Dueling views: crucial investigation versus "witch hunt"
07/17/17 Filed in: Political System
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There has been a seemingly endless stream of reports and commentary of late about possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 US elections.
Not just in the New York Times and Washington Post, but in most newspapers around the country. Not just on CNN or MSNBC, but also on other networks including “fair and balanced” Fox News.
Meanwhile, other stories have been arguably getting less attention than they deserve, notably problems inherent in the existing GovCare system and the faltering efforts of Republicans to fix them.
Why are things working out this way, and what are the implications?
A. The big story – Months before the general elections, several waves of hacked e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton associates surfaced, which had ostensibly been obtained by Wikileaks but were quite possibly traceable back to hacking by the Russian government or associates. The e-mails were apparently authentic; the primary responses of the Clinton campaign were politics is a messy business and “consider the source.”
Although the polls appeared to be tightening as November 8 neared, Hillary Clinton remained the clear favorite. It was a shock to most observers when it turned out on election night that billionaire Donald Trump, an entertainer/ real estate developer with no prior electoral experience, had won the highest office in the land.
An FBI investigation of alleged Russian efforts to interfere in the election had been opened in July 2016, initially based on concerns of the US intelligence community, but there was no overt response by the Obama administration until well after the election. The inauguration of America’s 45th president, 1/23/17 (part III).
In December, there was a series of announcements about Russian cybersecurity activity and follow-up, allegedly intended to encourage Americans to vote for Trump vs. Clinton. The president imposed sanctions on Russia, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats, and ordered an investigation and report to Congress on the matter before he left office. A preliminary version of the report was released, which critics found lacking in various respects. A further report was reportedly due by January 20, but to our knowledge never surfaced.
Following the election, there was continuing speculation – fueled by a flow of leaked information that put the Trump administration in a bad light – about collusion of the Trump administration in the Russian activity being investigated by the FBI. Could it be that the Russians had wanted Donald Trump to be elected, e.g., based on a belief that he would be easier to deal with than Clinton?
When the president fired FBI Director James Comey, not at the beginning of his administration but in May, there was a firestorm of criticism. Offering two explanations in rapid succession – first that the president had acted based on an assessment of then recently confirmed Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein, and then that he had planned to fire Comey whatever Rosenstein said – didn’t help to rally support. Wasn’t it obvious the president had something to hide, feared Comey was getting too close, and was therefore engaged in what amounted to a cover-up? Trump can’t win the press, Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner, 5/13/17.
President subsequently tweeted that Comey had better be truthful in his public comments about their several private conversations because “tapes” of the conversations might exist (apparently this was a bluff, as the president subsequently said he had no tapes) – Comey provided several contemporaneous memos of his conversations with the president to a friend who leaked the alleged substance of what was said to the New York Times – Comey’s motive (per his subsequent Congressional testimony) was to force the appointment of a special prosecutor – Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel – thus, as the president put it in another tweet, he would in essence be investigated for firing Comey by a special investigator appointed by the man who had recommended this course of action.
Notwithstanding widespread respect for Mueller’s acumen and probity, one might well question whether he was a sound choice for special counsel in this situation given his longtime association with James Comey. Is Robert Mueller conflicted in Trump probe? Byron York, Washington Examiner, 6/11/17.
Should a prosecutor pursue a case in which the star witness is a close friend? And when the friend is not only a witness but also arguably a victim — of firing — by the target of the investigation? And when the prosecutor might also be called on to investigate some of his friend's actions? [The leaks to the New York Times of the Comey memo may have been illegal if they contained classified information.] *** I put that question to five Washington lawyers Sunday — lawyers in private practice, on Capitol Hill, in think tanks, some of them veterans of the Justice Department. The verdict came back mixed. But the answers made clear this is a question that will have to be answered in the course of the Mueller investigation.
While the conflict of interest question may be murky, here’s another point that seems clear-cut. The president was entitled to fire Comey, and a surmise that his motive was to cover-up misconduct by the Trump campaign seems speculative. Given that a full-fledged special investigation could be expected to run for months if not years, with no limit on the costs chargeable to taxpayers, shouldn’t a more substantial basis for the proceeding have been established before authorizing it?
Note that the letter appointing Mueller gives him essentially carte blanche as to what will be investigated, with no one (either in the administration or Congress) being authorized to oversee his decisions.
(a) Robert S. Mueller III is appointed to serve as Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice.
(b) The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, including:
(i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
(ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and
(iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. §600.4(a).
(c) If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.
Most observers are now saying the appointment has been made and Mr. Mueller is a very capable attorney so we should let him do his job and trust things will come out all right. As a practical matter, it’s not clear there is much of a choice. But it seems likely that this investigation – on top of parallel investigations in both the House and the Senate - will blight American politics from now until the mid-term elections next year and quite possibly beyond that.
The only person who clearly stands to benefit from this situation is Mr. Comey, who is currently setting out to write a lucrative book about his involvement. Comey’s writing a book, and publishers are eager to pay big money for it, Alexandra Alter, New York Times, 7/15/17.
B. Implications - Meanwhile, what about the policy decisions and other matters that won’t be getting addressed because everyone is preoccupied with Russia, Russia, Russia?
One way of expressing this point is that Americans care mainly about things that affect their daily lives, and which they therefore expect our political leaders to address. Fix GovCare, albeit without causing anyone to lose benefits that they may currently be receiving. Cut taxes so people will have more money in their pockets, upgrade infrastructure, but don’t cut any government spending programs. Do something about North Korea, whatever it takes, except don’t start any wars.
Banker Jamie Dimon recently articulated this sort of “what have you done for us lately” viewpoint in an earnings call. Trump elations ebbs as loan growth slows at JP Morgan, AP, newsmax.com, 7/14/17.
“There would be much stronger growth if there were more intelligent decisions and less gridlock,” Dimon, 61, said on a conference call with analysts. He said he doesn’t like listening to the “stupid sh*t” Americans have to deal with, such as the nation’s inability to invest in infrastructure and overhaul the tax code.
Reading the tea leaves differently, the president subsequently tweeted about the stock market hitting record highs. Trump touts stock market; calls Russia study “a hoax,” Sandy Fitzgerald, newsmax.com, 7/15/17.
OK, but what about the “no free lunch” principle? If Americans believe all the things they want are free, they are doomed to disappointment – no matter who the president is.
Thus, SAFE never expected a clean repeal of GovCare, but simply a good faith effort to improve the existing system. Get rid of the mandates and taxes, bring down healthcare costs, limit subsidies to cases where they are truly needed. GovCare won’t really be repealed, and that’s fine, 12/5/16.
The Senate healthcare bill has now been watered down so much, however, that it hardly seems worthwhile for Republicans to pass it. They surely won’t get much credit from conservatives, and they also shouldn’t expect kudos from liberals who would like to spend even more money on healthcare. Is this the best Obamacare repeal we can do? Washington Examiner, 7/16/17.
•It is discouraging to see that $230 billion in Obamacare tax hikes will remain on the books if this bill passes. It is discouraging also to read that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is apparently telling wavering centrists that the bill's cuts to Medicaid, which are not scheduled to take place until 2026, will never happen anyway.
•The Senate bill adopts a version of something Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proposed earlier. It would allow insurers to offer less-comprehensive and thus cheaper policies to those who prefer them. In theory, this would make cheaper insurance available and pull many healthy people back into the market who until now have chosen instead to pay the fine (or tax if you prefer) that Obamacare imposes on the uninsured.*** [But] unlike what [Lee] and Cruz proposed, the new version tries to create this market for catastrophic insurance without abandoning an Obamacare rule that requires all customers in the individual market and in small-groups insurance in a given state to be within the same risk pool. That might blunt or destroy its effectiveness in bringing insurance prices down.
This may not be the end of the concessions, either, as the revised healthcare bill (and ditto the healthcare bill that the House spent weeks working on before it passed) may still not have the 50 votes needed to break a filibuster and bring it to the Senate floor for discussion. The latest word is that there will be no vote this week due to the absence (after surgery to remove a blood clot near his eye) of Senator John McCain. And although McCain would presumably vote for the bill if he were available, he is not exactly a stalwart supporter. McCain says healthcare bill likely dead, newsmax.com, 7/9/17.
If there isn’t going to be any action on healthcare for a while, Senator McConnell might try to make some inroads on the backlog of Trump administration appointments that are being slow-walked in the Senate. See statement below by Mark Short, White House director of legislative affairs. Trump says Senate Democrats have confirmed only 48 of his 197 nominees, Susan James, cnsnews.com, 7/10/17.
It's July 10th, and we do not have deputy secretaries at the Small Business Administration, the Department of Interior, the Department of Energy, HUD, HHS, OMB, and the Department of Defense. Senate committees have cleared 32 of our nominees who are still waiting for a floor vote. In total, there are 133 nominees waiting for consideration by various committees. While Senator Schumer irresponsibly champions the resist movement, his partisan tactics are harming the country and obstructing the will of the American people.
We could go on about the generally poor media coverage of efforts to address the fiscal problem instead of simply pushing through a tax cut, US options in responding to the North Korean nuclear threat, etc. But no need, because enough has been said already to suggest that the current political situation is out of kilter.
Since January, Democrats have been acting as spoiler versus playing the “loyal opposition” role. And the meme about Russian collusion, now supposedly vindicated by the interest of Donald Trump Jr. in information that might potentially be used against the Clinton campaign, is simply a convenient attack line. Real collusion is much deeper than Donald Trump Jr., Will Alexander, towhnall.com, 7/15/17.
The real collusion is between indignant Democrats and activist journalists who have teamed to unseat a duly elected American president. They’re on a remorseless quest to push these moments into history, like Watergate – which they missed. What happened to the peaceful transfer of power? Until this election, we’ve anchored ourselves into the idea that a smooth transition to power is sacred to a healthy democracy. The real colluders recklessly butchered that principle this election.
#If the GOP keeps control of the House and Senate, it will be because Democrats have not had a new idea since 1965 and are viewed as obstructionists. The D’s won’t benefit from their sensational claims. Trump still has his base, and they don't give a fig about the Russians. *** I gave up watching the news on any of the cable or broadcast networks. I just follow multiple websites, and try to figure out who is lying, or should I say, who is telling the bigger lie. We are a fractured country - perhaps, irreconcilably. – SAFE member (DE)
# Sleazy politics of the usual Democrat formula. – SAFE director