Bloom Briefing 19: Trump-Russia Heats Up
Welcome to the nineteenth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This was a rather busy week for news. As such, it also precipitated a great many pieces of good writing. Because of the fecundity of news related to the Trump-Russia scandal, this briefing will both catalog the major events up top as well as point you to the best commentary on the events below. There is then an additional section on the other good writing of the week.
As always, I welcome your feedback. Drop me a line on your thoughts about any of the below. Hope you enjoy!
The Beginning of this Never-Ending News Cycle: Comey’s Firing
This never-ending news cycle actually began 12 days ago when Donald Trump fired then-F.B.I Director James Comey. Comey was leading the investigation into the Trump campaign for possible collaboration with Russia during the 2016 presidential election.
Deputy Attorney General and Department of Justice point-person for the Trump-Russia investigation (after Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal on the investigation) Rod Rosenstein drafted a memo detailing his perspective that Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into Clinton was severe and necessitated a response (though it stopped short of calling for Comey’s removal).
The explanation initially given for the firing was Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton for her use of a personal email server to send and receive classified information during her tenure as Secretary of State. Of course, this was implausible. Trump benefitted massively from Comey’s actions with respect to the Clinton email investigation, and he himself thought Comey’s actions weren’t severe enough.
Thus unsurprisingly, less than 12 hours later, after trotting out National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster to defend the idea that the firing was taken upon the recommendation of Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Trump had long contemplated firing Comey and that the memo, along with Comey’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, was just the latest point of evidence in favor of this decision.
Then the story changed again, with Trump saying in a televised interview with Lester Holt that he was fire Comey, “regardless of recommendation.” While the White House’s repeated bungling of the communications around this announcement is probably a story in itself, it’s reflective of a larger and much more sinister story, which is that Trump has repeatedly fired the people investigating him and his campaign (Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, and now James Comey) for collaboration and coordination with the Russian government.
Trump’s Ill-Advised Russian Meeting
At the time of Comey’s firing, it was seen as something of either a darkly-humorous coincidence or hugely symbolic red flag that Trump was scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the following morning. The news reports since then have made the latter interpretation seem the more accurate.
The initial reports of this meeting were simply that U.S. media hadn’t been allowed into the meeting. The only photographs that existed of Trump with Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval Office were taken by Russian media. This is highly unusual.
Then, on Monday this past week, it emerged that Trump had revealed highly classified intelligence information to the Russians during the meeting. Initially it was not known whose intelligence services had passed us the information, pertinent to our counterintelligence efforts against the Islamic State, but over the course of the week, it was gradually revealed that the information in question came from Israeli intelligence.
If a meeting in which a president denies access to American media, then shares classified intelligence with one of our chief adversaries that compromises our closest ally in the Middle East didn’t seem bad enough, it emerged yesterday that Trump also spoke with the Russians about James Comey. Trump allegedly told Lavrov and Kislyak that he “faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
To recap the meeting. Trump denied American media access but allowed Russian media in, revealed classified Israeli intelligence that the Israeli intelligence services didn’t want revealed to the Russians, and told the Russians that fired Comey for investigating the campaign’s collaboration with the Russian government. Oops!
Comey’s Drip Drip Drip
Following Comey’s firing, nearly every day, reports from close friends or associates of James Comey have emerged with new details about what transpired in certain events involving him and Trump. On the humorous side of affairs, was a story about the 6’8” Comey trying to blend into the curtains in the Blue Room by wearing a blue suit in the hopes that Trump wouldn’t notice him. At the more nefarious end of the spectrum are reports that Trump asked Comey to pledge loyalty to him during a private meeting in Trump’s dining room.
These details are emerging, in part, because of Comey’s fastidious note-keeping of all his encounters. Trump’s firing of Comey could be construed, under the right conditions, to be obstruction of justice, if done for the reason, as Trump intimated to the Russians, of curtailing a burdensome investigation into him and his campaign. But without detailed notes from the encounter, there would be no way of knowing whether or not Comey’s account of the meeting is accurate (Trump will invariably claim – and has already – that it is not.)
The existence of these notes has prompted calls from Democrat and Republican congressmen alike for the notes to be turned over to congressional inquiries into the Trump-Russia affair. When a Republican president is losing Ben Sasse and Justin Amash, things are bleak indeed.
Michael Flynn Takes Center Stage Again
The investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians has focused on several key players, most notably Michael Flynn, a former general who was, very briefly, National Security Advisor. This week, two separate details emerged about the administration’s relationship with Michael Flynn, neither of which paints the administration in a positive light.
First, it emerged that the Trump administration knew, when it appointed Michael Flynn to the post of National Security Advisor that he was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for the Turkish government. How did they know? Flynn told them himself.
Second, it emerged that during the transition, Flynn delayed an attack on the Islamic State proposed by the Obama Administration and executed by the Trump Administration after Flynn’s departure. This delay was in concordance with Turkey’s explicit preferences on the matter, and Flynn was being paid by the Turkish government at the time, obviously raising serious legal and ethical concerns about whether Flynn was acting on behalf of a foreign government.
To that end, the Senate Intelligence Committee has continued to investigate the actions of Flynn. This week, North Carolina Republican Senator Richard Burr noted that the committee had had no response from Flynn with respect to its subpoena for documents related to his interactions with foreign governments. Flynn’s lawyer stated that he would not be complying with the request.
The Investigation Gets a Special Counselor
In response to the gradual surfacing of ever-more-sinister details regarding Trump’s attempts to limit the investigation into him and his campaign, the Justice Department (Rod Rosenstein, specifically) appointed a special counselor to investigate possible coordination between the Trump campaign and
The special counselor was named as Robert Mueller, a former Director of the F.B.I., someone with an unimpeachable record of fairness and respectability, and someone with a strong working relationship with James Comey. If Trump thought that he could shutter the investigation by firing an F.B.I. director, he has arguably made his situation worse, for he is now confronted with two former directors of the F.B.I. instead of one.
The task confronting Mueller is to see whether or not the Trump campaign enlisted the help of a foreign government to influence the outcome of the election. What seemed a far-fetched idea only a few months ago – active coordination between the campaign and Russia – now seems ever-more likely, as Reuters reported that there were no fewer than 18 undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and high-ranking Kremlin officials or other Russians with close ties to the Kremlin.
News then broke on Friday that the investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians involved at least one current high-ranking White House staffer. Previously, it had appeared the focus of the investigation was on Flynn, Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, and Carter Page. This news seemed to intimate that perhaps Jared Kushner is under investigation as well, though it may by some other high-ranking official such as Rex Tillerson or Jeff Sessions.
Republicans in Congress not Immune from Scandal
The Trump-Russia scandal has, unsurprisingly, been bad for Republicans. Almost all of the elected Republicans in the House and Senate eventually endorsed Trump, and the country is rightly holding them partially responsible for Trump’s awfulness. Democrats are averaging +7 on polling of generic congressional ballots.
This week, things got even worse for congressional Republicans, as a recording surfaced of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying that he believed Trump was being paid by the Russians. After the comment received some laughs from other Republicans in the room (a group which included Paul Ryan), McCarthy is heard saying, “swear to God.”
Maybe he was joking, as he has claimed since the recording surfaced, but Republicans joking in June, 2016 about Trump’s cozy relationship with the Russians certainly undermines any credibility they might have with Democrats when it comes to investigating Trump and the Trump campaign for collaboration with Russia. They at least had some sense that there was something there, at a minimum enough to joke about it, but didn’t do anything throughout the summer or fall, even as evidence amounted that there was something serious behind the Trump-Russia relationship.
Commentary on the Trump-Russia Scandal:
If you read one thing this week, it should be this profile of Robert Mueller in Politico by Garrett Graff. Not only is it a marvelous window into the mind of an important-again figure in American politics whom you probably know little about, it’s also a masterful piece of writing.
Although the Special Counselor is a step in the right direction, it is by no means a guarantee that the investigation can proceed without political interference. The Department of Justice, which is the department that appointed the Special Counsel, technically reports to the President, so Trump can impede that investigation through a variety of mechanisms. This piece by Neal Katyal explains what to watch out for.
You may have seen the cover of Time this week that showed a White House with the towers of the Kremlin on top. This, the cover story, details the potential extent of Russian interference via social media in American politics.
Foreign media don’t have to operate with the same restraint that American media do with respect to Trump, and Der Spiegel hasn’t pulled any punches, calling for Trump’s immediate removal from office. If you want a cathartic reminder of everything awful about Trump and his presidency, you may enjoy this piece.
At Slate, Michelle Goldberg has written about how Congressional Democrats are warming up to the idea of impeachment. She gives special attention to #Resistance darling, Representative Maxine Waters, who has been wonderfully, smartly, and humorously outspoken against Trump.
There are other things going on in American politics, and those should not be entirely overlooked. There were several articles that didn’t deal directly with the Trump-Russia affair that are worth reading. So if you’re tired of Trump-Russia all day every day, these might be a nice distraction.
Corey Lewandowski and the swamp. At GQ, Jason Zengerle wrote a profile of Corey Lewandowski that turns into a tale of “the temptations, the opportunities, and the avarice suddenly running wild in the swamp that Trump had once vowed to drain—and how easy it can be for someone to drown in the muck.”
Roger Ailes and conservatism. When I consider the worst humans ever to walk the earth, Ailes is pretty near the top of the list. The man built a media empire by motivating racial animus. He untethered Republicanism from conservatism, not because of ideology, but for the purposes of self-enrichment, both financially and through his lifelong sexual exploitation of women. He enabled and promoted other sexual predators, one of whom now resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Gabriel Sherman, who spent years writing an unauthorized biography of Ailes, is the person to read. It’s probably worth revisiting this article, which appeared just last September in New York Magazine, about Ailes’s ousting at Fox News. Sherman also penned this farewell of sorts earlier this week, which touches on some of the same themes.
Bret Stephens, the New York Times’s new conservative columnist, wrote about how Ailes undermined conservatism by building Fox News into a facts-free zone devoid of either conservative substance or affect. If you can leave aside Stephens’s frustrating insistence upon treating Ailes and Fox with a modicum of respect, this is a decent read.
This lack of conservatism among Republicans, derived in large part from Fox, propelled Trump, a non-conservative if ever there was one, to the White House. Writing for the Library of Law and Liberty, and picked up by the National Review, Greg Weiner shows just how un-conservative Trump really is.
The Racial Nature of Policing and Incarceration. At ever-improving Buzzfeed News, Albert Samaha profiled policing patterns in Troy, New York. The African American community in Troy has grown in recent years, and despite the crime rate going down, white residents feel unsafe because they’re unaccustomed to living in a diverse community. Samaha explains how the tensions and racism of the Troy Police Department are emblematic of policing racism in many smaller towns and cities across America.
Samuel Sinyangwe posted a series of details about the nature of incarceration in Louisiana and its strong similarity to slavery. I’m understanding the similarity. It’s slavery in everything but name. Sticking with Louisiana, Vann R. Newkirk published a feature-length article for The Atlantic about how state policy has failed to address lead-poisoning in black communities.
Takedown of Charles Murray. At Vox, a group of psychologists have authored a takedown of Charles Murray, the racist ignoramus-of-a-psychologist whose invitation to speak at Middlebury resulted in protests a few months ago. If you want to know how to argue against race-IQ essentialists, this is your guide.
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