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.

 

Who Trumps Whom ?

May 11, 2017–In the game Bridge the players establish a set of expectations and nominate a suit of wild cards before play of the hand begins. They do this in a ritual of bidding, four players in two teams for the game. The players also seek to signal their partners the strength of their hand through this same bidding process. The card suits have a rank order from the lowly Club to the top-notch Spade, and from the deuce at the bottom to the Ace at the top. “Two Clubs” is the smallest opening bid you can make. If your hand is not worth that you pass. To bid in “No Trump” is nirvana, indicating your hand is strong in every suit. If the bidding results in a named suit, by contrast, play of any card in that suit will beat the highest card of the suit currently on the table. This is relevant in today’s political controversy–I have heard pundits who could not resist the endearment of “Trump trumps Comey,” as the dismissed FBI director disappears out the door. But my thought is that the bidding was wrong–the card tricks will not play out the way Mr. Trump thinks.

The president, being Donald Trump, naturally bid “No Trump,” the strongest form of play. In No Trump the top card in the suit in play wins. There are no wild cards. The cards mean what they say. Sometimes a player with a weak hand bids in No Trump when he should not, or an inexperienced one does not know any better. This is problematic for President Trump because he has the lead in this game, and he is trying to escape the consequences of the Russian Caper.

There will be thirteen card tricks in the play of the hand. Mr. Trump took the first two when he benefitted from Russian intervention in the presidential campaign and then when he won the election. After that he started to squirm. The big reveal of partner Mike Pence’s hand showed the cards are not so strong after all. Trump bulled his way through a trick by insisting the Russian Caper is a hoax, then sacrificed one by remaining silent as Congress organized to investigate Moscow’s role in American politics. But the attempt to coax out the opponents’ high cards flubbed when the White House was revealed to be bending the congressional  investigators to its whim.

On the next trick came a major blowup, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught on surveillance tapes talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn further complicated the play, at every step being caught in more compromising poses (taking Russian money, disguising that he did, neglecting to get required permissions, to register as a foreign agent; even carrying water for his foreign clients at the very moment of the election). The FBI, headed by James Comey continued its investigation throughout all this, and when Mr. Trump entered office the Flynn dossier had already grown thick. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates did Trump the courtesy of giving the White House advance notice of the burgeoning file. Rather than do anything about Flynn, the White House demanded to see the evidence. Trump lost a trick when Mike Pence rushed to Flynn’s defense, spouting Flynn’s phony denials as gospel truth. Trump’s spin doctors made it worse by attacking media for doing their jobs–and the president doubled down by, in fact, blaming the media for the dismissal of Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s sixth trick was to blame Barack Obama, alleging the former president had ordered surveillance of his political campaign. That flubbed too.  Carter Page of the Trump campaign was a subject of FBI investigation for his role in the Russian Caper, but that flowed from solid investigative leads. When Mr. Trump fatuously declared the “leaks” of juicy tidbits from the investigations to be the problem, rather than the Russian Caper itself, he lost another trick. The latest press reports paint a president furious at the FBI for continuing to investigate the Caper instead of focusing on the phony Obama surveillance allegation. Trump still had one high card. He used it to fire Bureau director James Comey. But the incompetence and lack of political skills of Mr. Trump’s White House are such that no one made any preparations for handling the fierce questions that were sure to follow Comey’s dismissal. Trump took a trick but immediately lost another.

Now the president is stuck. The Russians actually have some of his cards. No one knows how many. Trump himself is down to, say, a deuce of clubs and a three of diamonds. The game continues. Opponents have the big cards and–because this is No Trump–there are no wild cards to smite them. It’s not enough any more to assert that no one is interested in this story, or that it’s yesterday’s news, or that it’s fake news, or any of the other low-grade deceptions Trump has relied upon in the past. Stay tuned.