“I know speculating is part of human nature, but it really isn’t fair to draw conclusions simply because I say that I can’t comment.” – James Comey
Yesterday FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers got grilled for five and a half hours about the most sensitive political issue of our time and, amazingly, revealed nearly nothing about it. The investigation, they said, is still going on. But they came there to make two major points unmistakably clear:
1. The intelligence community has seen “no information” that supports Donald Trump’s accusation that Barack Obama personally committed a crime to literally set up a phone tap (or any kind of wire tap) on Trump Tower.
2. The FBI is currently investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia in its efforts to use cyberwarfare to influence the election, defeat Hillary Clinton, and undermine the democratic process.
For a while, I wondered if either point was that big of a deal. As for the first, we’ve known Trump was wrong. I’m sort of amazed people even print things he and Spicer say about it. And the second point has been so widely reported, leaked, and argued about for so many months that the existence of an FBI investigation is just taken for granted. On both counts, then, all Comey really did was say what everyone already knew. Is that truly groundbreaking?
But then I heard the White House’s bafflingly ignorant responses to the hearing, and I realized we hadn’t had an “official” narrative to compare them to, only speculation. But now it’s a little different: We’re forced to reconcile what Trump says with what the heads of the FBI and the NSA just said, in a Congressional hearing, and those stories can’t coexist.
Or can they? The real story of this hearing is the fundamental story that sadly runs through everything I’ve written about this election: We don’t share a reality anymore, and if we can’t fix that, our democracy will fail. So if you think you had a hard time making sense of what Comey and Rogers said yesterday, watch what happens when the White House gets hold of that ambiguity.
This leads to an interesting conclusion, though: Trump might go down soon. But not because of Russia. Here are the key takeaways from the hearing, and the key White House bizarro-world reactions. And a challenge to anyone who’s up for it: Write the story where this all makes sense and no one did anything wrong.
This was by far the most important point of the day, and it bears repeating: James Comey, in an open-door Congressional hearing, told the American people the FBI has been investigating the campaign of the sitting President of the United States of America for coordinating with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton and get Trump elected.
Let’s absorb that: The President of the United States is at the center of a federal treason investigation.
In Comey’s own words:
I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.
And if there was any room for doubt about what Comey meant by “Russia’s efforts,” he later clarified, “[Russia] wanted to hurt our democracy, hurt [Clinton], help [Trump].”
It’s an extraordinary revelation. There are obvious implications for the administration in both the short and long term (Comey implied a full investigation might take years), but I’m not sure we’ve begun to grapple with what it might mean for the democratic process and free and fair elections. And we’ve only got a year and a half. (Yep.)
Now let’s put Comey’s narrative against what Trump has been saying for months:
And indeed, just a few hours before Comey spoke, Mr. Trump tweeted yet again that the Russia story was “fake news” that “the Democrats made up and pushed” because they were embarrassed about losing the election. It’s now clear the story isn’t fake, and has never been. But Trump won’t give this up. He doesn’t have to: If you’re someone who believes you’re innocent in a reality you share with the human beings around you, you would say something like, “In the end, I’m confident the evidence will clear me of wrongdoing.” But when you say, “FAKE NEWS!” you’re creating a second world. Fake implies real.
This whole thing was bizarro.
The Republicans on the committee spent empirically most of their time going after journalists and leakers. These were the most despicable moments of the hearing. The sitting President’s campaign is being investigated for treason, in what might be the highest, most shocking crime against our democracy outside of war, and these guys are spending what time they have up there trying to get people to think about punishing the free press instead. It’s a coordinated effort and it’s desperate, gross, and un-American. Not that we shouldn’t consider leaks of classified information seriously—we should; they might compromise national security—but this isn’t a hearing about leaks. At least pretend you care about getting the priorities right.
Rep. Trey Gowdy implied that journalists who publish leaked classified information should be prosecuted and face prison time, as should the anonymous leakers themselves. Interestingly, Comey didn’t back the Republicans up here. He said that even though he’s dismayed by inaccurate information in the news, there were no laws that allow us to jail a government official for telling a journalist classified information, or a journalist for printing it. (“I don’t mean to break any hearts,” he added.)
And indeed, the real news didn’t come out looking quite so real. Representatives singled out The Washington Post and The Failing New York Times for publishing false stories. Comey said that even though he knows exactly which stories are false, he wouldn’t be able to identify or correct them even if he wanted to, pointing out that if he did, it would signal that the ones he didn’t correct were accurate. When pressed specifically on whether a journalist could be prosecuted (yes, seriously) for publishing classified information, Comey said no. This answer disappointed Mr. Gowdy.
Who’s on trial here? It certainly can’t be the truth.
When asked how that bad information got there, Comey allowed for a lot of possibilities. Undeterred, Rep. Gowdy “tried to pin inaccurate classified leaks”:http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2017/03/20/while-questioning-fbis-comey-gowdy-accuses-obama-team-leaks-no-proof/99412100/ on the following people: John Brennan, Ben Rhodes, Sally Yates, James Clapper, Loretta Lynch, and, yes, Barack Obama.
You see where this is going, right?
Not long after, @Potus tweeted that Comey said the Obama White House would have been able to out Michael Flynn’s name to the media. But Trump’s White House, Comey noted, would have the same ability.
At this point, I felt for Comey, a man seemingly committed to the truth and, surrounded by lies, unable to speak it. And I wondered if, oddly enough, he realized that what he felt at that moment the free press was feeling every day. But he got a shot at redemption.
This was, aside from the investigation announcement, the most memorable moment of the whole afternoon. About two hours after Comey said the FBI was investigating “whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts” to influence the election, the official @Potus account tweeted that “the FBI and NSA just told Congress that Russia didn’t influence the electoral process.” The video attached to the tweet was of Comey saying that Russia didn’t hack voting machines, and the tweet itself purposefully misquoted Comey and Rogers.
But then, in a glorious and surreal moment, Rep. Himes, alerted to the tweets, asked James Comey on the spot to fact-check the President and clarify what he, Comey, really said. The whole basis of the investigation, I’d like to point out, is the consensus that the Russians did try to influence the election. And now, perhaps with help from the Trump campaign.
In fact, all the @Potus twitter responses played the same shady game. One of them applied a quote from Comey to a different question. One implied Barack Obama might have leaked classified information to journalists. These are willful misrepresentations that take an exponentially larger number of characters and minutes to set right than they do to set things wrong in the first place. We’re seeing a bizarro, reverse fact-check: This is fact assassination.
Most of the juicy bits, of course got ducked. Joaquin Castro managed to slip in a thinly-veiled question about the pee-pee tape that got a smile from Comey. But even the non-answers were telling. Comey refused, for instance, to say whether he was even aware Trump was paid to take the Miss Universe pageant to Russia in 2013. And neither Comey nor Rogers would discuss anything whatsoever about Paul Manafort, Carter Page, or Michael Flynn. It bordered on absurd. Here’s one exchange:
HIMES: Director Comey, did Paul Manafort ever register as a foreign agent under FARA?
COMEY: That’s not something I can comment on.
HIMES: Whether he registered or not is not something that you can comment on?
HIMES: OK. Paul Manafort was, however, Donald Trump’s campaign manager in July of 2016, correct?
COMEY: Mr. Himes, I really don’t wanna get into answering questions about any individual U.S. person.
COMEY: Look, I’m — it’s obvious from the public record. But I don’t wanna start down the road of answering questions about somebody.
Almost the entire hearing went like that. They’re made of stone. Let’s turn instead to the alternate reality, where nothing is set in stone. Cue bizarro music: It’s Sean Spicer on a unicycle, Dippin’ Dots held aloft and melting down his wrists, new suit jacket fitting like a sheet of butcher paper, pins still stuck in it all over the place.
When Spicer was asked about Paul Manafort this afternoon, Spicer said Manafort played a “limited role” in the Trump campaign. Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager. His role was limited to coordinating the campaign with the entire fucking RNC and national contingency of Republican delegates in Cleveland. Spicer also misstated when Manafort was hired, by three months. Spicer then for some reason said Michael Flynn was a “volunteer” for the campaign.
Spicer was also happy to add that there’s no publicly available evidence that links the Trump campaign to the Russian government, but when asked about evidence to back up Trump’s claim that Obama tapped his phones, Spicer said it was still too soon for anyone to know for sure.
It’s possible that a space possum controls Sean Spicer’s brain from the moon Io. There’s no evidence yet, though, so it’s still too soon for anyone to know for sure.
That’s the real problem with this hearing: the absence of evidence. Comey hasn’t shown evidence of collusion to Congress. Congressional officials and intelligence officials such as James Clapper have said they’ve seen no evidence of collusion with Russia. I believe them. And Trump and people who defend him will scream about this all day as proof that there’s nothing there.
But the really frustrating thing to understand is that if evidence isn’t there, it doesn’t mean there’s no evidence. I know that can be ridiculous, as in the case of the space possum, but in the case of the Russia investigation it actually indicates the opposite might be true: The House Intelligence Committee hasn’t seen any evidence yet, but not even the most die-hard Trump defenders among them are asking the committee to suspend its investigation. And obviously the FBI and DOJ aren’t dropping theirs, which have been going on for eight months. That to me seems, if not evidence of evidence, then at least evidence of the likelihood of evidence.
I can put that in concrete terms. Take Michael Flynn. He’d been at the highest levels of intel for several years, so of course he knew Kislyak’s phone was tapped. We tap any Russian agent. So when Flynn spoke with Kislyak he would have probably taken great care choosing his words, knowing they’d end up on a U.S. intel transcript, but he must have let the wrong one slip.
Anyone who would be involved in this level of government collusion would take the same precautions. The transcripts themselves, then, wouldn’t likely give you much information, but they might add up, compiled over time with metadata and other intelligence, to an overwhelmingly likely conclusion. Would this be considered “evidence” from where we stand today? Not at all. But tomorrow, maybe.
Well, maybe today…
Perhaps a little lost in the discussion about Russia was the second big claim, that James Comey confirmed that Trump’s accusations that Barack Obama and the FBI illegally set up wiretaps and phone taps on Trump Tower are complete nonsense. Trump has for some reason staked his credibility on this claim. But the director said that, after extensive searching within the FBI and the DOJ, he’s been cleared to say he’s seen “no information” to support Trump’s tweets. This is fascinating only in the sense of trying to understand why the White House doubled and then tripled down on Mr. Trump’s lie, because this one might be more explosive than it seems.
For one, it’s the faster-moving of the two big revelations from the hearing, and the easier to corroborate. Second, it’s borderline criminal. Trump not only alleged, without evidence, that Mr. Obama personally got the Department of Justice to commit espionage on an American citizen and presidential candidate, but even today Trump won’t take it back. In fact, Sean Spicer said, after the statements in the hearing, that Trump “still stands by it.”
This isn’t just a lie fired off by a maniac going off of bad information. Earlier this week Trump repeated the claim in a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the White House accused Obama of going around U.S. law to ask the British to tap Trump Tower and share that intelligence. It’s a systemic attack: Trump has now in his desperate attempt to not be wrong accused the former President, the FBI, the DOJ, the press, and our allies of committing high crimes against him and treason against the democratic process.
Yet Mr. Trump still says there’s evidence out there that supports his claims. If there is, he has an advantage over Comey and the leakers and the committees and the fake news: He can produce it any time. Calls, emails, taxes, transcripts, whatever papers he needs to. Just like he so famously asked of Mr. Obama. Who wasn’t the subject of an FBI investigation into treason.
Here’s some strong evidence: Donald Trump could—at any time—provide and declassify the evidence needed to clear him, his campaign and his family of all wrongdoing.
He could shutter this investigation tomorrow.
He could humiliate every Democrat on Capitol Hill tomorrow.
He could humiliate every hater in America tomorrow.
He’d have the longest honeymoon in U.S. history, able to pass any piece of legislation he wanted—any legislation any Republican wanted. Starting tomorrow.
He’d cinch the 2020 election tomorrow, maybe cinch next two election cycles for Republicans.
He could—tomorrow—singlehandedly create a crisis of conscience that would cripple the Democratic party, perhaps irreparably.
He could give his disenfranchised supporters a decade’s worth of pride.
He’d nearly double his base and earn the Republican party their undying support, and earn himself the undying support of the Republican party. In a day.
He’d be a kingmaker.
He’d save his relationship with Vladimir Putin, which he says is dead on the vine because of all this fake news.
He’d be able to exploit that relationship with Putin.
He could make billions and no one would have the political or moral capital to stop him.
He could say he’s smarter than the CIA.
He could destroy Barack Obama’s legacy. Tomorrow.
He could destroy the American press. Tomorrow.
He would, in one day, become without question the most powerful man in the world.
But no. His strategy is to stay the course with the wiretaps lie and keep tweeting things he misunderstands on cable news shows he hates. Why isn’t Donald Trump the most powerful man in the world? If I were James Comey, that’s one unanswerable question I’d ask myself every day.