Trump’s “Satellites”

June 10, 2017–So, like Nixon at Watergate, The Donald does not mind jettisoning minions to avoid the hammer of justice descending upon his own head. There has already been a good deal of attention devoted to a set of individuals directly involved in the Russia Caper, but what about those people who work for President Trump within his own administration? Who might those “satellites” be?

Jeff Sessions: Let’s start with the Attorney General, both because of his prime position but also because former FBI director James B. Comey hinted during his June 9 testimony before the Senate intelligence committee that the Bureau was aware considerably in advance of things in his record that would oblige Sessions to recuse himself from investigations related to the Russia Caper. Apart from his potential vulnerability to Russia Caper charges, Sessions is open to perjury charges for sworn testimony before Congress. If Sessions did have vulnerabilities that required him to recuse himself, then his participation in the firing of James Comey opens him up to charges of conspiracy plus aiding and abetting illegal activity.

Sean Spicer: The president’s press spokesman of course has stood before the public day after day, effectively spouting lies. Some of those lies may have abetted the illegal activity. Also the degree to which he was witting of the rest, and the political advice he gave, may expose Spicer to conspiracy charges.

Political advice, public posturing, and leaking may expose Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus to charges of conspiracy and of leaking classified information.

Dan Coats, Mike Rogers, and Mike Pompeo, respectively the Director of National Intelligence, and heads of the NSA and CIA, have stonewalled Congress, opening them to contempt charges, since the National Security Act of 1947, as amended, explicitly provides that no order, charge, or other instruction may be cited to justify denying Congress any information necessary for its oversight role. Their stonewalling posture also aids and abets the cover up. President Trump also made an affirmative attempt to recruit Coats and Rogers to pressure the FBI to drop its investigation of Mike Flynn. If these officials either did as asked, or indicated to President Trump that they would do so, they would become active participants in an obstruction of justice. Depending on the advice they gave the president, the spooks may also be open to conspiracy charges.

H. R. McMaster : Here we’ve taken to calling the general “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster for his excuses made for the Trump campaigners who asked the Russians for a backchannel on Russian communications links, an element of the Russian Caper conspiracy (which I am treating separately). Though that action represents a separate transgression, McMaster’s defense of it as completely “appropriate” is part of the cover up. If Donald Trump ordered McMaster to mount that defense, it would be an unlawful order and, as an active-duty Army officer General McMaster would be liable for carrying out an illegal order (Universal Code of Military Justice, 908– 890 (Art.90[20]); 891 (Art. 91 [2]); 892, Art. [1], [2]). If McMaster did this voluntarily and the conspiratorial act is found to have been criminal, then he is open to charges of aiding and abetting.

Principals and Principles: Trump’s National Security

January 31, 2017–Second fiddle to the immense current controversy over President Donald J. Trump’s immigration action has been his initiative on national security. Here the firestorm concerned a Trump directive that added political operative Stephen K. Bannon to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council (NSC). At the same time the president demoted the incoming Director of National Intelligence and the general who is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to merely occasional attendance on that same committee. Susan Rice, the national security adviser who served former president Barack Obama, labeled this action “stone cold crazy.”

Attracting the most attention is Stephen Bannon’s apparent promotion. As “chief strategist” he was supposed to be providing Mr. Trump with suitable advice. Now the Trump directive, called a “National Security Presidential Memorandum” (NSPM) not only “invites” Bannon to attend all NSC meetings, it makes him a member of the NSC Principals Committee, and Bannon’s deputy an invitee to sessions of the NSC Deputies Committee. In all this gnashing of teeth no one seems to have noticed that President Trump has also elevated his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, in the same way.

Common wisdom is that Mr. Bannon is becoming the unelected president, exercising all the power, without the title or, indeed, the people’s opportunity to vote on him. I actually think it is too soon to draw that conclusion. What can fairly be said is that President Trump seems to be about increasing the political content of NSC discussions. This is not new–and the media discussions so far have been extremely shallow. Yes, David Axelrod sat in on some NSC discussions, yes Karl Rove was kept out of some similar deliberations during George W. Bush’s time. But it is absurd to think that presidents have historically kept politics out of national security. Under Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski made a point of including political considerations in NSC staff work. Henry Kissinger, his predecessor, can be heard on the Nixon White House tapes talking politics quite often. President Carter also listened to chief of staff Hamilton Jordan on national security matters, making him a major player in Washington’s decisions on whether to admit the Shah to the United States for medical treatment, which became a catalyst for the Iran Hostage Crisis. Ronald Reagan used his top politicos on security missions repeatedly. One of them, James Baker III, actually became secretary of state when Reagan’s vice-president, George H. W. Bush, ascended to the presidency. And Bush’s son, “W,” used political aides as well. Andy Card delivered White House messages to the CIA, played a role in the “Niger uranium” affair that convinced CIA boss George Tenet to retire, and he served as utility infielder for the president. It’s the job.

On the other hand the pundits have captured the deeper importance of NSPM-2, the formal identity of Trump’s reorganization directive. It does bring politics more to the fore at the NSC. The presence of both Bannon and Priebus on the Principals committee is a first-order indicator that Trump’s Council will become one battleground where the White House pecking order will be fought over. But the elephant in the closet is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is really the topmost adviser of all. An alternative explanation for the NSC imbroglio is it puts the big shot advisers in a ring to duke it out while Kushner consolidates his own power.

Stone cold crazy? Yes, at the level of mere national security. This will cost the nation in the quality of our foreign policy and the coherence of Pentagon efforts. But the judgment also depends on the president’s real aims. If they are political, this harebrained scheme may not be stupid at all. It puts big aspirants to power in a place where they can be tied to the ridiculous judgments that flow from this NSC–and then they can be pushed out of the Trump administration. That brings us to the question of principle: there is none here. It is an outrage to the American people to use national security and foreign policy as mousetraps to catch power players.