he testified, rushing “to type it on a laptop in an FBI vehicle outside Trump Tower the moment I walked out of the meeting.” He’d felt no such compulsion after meeting with President Obama, something he did less frequently over the course of their entire joint tenure than he did in the 150 days or so of the Trump administration. Comey on several occasions described Trump’s behavior as “inappropriate.” He kept the notes, he explained, due to “the nature of the person.” What nature? Well, “I was concerned he might lie.”
“I explained,” Comey separately recounted, “why it was so important that the FBI and the Department of Justice be independent of the White House.”
But Trump didn’t know and didn’t care — ultimately what he wanted was for the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn to go away and for the FBI director to vouch for his innocence in all matters Russia-related.
This testimony comes a bit less than a year after Comey himself dealt a body blow to Clinton’s electoral prospects by closing his investigation of her email setup with a highly unorthodox public bashing. Yet his words go to show that Clinton was right about his Trump’s fishy ties to Russia and murky personal finances. But most of all she was right about his fundamental unfitness, as a matter of character and temperament, for the office of president.
Trump is very fishy on the Russia issue
It’s impossible to tell from what Comey was able to share on Thursday exactly what is up with Trump and Russia. But one thing that’s excruciatingly clear is that at no point did Trump express or exhibit any kind of concern about Russian government involvement in cybercrimes aimed at manipulating American political events.
The conversation around Trump and Russia has grown so advanced — ranging from obstruction of justice to hazy allegations of a kompromat tape — that it’s easy to lose sight of how shocking this is. But Russian information operations are a big deal. They involved illegal activity and the willful violation of the privacy rights of hundreds of Americans who’d done nothing wrong other than have their names appear in John Podesta’s email inbox. Democratic House candidates were hit by Russian hackers, as was Sen. Marco Rubio. Since the election, a huge number of political journalists (including me) have been warned by Google of “government-backed attackers” attempting to steal our passwords by spoofing Google login pages.
Russia cyber-operations hit the French presidential election campaign, seem likely to play a role in the upcoming German campaign, and may even have played a key role in sparking the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
This is all a matter of great interest to the FBI and to the intelligence community but not, strangely, to Donald Trump who, according to Comey, never expressed any interest in the underlying matter.
The legal issues surrounding Trump and Russia are important, but so is this basic political context. It’s clearly not a crime for the president to be blithely unconcerned about Russian cyberwarfare, or to ignore the unanimous verdict of his national security team and excise reference from NATO’s Article V in his speech in Brussels, or to install a national security adviser who was known for his idiosyncratic pro-Russian views, or to bypass every conventionally qualified candidate for secretary of state in favor of an oil executive with idiosyncratic pro-Russian views. But as Clinton said, there is something odd and disturbing about it — and the extent to which, as Comey describes, Trump was willing to meddle with criminal investigations to establish Russia-related elbow room only makes it more disturbing.
Especially in light of the fact that the Russian government clearly went to some length to try to help him win the election.
Hillary Clinton was right about Russia
I think back often to the first days of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. What should have been a triumphant moment for Clinton and the party was instead riven by controversy over emails pilfered from the Democratic National Committee’s servers and posted on the well-known (if controversial) radical transparency website WikiLeaks. The emails didn’t reveal anything illegal or particularly scandalous, but they were concrete evidence for what “everyone knew” but couldn’t officially say — the organs of the Democratic Party had treated Clinton as the presumptive nominee from day one and Bernie Sanders as an annoyance who they wished would go away.
These revelations helped plunge the first couple of days into intra-party controversy rather than unity.
All the while, Clinton’s campaign was making an argument that struck most of us in the press as outlandish and borderline absurd — the emails were stolen by the Russian government and given to WikiLeaks, which itself was now little more than a cut-out from the GRU, in order to help Donald Trump win the election.
That story — heavy-handed intervention into US electoral politics by a foreign government that had a somewhat mysterious interest in helping a candidate who, in turn, had a somewhat mysterious affection for Putin — was the big deal story of the leaks. Basically nobody in the press wrote it that way. The spin was just too aggressive, self-serving, and a little far-fetched.
Yet here we are months later and the self-serving spin was clearly correct. The hacks really were done by Russia, and Russia really was trying to intervene in the election. Something that we now know was part of a broad pattern of Russian conduct that extended to House Democrats, continued with the pilfering of John Podesta’s emails, and extended into the French election campaign. Intra-office gossip from the DNC staff is a total nothingburger of a story compared to the nexus of investigations and obstruction of justice that have ensnared the Trump administration.
Hillary Clinton was right about Trump
Clinton’s campaign chose, overwhelmingly, to focus its public messaging on character and personality based attacks on Donald Trump, calculating that it would make more gains among college educated whites than it suffered losses among non-college whites. This strategy worked, to an extent, but the underlying geography didn’t — Clinton gained votes in California and Texas while losing votes in Michigan and Pennsylvania, dooming her in the Electoral College.
At the same time, Clinton’s argument about Trump’s temperamental unfitness for the presidency was entirely correct. As Jack Goldsmith, who led the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration put it, Comey’s testimony shows that “Trump does not remotely understand his role, status, and duties as President and Chief Executive, and this failure infects or undermines just about everything he does.”
As Comey said, Trump not only fired him, “the administration then chose to defame me and, more importantly, the FBI.” His own low character is corroding the important institutions of the American government.
Just consider what Trump’s own staff keeps saying about him.
Here's Peter Baker and Glenn Thrush in the New York Times on May 31:
The best way to keep Mr. Trump off Twitter, advisers said, is to keep him busy. During his foreign trip, he was occupied 12 to 15 hours a day, seldom left alone to fulminate over the Russian investigation and given less unstructured time to watch television — although he did tune in to CNN International and fumed privately that it was even more hostile to him than the domestic network.
Here’s a Trump friend explaining to Politico why leaking classified Israeli information to Russia’s foreign minister wasn’t as bad as it sounds:
One adviser who often speaks to the president said the conversation was likely freewheeling in the Oval Office, and he probably wanted to impress the officials.
"He doesn't really know any boundaries. He doesn't think in those terms," this adviser said. "He doesn't sometimes realize the implications of what he's saying. I don't think it was his intention in any way to share any classified information. He wouldn't want to do that."
Thrush and Maggie Haberman reported before Trump left on his trip that “some of Mr. Trump’s senior advisers fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn.”
Here aides are telling Josh Dawsey why Trump’s 100 days media appearances seemed to make no sense:
Trump's advisers have at times tried to curb his media appearances, worried he will step on his message. "They were not helpful to us," one senior administration official said. "There was no point to do all of them."
White House officials said privately there was no broader strategy behind the interviews. GOP strategists and Capitol Hill aides were puzzled by it all. "I have no idea what they view as a successful media hit," said one senior GOP consultant with close ties to the administration. "He just seemed to go crazy today," a senior GOP aide said.
The president of the United States, according to his own close aides and advisers, sometimes goes crazy and does things that make no sense without consulting anyone. These crazy things that he does are sometimes counterproductive from a public relations standpoint, sometimes get him into hot water legally, and sometimes endanger the lives of valuable Israeli spies who’ve penetrated the world’s most dangerous terrorist group and who are providing intelligence that is essentially irreplaceable.
To note that granting a man of that character the power to incinerate millions of people with thermonuclear weapons is a bad idea is, evidently, a poor electioneering strategy. It failed badly for Marco Rubio in the primary and it failed again narrowly for Clinton in the general election. But it’s true!
Republicans are whistling past the graveyard
During the campaign season, Washington Republicans had no illusions about Donald Trump. About a dozen Republican senators said they wouldn’t vote for him, joined by a larger number of GOP House members. Paul Ryan, by the end, swore that he would neither defend nor campaign with Trump. Their hope was that relentless attacks on Clinton — often centered on Comey’s castigation of her email habits — would prevent the election from being a blowout, allowing them to maintain their congressional majorities.
When Trump unexpectedly won, Republican hopes were twofold.
- One was that contrary to his campaign rhetoric he would pursue a more-or-less orthodox domestic policy, focused on tax cuts and business deregulation.
- The other was that Trump would show growth and maturity once he came into office.
Were Trump to meet their hopes on both scores, the Republican choice would be easy. And were he to dash their hopes on both scores, the choice would also be easy. But Trump has put congressional Republicans in a difficult position by giving them policy orthodoxy without giving them anything resembling “normal” presidential conduct. And they decided that the best way to advance their agenda is to overlook Trump’s abnormality, with the rule of law as a casualty.
Comey in his testimony revealed something much more serious than the alleged “carelessness” with which he buried Clinton — a fundamental disregard for American institutions and norms of presidential behavior that threaten us all. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Qatar hosts the main American military base in the Middle East. And next to Qatar is Saudi Arabia, which has teamed up with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt to put a massive diplomatic and economic squeeze on Qatar aimed at curtailing the small-but-rich country’s independent-minded foreign policy. Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance, took a parliamentary vote to send troops to Qatar. Iraqi Kurds are planning to hold a unilateral referendum on independence. ISIS staged a terrorist attack in Iran.
Nobody in the electorate cares much about these events in far-off places that don’t directly implicate the lives of Americans. But that’s in part because we take for granted that presidents will successfully manage situations before they boil over and become enormous life-threatening crises. No administration winds up reaping credit for the dozens of potentially troubling situations they manage to diffuse without normal people noticing. But we count on them putting in the time and effort to do them, and having the patience and discipline to do the work correctly.
In Donald Trump, we have a president who can’t be counted on to do the job. And while right now the cameras are blaring at his largest self-inflicted crisis, the real price will be paid when crisis strikes from outside.