What does the White House meltdown following Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey tell us about the political system today, ask Danny Katch and Alan Maass.
SO WHICH was it?
Was James Comey fired because Donald Trump is an egomaniac who flew into a rage when a few days of cable news coverage were dominated by the former FBI director telling Congress he was “mildly nauseous” about possibly having tipped the 2016 election to Trump?
Or did Trump fire Comey in a desperate attempt to stop an ongoing FBI investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian agents looking to interfere with last year’s election?
Or was the die cast when Comey wouldn’t back up Trump’s baseless charge that the Obama administration wiretapped him?
All of the above? None? A bit of the some and more of the other?
By this point, we should realize that there is no good general answer to the “Are they incompetent or are they corrupt?” question–because these characteristics are so thoroughly blended together in the person of Donald Trump and the gang of reactionaries and sociopaths he’s surrounded himself with.
His is the incompetence of the totally corrupt–the arrogance of a totally dishonest and entitled elite, who have learned that they can try to get away with anything, because they usually succeed, no matter how nonsensical and incriminating their behavior and explanations are.
It’s hard to tell where incompetence ends and corruption begins.
But what about the specific question: Was Trump trying to get a reliable ally in charge of the FBI after reports that it was expanding its investigation into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign?
That can’t be said for sure. For the record, there is currently no smoking-gun evidence to nail down a seriously criminal Trump-Russia connection. And also for the record, there is no reason to believe some couldn’t emerge, given that we know Trump is a lifelong crook with ties to Russian mobsters.
But it’s unusual for FBI directors to be fired before their 10-year terms expire–the only previous case was William Sessions, who was dismissed by Bill Clinton for ethics violations. So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Trump must be worried about something–unless his self-absorbed cluelessness is running the show, which is certainly possible.
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THE BUMBLING of the White House during the Comey firing would be laughable if not for the frightening picture it reveals of how the administration operates.
First, Trump’s entire team seemed to really believe that because Democrats were mad at Comey for helping Trump win the election–with his 11th-hour non-revelations about Hillary Clinton and her e-mails–they would then support Trump firing Comey before the FBI finished an investigation that Democrats desperately hope will fatally damage the Republicans.
Then, surprised by the uproar created by the firing, they hastily came up with an obviously fake story that the decision came from a newly hired deputy in the Justice Department.
Which Trump himself contradicted the next day–but not before lovably befuddled Press Secretary Sean Spicer was caught trying to hide from media questions “among the bushes” on the White House lawn.
But the White House clown show shouldn’t obscure the dizzying number of possible legal violations–not to mention completely legal violations of morality and decency–that emerged last week.
Start with the strong possibility that Trump consulted his longtime friend and dirty trickster Roger Stone, a right-wing political operative, about firing Comey, even though Stone is one of the targets of the FBI investigation.
Then there’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in early March recused himself from the FBI investigation because of his own contacts with Russia’s ambassador during the 2016 campaign. Sessions clearly violated that promise by writing a memo recommending that Trump fire the man leading the investigation.
Finally, there’s the story about Trump inviting Comey to a private dinner a week into his presidency to demand, like a Mafia boss, that the FBI director pledge his “loyalty”–and now Trump’s tweets imply that he may have secretly taped that conversation and many others.
This adds to the mountain of evidence that Trump and his people consider themselves completely above the law–from petty stuff like White House staffers illegally using their position to hawk merch for the president’s daughter to cabinet appointees like Betsy DeVos blatantly perjuring themselves in their confirmation hearings.
What makes it all the more enraging is the hypocrisy that Trump presents himself as the “law and order president” who will ruthlessly crack down to protect the public. The “criminals” almost always turn out to be the poorest and most vulnerable people in society–like immigrants who are being smeared as dangerous for minor offenses committed decades ago in order to rev up the deportation machine.
But the prize for the most sickening display of double standards has to go to Jeff Sessions. In the same week that he wrote the memo about firing Comey, he announced a major escalation in the spectacularly failed “war on drugs.”
Sessions reversed Obama-era policy to demand that federal prosecutors seek maximum jail terms and mandatory minimum sentences for those found guilty of violating drug laws. The victims will be poor people who aren’t fortunate enough to have connections to the high-class drug dealers who offer free delivery to the wealthy residents of Trump Tower.
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“WE ARE in a full-fledged constitutional crisis,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii on the day Comey was fired.
Not quite yet–presidents are legally allowed to fire FBI directors. But they aren’t allowed to obstruct criminal investigations into themselves and their aides, which Trump foolishly admitted was his motivation in his own tweets and interviews.
In that regard, the media’s comparisons to the 1970s Watergate scandal are valid–but with a very big difference: Richard Nixon was forced to resign the presidency because the scandal came at the end of an era when powerful social movements were rocking U.S. institutions and creating divisions that reached into the U.S. ruling class.
The context today is different. Clearly the level of social discontent and struggle is nowhere near as high. Like the Gilded Age of the late 1800s, this is a time of skyrocketing inequality and corruption, with one set of laws for the rich and another for the rest of us–and the political and social challenges to this state of affairs have been short-lived and disconnected.
The Trump family’s corruption is particularly brazen–like when the sister of presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner pitched Chinese investors that they would be more likely to get an EB-5 visa if they invested in Kushner Companies real estate developments in New Jersey.
But this is a golden age of corruption in general, with rich people considering themselves above the law and politicians of both parties for sale on the cheap. Trump aides like Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort are under the microscope for their dubious international connections, but Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta did lobbying work for some of the same people.
Indeed, the only family that rivals the Trumps in corruption is the Clintons. If the Trumps used their business name to build a political career, the Clintons used their political brand to enrich themselves and shamelessly sell access via the Clinton Foundation.
And Donald Trump didn’t create the hypocrisy of elites remaining above the law while poor and working people go to jail for minor, nonviolent “crimes.”
During the Obama years, there was no jail time for the bankers who literally wrecked the global economy and caused millions to lose their jobs and homes–yet in poor neighborhoods across the country, police act like occupying armies, killing people at a rate of once every eight hours.
The fact that Trump is president at all is both a symptom of this extreme corruption, and a sign that the U.S. ruling class wasn’t able last year to find a loyal and stable candidate who was capable of selling a continuation of this state of affairs.
As a result, the most powerful country in the world is now led by someone who may have fired the head of his secret police–to take the explanation that seems least damaging to Trump, at least legally–because he wouldn’t go along with Trump’s inane conspiracy-mongering about being wiretapped by Barack Obama.
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COMEY IS being portrayed in many media reports as an FBI director “with absolute commitment to the Constitution and pursuing investigations wherever the evidence led,” one federal prosecutor told the New York Times.
But that’s never been true of the FBI, an agency launched by the anti-Communist fanatic J. Edgar Hoover primary to lead very unconstitutional witch hunts against civil rights activists, trade unionists and anyone else expressing even moderate dissent against the status quo.
In fact, that wasn’t true of Comey. During the epidemic of police murders that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, Comey not only avoided investigations of law enforcement, but complained about a bogus “Ferguson effect”: a rise in crime (which turned out not to even be happening) caused by civilians trying to hold police accountable by filming them.
Trump’s presidency is worthy of a constitutional crisis, but far more so because of his escalation of draconian repression, especially against immigrants and refugees, and his pandering to various forces of the far right and further right.
But if we’re being honest, so was Barack Obama’s presidency–not because of any of the Trumpian right’s fabrications about Obama, but because he launched drone wars without congressional approval; his Treasury Department, staffed with former bankers and traders, bailed out Wall Street while ordinary people lost their homes; and the list could go on.
Ultimately, the most important ingredient in a constitutional crisis is an upsurge of protest and grassroots organization that makes it impossible for the political establishment to carry on without a change. That’s what happened in South Korea, where months of massive protests toppled a corrupt right-wing president earlier this year.
We need a mass democracy movement in the U.S.–one dedicated to more than removing Trump or replacing Republicans with Democrats. We need struggles against impunity and lawlessness at all levels, from local police departments, to corporate criminals, all the way up to the president.
We need political organization that uses the opportunity of this latest Trump scandal not just to get someone else elected in a few years’ time, but to de-legitimize his administration right now and turn the tide against a regime engaged in a criminal attempt to put itself above any democratic accountability.