Watergate and its “Satellites”

June 8, 2017–Everyone here is abuzz with the testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Some pundits are saying the remarks move us further in the direction of something akin to the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974, when the presidency of Richard M. Nixon was brought down by initial criminal acts, followed with attempts to cover them up. There are some distinct differences between what happened in America in 1972 and in 2016, but here I want to focus on two kinds of similarity.

The first is the initial conspiracy. In both 1972 and 2016 the future president would be insulated from conduct of the conspiracy. In 1972 that was handled by the attorney general (interesting, huh?) with his campaign unit called CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President). The conspiracy was embodied in a political “intelligence” plan presented at a briefing by CREEP official G. Gordon Liddy. Aside from Nixon’s attendance at that briefing there is no direct evidence of the president’s participation in the first stage plotting. For 2016 the political organization of the conspiracy has yet to come into focus, but it involves the characters who have been discussed here. In some combination they include Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, and others. The apparent participation of candidate Donald J. Trump occurs at an April 2016 speech, where he is introduced to the Russian ambassador; and at the Republican party convention, where operatives collaborated to alter the party platform in a way that rewarded Russia, a move that required Mr. Trump’s approval.

The second element is the coverup. In both 1972 and, it now appears, 2016, presidents responded similarly to exposure of conspiratorial plotting. James Comey gave the word today for Donald Trump: in one of his conversations with the president, Mr. Trump (relieved the FBI director was telling him he was not, at that time, a subject of investigation) assured the FBI that he stood with them if they uncovered “satellites” among his campaign staff who had engaged in criminal activities. In other words, Trump stood ready to throw his minions under the bus. Richard Nixon, the same. Nixon first gave up his super-loyal chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, and counselor John D. Ehrlichman; later Mr. Mitchell; then other staff, until the harsh light of suspicion showed right in on him.

Watergate, it is always said, shows the coverup is worse than the crime. With Mr. Comey’s testimony the evidence mounts against Donald Trump. The coincidences in time between key points in the discovery of the Russian Caper and Trump’s actions (or the lack of them), the president’s efforts to get the FBI to shut down parts of its investigation (in Watergate Nixon attempted to get the CIA to shut down the FBI), the sacrifice of “satellites,” are all astonishing.

A few weeks ago a lot of people were swaggering around like lords of the manor. Today in Washington, it seems the worst possible thing is to be a “satellite.”

“Mildly Nauseous?”

May 7, 2017–Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James B. Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee a few days ago that thinking his actions last October 28, scant days ahead of the 2016 presidential election, might have had some impact on its outcome makes him “mildly nauseous.” Poor Jim Comey! He’s had all kinds of rocks thrown at him, he says. “Lordy!” it’s “been painful,” he says. All this is uttered in a tone of wonderment as if it’s a surprise people might connect any FBI action–more specifically the re-opening of the Hillary Clinton email investigation on the eve of the election–to her defeat. Perhaps Mr. Comey doesn’t know (but if he does not, he has no business being in charge of the nation’s primo investigative agency). The fact is that lots of people have been talking about Comey’s action in exactly those terms since October 29, 2016. Readers of this space, for example, saw two commentaries on Director Comey’s actions (“Spooks Gone Wild!!”, posted that same day; and “Obama and Comey,” November 2, 2016), both posted before Election Day, that worried Mr. Comey’s actions would have the precise effect they did.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times (April 23, 2017) ran an extensive investigative piece by journalists Matt Apuzzo, Michael S. Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Eric Lichtblau that explored the inner workings of the FBI’s decisions in this case. They quote candidate Donald J. Trump saying, “This changes everything!”

The point is the impact of Comey’s actions was obvious, not hidden in any way. In an email to the work force Mr. Comey explained that not informing Congress of the resumed FBI inquiry– which would have conformed to the Bureau’s standard operating procedure– was wrong. The authors of the Times story quote Comey’s email: “It would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

Let’s review the byplay. Director Comey could have followed Bureau standard procedure, which would also have conformed to the instructions he had from the Attorney General. What he did went outside both those rubrics. That requires some significant rationale. We now know the FBI had several related investigations underway at the same time. Trump political operative Paul Manafort was under investigation for acting as an illegal foreign agent for Russian and Ukrainian interests. Other Trump operatives, separately or together, were potential subjects of an investigation into Russian political actions in the United States. Whether these were different investigations or the same one we don’t yet know. We do know that the Director of National Intelligence and the chief of the Department of Homeland Security had already gone on record, in early October 2016, charging that Russia had been conducting these actions. So far as we know at this writing, the FBI was resisting public reference to its own inquiries in this area. Had Mr. Comey’s concern only been whether he was misleading Americans if he did not own up to re-opening the Clinton email affair, he could have preserved an equal political footing by simultaneously revealing the Trump-centered inquiries.

Instead Director Comey, in a charged political atmosphere, was willing to confirm to the public an investigation targeting Hillary Clinton but not to place the Trump campaign in the same soup. His resignation ought to have been on President Obama’s desk the day after the election. Now he is only “mildly nauseated?” Rubbish!

This is not about Mr. Trump’s margin of victory, or Ms Clinton’s political mistakes that cost her the election. It is not about politics per se. It is about an action by a security agency that had any political impact at all–and about the actions of a director who knew, but stubbornly refused to acknowledge, his actions had that effect. The most plausible explanation for Comey’s actions–the argument I made at that very time–is that he was attempting to avoid criticism of the FBI (from Republicans) for alleged inactions in the email affair. If so, Mr. Comey was putting the FBI’s–and his own–interests ahead of those of the entire American political system. For that reason alone he should be gone.

Now Director Comey is on Capitol Hill asking for an unregulated extension of government surveillance powers, the so-called “Section 702” eavesdropping provision of the USA Freedom Act, set to expire this year. The head G-Man insists the spy powers are absolutely necessary. But now Mr. Comey has credibility and judgment problems. Americans can no longer believe what he says nor can they trust his judgment. That is the price of the FBI’s election interference.