Where Obama Erred

June 25, 2017–The alternatives were to give a televised speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office, announcing a series of measures to counter Russian political intervention, warning American citizens a foreign nation–was Putin a friend?–had meddled in the 2016 election–or to take quiet action (much earlier, covertly) to make it plain to Moscow that its actions were counterproductive. Doing nothing was not an option. That or anything else was a variant of what has appeared here several times in the past, in connection with the U.S. intelligence chiefs–that putting out the weak-kneed, diffident “statements” or “reports” that they did, was worse.

Fingering the Russians but including only generic palaver about computer hacking or remotely related data about RT News only made it harder to achieve the clarity that might have stood Putin down. Today’s Washington Post (“Obama’s Secret Struggle to Retaliate Against Putin’s Election Assault,by Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, June 25, 2017) shows precisely why. When briefed by CIA director John Brennan, Republican figures on Capitol Hill chose to play partisan politics. Some made themselves unavailable to be briefed. Others asked why they should believe CIA when the U.S. intelligence community as a whole was nowhere to be seen on this. Brennan, who had cut his agency loose from oversight in the torture controversy (read about this in detail in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley), had only himself to blame. It would be cuttingly mordant that only the Democrats, whom Brennan had spurned, stood up to defend our country. On September 22, 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein–Brennan’s direct target–and Representative Adam B. Schiff jointly told the public that Russia was conducting a campaign to undermine the U.S. election. Republicans scoffed.

On October 7 followed a statement from Homeland security director Jeh Johnson and director of national intelligence James Clapper asserting Russian intervention, but in terms even more vague. Johnson, with FBI director James Comey and White House counterterrorism director Lisa Monaco, had already failed to convince Hill denizens at an August briefing. Johnson had failed again when reaching out to state election directors in September. The conventional wisdom about the October 7 joint statement has already settled in: that it was wiped out by the revelation just hours later of Donald J. Trump’s misanthropy as proven by videotapes taken by a television show on which he had appeared. But the joint statement on the Russian Caper fell due to its own lack of weight. Johnson was batting with two strikes against him already. Clapper had a reputation as a liar, established by his perjury when asked if the National Security Agency were conducting blanket surveillance of Americans. In my opinion, Clapper was also the “Fearful Leader,” a Chicken Little continuously warning the sky was falling. Republicans could fairly dispute whether the full intelligence community agreed with these charges against Russia. The FBI, indeed, had pulled out of the joint statement at the last moment, inviting the question of where were the others.

Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had publicly invited the Russians to hack America in hopes of finding emails from Hillary Clinton he claimed still existed. Some moves of Trump campaign figures were known at the time, including the Moscow trips of associates Michael Flynn and Carter Page; the fact of pro-Moscow alternations to the party platform at the July 2016 convention; and the Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April, which added to a mounting pile of public statements in which the candidate praised Vladimir Putin or else Russia more generally. Republicans took this as their cue, overturning decades of Republican Party hostility to Russia–and the Soviet Union before it. They put on blinders and earbuds when confronted with evidence of Russian election tampering.

President Barack Obama’s key moment came then. With Republicans actively denying the Russian Caper, the question became what to do about the election. Mr. Obama had taken Putin aside at a diplomatic conference in China in September to warn him against interfering. He repeated the warning in a message given to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House just as Johnson and Clapper put out their joint statement. Obama may have thought of this as moving on multiple fronts, but the truth is that Republican deniers robbed the diplomatic protest of any power it might have had. On October 28, when FBI director Comey announced he was reopening the Bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, inflicting grave political damage on the Democratic Party candidate, it became even more incumbent on President Obama to act. Obama is widely reported to have feared any open presidential intervention in the electoral politics. In 1968, faced with the analogous situation of evidence obtained of a Republican “October Surprise,” a Nixon campaign deal with South Vietnam to throw that election, President Lyndon B. Johnson also chose to do nothing in public. Perhaps Obama emulated LBJ. Instead he went out on the hustings, Michele Obama too, in a whirlwind of campaign appearances over the last days. Obama could have taken to the air waves with an Oval Office address warning Americans their election had been influenced by outside forces. He chose not to do that.

Barack Obama’s biggest problem as president, for all his achievements, was to lack the courage of his convictions. From letting the generals talk him out of the Afghan withdrawal he had set as a condition of their “surge,” to imposing a “red line” in Syria and then failing to enforce it, to dictating a new secrecy policy and then letting the agencies run roughed over it, again and again this president compromised short of his own goals. Obama’s holding back in the 2017 election may prove to be his greatest error.

Ah! THERE is Mike Pompeo!

June 23, 2017–In May congressional overseers asked CIA director Mike Pompeo for a simple yes or no answer–did he have confidence in President Trump’s then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Pompeo shot back that the answer was more than a simple “yes” or “no,” and then he refused to provide it. –This from a man, a former member of the House intelligence committee, who had sworn at his nomination hearing that he would always be forthcoming and responsible to accountability (you can read much more on how the CIA escaped its management framework in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley). But more interesting, for the moment, is what this brief exchange says about the man and his institution.

All over the town, and here too, for months the talk has been of the Russian Caper. Michael Flynn’s role in that has been a primary element of the conversation. The Central Intelligence Agency–in repeated, multiple-sourced revelations– has been pictured as having its hair on fire. CIA officials went to Congress more than once to warn of the Russian meddling. Two days ago the New York Times team on the story (Matt Apuzzo, Matthew Rosenberg, Adam Goldman) inserted a new piece in the puzzle–that until the day President Trump fired Flynn from the security adviser job, Pompeo had served up hot, steaming secrets to him each time the CIA came to present the president’s daily brief. This at a time when the agency worried Flynn could be targeted by Russian blackmailers, and when the Justice Department had explicitly warned White House lawyers of that danger.

What does that say about Mike Pompeo? The Times speculated about whether CIA rank and file did not trust Pompeo and therefore held back informing them of their fears. (A different take on the same facts would be that agency officers, aware that Pompeo is Trump’s man, feared getting on his wrong side by going after another Trump loyalist.) But the question ultimately devolves upon Pompeo himself. The new CIA director did not need underlings to tell him that Michael Flynn had become radioactive. Talk about Flynn was, as I said, all over town. The FBI had an investigation going. This past January and February former general Flynn had yet to be specifically named as under scrutiny, but all the evidentiary elements were there.

Mr. Pompeo had sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution–sorry if this sounds repetitive, but it is and will remain a central element in the narrative of the Russian Caper and you will hear it more–not a person. Pompeo was dealing with the nation’s top secrets. If there was doubt about someone in the room, the CIA director ought to have separately cleared with the president that Flynn could remain, or to have refused the security adviser access to the secrets. That’s what our top spooks have been doing recently with Congress. Pompeo appears not to have done either of those things. Where is Mike Pompeo? In Donald Trump’s pocket.

Afghanistan: The Great Game Is Over

June 22, 2017–The bells are ringing, the lights flashing. The silver ball is disappearing between the flippers, now unable to knock it back into play. If you didn’t score high enough to become top dog you’re done. It’s one more major operational initiative down the drain. I’m referring to Afghanistan, and the pinball wizards of the White House and Department of Defense, who myopically never seem to see beyond their own rhetoric, or make strategic decisions based on real world conditions.

History, it is said, plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In Afghanistan we’re at the second stage. The first game went to the Afghan tribes–175 years ago in the Hindu Kush–when the Brits who were playing it failed to recognize the warning signs of widespread uprising. As a result their triumph in the first Anglo-Afghan war turned into military disaster when a British-Indian army tried to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. Only a handful of troopers, maybe just one Englishman, survived the ambushes in the mountain passes as the army tried to edge past the insurgents and reach the relative safety of Jalalabad. The British failure had everything to do with failure to emplace an Afghani government acceptable to the tribes and their members.

American pundits today are fond of picturing Afghanistan as the nation’s longest war. We could actually have ended it over half a decade ago. Instead we have the generals mulling over whether to send three to five thousand extra troops to supplement the eight-thousand four-hundred we already have in the battle zone. Let’s review the bidding.

In 2009 new president Barack Obama ordered up a policy review for the war in Afghanistan. The scuttlebutt was he didn’t want to be visiting wounded GIs in hospital–he wanted to staunch the flow of casualties. Plus there were estimates the war might cost a trillion dollars over another ten years. At the time the Pentagon was offering another incremental troop increase. Prodded by Obama, they took up the field commander’s proposal for a “surge,” like the one that had been carried out in Iraq. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the field man, resisted doing anything by half. President Obama settled on McChrystal’s 40,000-man recommendation, but coupled it with a decision that eighteen months after the troops deployed, America would start to exit the war.

So the troops went in. Starting in 2011 the drawdowns began. Masses of equipment were brought out. Our NATO allies and other troop contributing countries among the ISAF command began to take the lead in the war, but also to conduct a parallel force reduction. Masses of equipment were brought out. More was designated surplus and handed over to the Afghanistan government forces we had been supporting.

That would have been the “clean” withdrawal. The surge buying a decent interval so Afghanistan could get its affairs in order and beat the insurgents. But the allies–who included the British, back for a fresh pinball game–had never solved the political equation. And the generals–primarily Americans–could not put down the game, plumping for a residual force to continue supporting the Afghan military and conduct a core program of commando strikes. As the country’s situation deteriorated, the generals convinced President Obama to slow the rate of withdrawal. His administration ended with 8,400 instead of 5,500 troops still on the Hindu Kush. In addition to everything else, we are well on the way to reaching the trillion dollar mark that Mr. Obama feared spending there by 2019.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, caught within a complex mosaic of tribal loyalties, could not build a unified polity. His government, perched atop a warlord system, always functioned to favor one or another faction. Karzai, on the CIA’s payroll for $1 million a month, used the money to play favorites. Recognizing elements in U.S. tactics that were most objectionable to Afghans, Karzai increasingly denounced, then forbade, U.S. night raids and air strikes.

Allied strategy, which resisted anything that could be termed “nation building,” contributed little to building Afghan institutions. Karzai has left the Afghan government corrupted, and his successors could not even form a government until months of conversations brought forth an uneasy compromise. President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has never honored commitments made to Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, a Tadjik. Recent Ghani moves against one governor (read warlord), Rashid Dostum, demonstrate his desperation. Ghani’s decision to permit the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another figure from the warlord era, show his increasing political isolation. Afghan politics is swiftly returning to the modalities of the early 1990s, when warlords fighting among themselves permitted the Taliban to take over in the first place.

The allies resisted efforts to settle the conflict by negotiation during the “surge” period of ascendency, then encouraged them when the Taliban enemy grew increasingly powerful–and less willing to talk. As U.S. and ISAF troop strength progressively diminished a new phenomenon arose–insider attacks by soldiers of our Afghan army or police. No doubt there are a certain number of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan national army, but the spectacle of the foreign power that came in, mobilized Afghans to its will, and now leaves them before an implacable Taliban is a sufficient motive. Over the past few months insider attacks have been the main cause of U.S. casualties. Afghan government forces are increasingly reluctant to fight. The dependence on Afghan special operations forces now becomes questionable when the latest insider attacks come from within their ranks.

The Taliban have had some problems of their own, most recently the challenge from an even more lethal offshoot of the ISIS/ISIL “caliphate” front. But either faction will fight, and the Afghan government has been losing ground steadily. Towns have been captured and held. The war is no longer an affair of posts and police stations. The insurgents are now believed to have a foothold in more than half of Afghan villages. Dangers became plain early in June when powerful car bombs exploded in the most heavily-guarded sector of Kabul, the diplomatic quarter. Almost two hundred were killed and five hundred wounded. Afghans marched in protest of their own government’s failure to protect them–whereupon government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing, among others, the son of a senior parliamentarian. Taliban bombers struck again at the funeral marches for some of these victims, inflicting yet more casualties in the heart of Kabul. In short, national authority appears to be collapsing before our eyes.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress last week that the U.S. has not been winning in Afghanistan. That is  true. So true that the Trump White House is giving the Pentagon the liberty to decide for itself what to do in the war. President Trump wants nothing to do with the next decision on Afghanistan. Little wonder. At a certain point the U.S. residual force there will become a target in its own right. A Mattis incremental reinforcement, even 5,000, won’t make a difference. If the U.S. could not grind a weakened Taliban into the ground with 140,000 American and ISAF troops, ten or fifteen thousand will accomplish little more than to make a more lucrative target for a surging enemy. It could be like the British in the Hindu Kush in 1842. Folly follows tragedy.

Good News from Trump?

June 21, 2017–What does it mean when the President of the United States, faced with a major military decision bequeathed to him by his predecessor, turns around and tells the secretary of defense to make the decision by himself? What does it say when the White House stays silent on the matter and the news appears in a simple Pentagon press release of an afternoon?

In most presidencies the chief executive–the nation’s top politician and party leader too–is anxious to garner the credit for every important development. White House spin doctors are out the gate ahead of agency flacks, and, in fact, the White House often dictates the media roll out strategy for how something will be presented to the public. So far, in this area the Trump administration has exhibited little cohesion. This is not just a matter of the method of employing Sean Spicer. Or of the minimally-informative, mis-spelled, ungrammatical, approach of the White House press office. (Though, hopefully, Spicer’s move to a more strategic role in the White House communications operation may have a positive effect.)

No, the Pentagon press release signified that Secretary of Defense James Mattis will be in the driver’s seat rather than President Trump. The question of whether to send three thousand–or five thousand–reinforcements to Afghanistan has been on the president’s desk since Barack Obama held the office, and Obama did not want to tie the hands of his successor. Now Trump, too, has passed the buck.

Major alternative explanations for this are two. One is that the Trump White House has decided that Afghanistan is headed for disaster and it wants the responsibility for the United States part in that to go somewhere else. The other possibility is that President Trump is conceding that he knows little of military affairs so is willing to outsource the decisionmaking in this area. If the latter is true it may indicate the start of a new method, radically altering the understanding of “cabinet government.” The president as a CEO, essentially cheering on his lieutenants.

Given what we know of Mr. Trump’s sense of self-importance I have to incline to the first alternative. But the other is possible too, and if the cabinet were populated by more knowledgeable, more skillful officials–like General Mattis–that might be good news for Americans. Stay tuned.

Where in the world is Mike Pompeo

June 19, 2017–Like Carmen Sandiego, no one seems to know where in the world is Mike Pompeo, the current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). I say this not in jest. Pompeo has been placed in a number of places where President Donald J. Trump has major interests, including in South Korea, just after the latest eruptions from Kim Jong-un in the north; in Syria-Saudi Arabia, in the context of the U.S. covert operations against ISIS/ISIL, and so on. Director Pompeo has specifically been placed at the White House with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats when Mr. Trump took aside the top spooks and reportedly implored Director Coats to try and tamp down on then-FBI director James B. Comey. The Senate intelligence committee is bending every effort to obtain testimony from Coats, but so far there is complete silence on Mr. Pompeo. It is as if the CIA has divorced itself from oversight and accountability. In fact I argue this precise case in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley. There you will find extensive discussion on this matter.

Let Me Be Very Clear Here

June 18, 2017–President Trump’s lawyers are running around today making all kinds of noise about “the president is not being investigated” for obstruction of justice. One of them, Jay Sekulow, then takes it back, telling Fox News that he can’t be absolutely sure because he can’t read the mind of Robert S. Mueller, the special counsel. Let me be very clear here. There are at least three reasons to suppose that Donald J. Trump is under investigation for that very thing.

First, Mr. Trump has said so. You may like Trump’s practice of tweeting or not. But– the way these recent tweets have been handled by associates–let’s call them the “investigation tweets”–is very interesting. White House spin doctors in the past have almost uniformly commented that the tweets stand on their own. In the case of the investigation tweets, however, they have tried to walk them back, alleging Trump to have been recycling things he heard elsewhere.

Second, is “subject of investigation” notice. The lawyers have been saying Mr. Trump has received no such notice. I have also heard there is no requirement the FBI give such a notice. I’m not sure that is true. But whether or not it is, as an investigative branch of the federal government it seems to me almost certain that, as a courtesy, the FBI would give such a notice to the chief executive of the United States. Since Mr. Trump personally adverted he is under investigation, that seems to lend weight to the original reading of the investigation tweets.

Third is the line-up of witnesses Special Counsel Mueller is preparing to interview. Dan Coats is of no interest as a figure in the Russia Caper. He is only important to investigators in the context of an obstruction inquiry. Mike Rogers of the NSA may be of some interest in the Russian affair in search of what the codebreaking agency had learned of Moscow’s activities during the period of the election. But Rogers has been specifically placed in the president’s office, and as having been telephoned by the president, in connection with the alleged obstruction. Mueller’s cast of characters makes the most sense in the context of an obstruction investigation.

The really interesting question is why President Trump’s lawyers should want to muddy the waters in this fashion. Think on that for a while.

 

Gamer’s Corner: Volunteer(s) for Demo

June 17, 2017–Want a Prados ATO game (that I have copies of) for free? Come help me demonstrate Steve Rawlings’s next release, which is basically complete except for the printed rules (and they may even be available by the time of this event!). This will be a demo and appearance at a game shop on Capitol Hill. The games are the four entries in the collection Four Roads to Paris. At a minimum you’ll get an early peek at the new designs and, as I said, a free game of mine.

The maps, counters and other components for Four Roads to Paris are at the printer right now. They’ll be ready in time for this event, which takes place on Saturday, July 29. We’ll be able to use near-final version of the typescript rules, which Steve will supply and I’ll forward to you. Hopefully we can show fans one or more of these games actually in play.

The demo will take place at Labyrinth Games and Puzzles, which is at 645 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE (Washington, DC 20003). That’s just about half a block from the Eastern Market Metro stop. You can get other info from the shop, at (202) 544 – 1059. The show will start at 12 noon and last until 3 P.M. I’ll demonstrate the games in the collection and, depending on how many volunteers we get, play one of them with you. I’ll also be responding to questions from fans on gaming.

If you’re interested let’s start by you leaving a note for me at my website with your email address. I will respond and we’ll take it from there.

Score a Point for Openness

June 17, 2017–Every so often the public gets to crow about something that is a real advance for transparency and openness in government. This is especially welcome during these days when plots, counterplots, and maneuvers swirl around us relying upon secrecy. Today’s point concerns the State Department documentary records series called the Foreign Relations of the United States. This series of bound volumes and, more recently, electronic versions, constitutes the official record of American diplomacy. You can find sets of it at good libraries. Multiple volumes focus on each region of the world, and on some global topics, for each American president. Kudos to the State Department Historian, his staff, the Historical Advisory Panel, and declassification authorities at the State Department and the CIA.

This story concerns President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Iran. Back in the first year of Ike’s presidency (1953), he ordered a CIA covert operation that overthrew the legally-installed prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1989 the State Department published a FRUS volume that pretended there was no CIA role in the fall of the Iranian leader–a populist by the way. By that time, however, the spooks’ covert operation had become pretty widely known–for example I had written of it at some length in my book, first published in 1986, called Presidents’ Secret Warsand the FRUS volume was met by derision.

A panel of historians advises the State Department on maintaining the FRUS as our authoritative record. The panel not only guffawed at the volume, it told the Historical Office to redo its sums and produce a new FRUS volume properly recounting the story. When State demurred, the historians lobbied Congress, with the eventual result that today it is a matter of statute that the FRUS series must reflect the activities of all U.S. agencies and must be truly “authoritative,” starting with a new Iran 1953 volume.

Eventually the Iran volume would be supplemented by one, just as long, which contained the hidden history. That volume went into declassification review in the late 1990s. There it sat. And sat. And sat. And sat. Mind you, this was at a time when President Bill Clinton had instituted secrecy rules providing that, with narrow exceptions, all documents older that 25 years should immediately be declassified. Iran 1953 was already past that. As the FRUS volume languished, an internal history of the CIA operation leaked to the public. Later a similar account was declassified. From time to time historians, including my colleague Malcolm Byrne of the National Security Archive, advocated for release of the FRUS. The State Department actually did release two other FRUS volumes on CIA covert operations–on Guatemala in 1954 and on the Congo in the 1960, plus a dual-volume on Cuba which covered the Bay of Pigs and more–while the Iran records sat in the secret vault. Until two days ago, June 15, 2017. The Iran volume has finally emerged!

A look at the final product shows that there’s work still to be done. The FRUS volume has 10 CIA documents that were wholly deleted, 38 which contain deletions of more than a paragraph, and 80 that have lesser redactions. This amounts to a large percentage of the material that covers the actual CIA coup. More to the point, it includes the operative portions of the project planning papers, the detail of CIA monthly reports, and much more. The new FRUS volume is a great advance over what we had before, but the redactions make it plain the CIA believes it can still live in a world of secrecy.

More on Contempt of Congress

June 16, 2017–Today’s New York Times responds directly to the posts here yesterday and two days ago (“Obstruction Starts to Come into Focus,” June 15; “Jeff Sessions’ Looking Glass,” June 14) about contempt of Congress. Correspondent Charlie Savage enlightens us on the details (his article is titled “On Executive Privilege and Sessions’ Refusal to Answer Questions”). Justice Department officials dragged up two pieces of paper to show an explicit claim to–let’s call it “potential-presumptive executive privilege,” where the president had asserted no such claim but the individual resisting answering an inquiry uses it as authority to refuse an answer.

Both these documents date from 1982. Only one was presidential–President Ronald Reagan signed a directive in November 1982 governing response procedures for “this administration.” On the face of it Reagan’s assertion had no power on any other president. Moreover, the “policy” was swept away in the Iran-Contra Affair.

The second document was a paper from Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), an August 1982 memo titled “Confidentiality of the Attorney General’s Communications in Counseling the President.” The OLC paper carved out a legal argument for presumptive privilege, but, Charlie Savage reports, it never addressed to the specifics of refusing to answer questions when under oath. OLC is also the entity that produced the notorious “torture memos” of the George W. Bush administration. There are two points to make here. First, here is a fresh example of why OLC papers are way overvalued when people attribute the power of court opinions to them. Second, the Reagan-era OLC opinion had no weight after January 1989. Other administrations needed to have joined with Reagan to make this a “longstanding policy.” Bottom Line: there is no such authority.

The Times also refers to an event of the Obama presidency as another exercise of the “potential privilege” power. This came during the Senate intelligence committee’s investigation of the CIA torture program, when agency officers hacked Senate committee computers and removed 10,000 pages of documents from them which the CIA had previously furnished to the Senate. (You will be able to read much more about this episode in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley [New Press].) Savage describes this material as “notes of briefings and [White House] Situation Room meetings.” If so, the outrage is magnified, since the CIA itself declassified notes of these types to its own officers for them to use in an effort to discredit the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture. That kind of self-dealing is unacceptable.

Mr. Davidson referred to–and journalist Savage reported–the practice of halting testimony with a point of order and asking the committee chairman to overrule the witness. This has not happened in Davidson’s experience. But there was plenty of that in Congress right through the 1970s. This is the time to bring back an old practice. As I said in this space two days ago, by not enforcing its authority the Senate intelligence committee here is helping to kill democracy in America.

Obstruction Starts to Come Into Focus

June 15, 2017–Just very quickly, because I am on something else. You are beginning to see the reasons why President Trump had an interest in having his officials stonewall at their congressional appearances. For Coats or Rogers to have confirmed that the president even mentioned to them the possibility of speaking out in behalf of Michael Flynn or, worse, pressing FBI Director Comey to drop the Flynn inquiry, would be disastrous for Mr. Trump. Our information is that the special counsel opened a wider inquiry on Donald Trump, to include obstruction of justice, shortly after the president fired Comey on May 9. Federal rules require the FBI to inform a person when they become the subject of an inquiry. Thus Mr. Trump was aware of that investigation from about mid-May. His officials, including the lap dog Jeff Sessions, testified at the Senate intelligence committee in June.

Mr. Trump could not openly claim executive privilege for his officials. There is legal precedent for criminal inquiry trumping (!!) privilege. The court hearing would merely worsen the president’s position–and his claim could itself be construed as a further act of obstruction. Mr. Trump could not claim secrecy–you saw in this space yesterday a citation to the statute that prohibits that. In addition there are prima facie grounds to argue that a personnel change is not secret. Trump’s minions were thus forced to contrive some excuse to justify their refusal to testify. An extremely awkward formula (of pretending to reserve the president’s ability to claim privilege later) was the result.

I continue to believe the Senate’s proper response, at the second (or was it the third? the first two occurred during the same hearing) instance of this maneuver, would have been to hold the witness in contempt.