I was mildly surprised to see people on the right made uneasy about the firing of James Comey, after months of legitimate criticism levied against Comey from both Democrats and Republicans.
It didn’t surprise me at all to see Democrats who’ve been railing against Comey for months suddenly “terrified” that a president who clearly has the executive discretion to fire him went ahead and did so. The Democrats made sure to frame all their concerns as a reason for appointing a special prosecutor. They wanted one before Comey was fired; they wanted one before Trump was even inaugurated; and they still want one. Comey’s ouster is just the latest excuse to call for one.
The actual role of a special prosecutor – a post-Civil War contrivance, first used in the 1870s to investigate the “Whiskey Ring,” and used relatively rarely since – has never, in modern times, been to get to the truth about anything. It has been, rather, to hold administrations at risk for as long as possible, threshing the witness statements of people who can’t be indicted because they haven’t done anything illegal, in order to find minor inconsistencies.
Even in the most famous case of all (Watergate), the special prosecution didn’t accomplish anything meaningful directly. Rather, it wore down the Nixon White House – which did, let us stipulate, appear to be involved in a cover-up of the infamous break-in at the center of the drama – until Richard Nixon decided to resign, rather than let the political nightmare continue.
In cases like Iran-Contra and the Valerie Plame “outing,” no one was ever indicted for any underlying crime. If there even were any underlying crimes, it was never established. Instead, the process of the investigations ended up manufacturing spin-off “crimes.” Scalps were brandished on that basis, and false narratives concocted.
Flogging a strategic narrative, not seeking the truth
That’s what the congressional Democrats hope to achieve by appointing a special prosecutor to look into the non-existent affair they call “Trump-Russia.” They want an ongoing process with which to dangle the Trump administration and hold it at risk.
But in all the special-prosecutor cases, it was at least possible to identify something that incontrovertibly happened, to kick the whole thing off.
Some idiots broke into the Democratic presidential campaign headquarters in 1972. In Iran-Contra, arms were traded for hostages, and off-the-books monetary remuneration for the transactions was used to fund the Contra rebels fighting against the Soviet-sponsored Ortega regime’s incursions across the Nicaraguan border, in El Salvador. In the Plame affair, Richard Armitage told journalist Robert Novak that Joe Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, was a CIA employee.
In the “Russia” case, no one has ever articulated what is supposed to have actually happened. You cannot identify anything for which a law-enforcement investigation is warranted. Go ahead, try. There’s nothing there. You may think you know something because you’ve heard some words repeated so often. But that doesn’t make the set of words a sensible description of anything that actually happened.
What should truly horrify us is that the mere mindless repetition of a nonsensical theme has got so many people talking about a phantom concept as if it requires investigation.
Frankly, Americans should be ashamed of being so easily duped. The only things we know for sure are (1) that a lot of emails from Hillary Clinton and the Democratic campaign headquarters were stolen by someone – probably two different sets of someones – and published through WikiLeaks and a separate website of obscure provenance; (2) Russia has a long history in general of trying to manipulate the sentiments of Western publics, at all times including during political elections; and (3) someone – probably Russians – tried to hack into some state election-related websites, but without achieving anything.
The reason we associate the email dumps with the election is that they were linked to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic campaign organization, and they happened in 2016.
But there is zero evidence of any kind that they affected the election. There is no method of proving that they might have. Indeed, it would have been pretty stupid to think the email dumps could affect the election.
Experts are by no means agreed, moreover, on who stole the emails. The narrative that it was Russian state-sponsored actors has fallen apart. If anything needs to be better established, it’s who really stole and published the emails. That could actually be an indictable offense.
Meanwhile, not one scintilla of evidence has ever, to the public’s knowledge, pointed a finger at any American or set of Americans in any of this, much less at the Trump campaign.
What actually happened
That’s it. That’s all we actually know.
Well, aside from the fact that James Comey, among others with close ties to both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, was involved in lionizing an extremely dubious “dossier” on Donald Trump from a foreign private intelligence firm (which should set off alarm bells), and then using the dossier as justification for seeking FBI surveillance of Republican candidate Trump during the campaign.
We know that the first application for surveillance was in June 2016, which means the FBI has been trying to investigate something about Russian activities – what, has never been clarified to the public – for at least that long. And yet nothing has been turned up.
If it had been, there would by now be something to talk about that actually happened. Yet there isn’t. We also know that throughout this time, persons in the Obama administration had the identities of Trump associates, and probably Trump himself, unmasked in NSA-collected communications. We know that someone in the Obama administration who was aware of this took some of the information – which is top secret – and told a Washington Post reporter about it in January.
Yet the actual substance of the information did not indicate any sort of indictable crime. If it did, it is impossible to account for why the Obama Justice Department not only did nothing with it, but in fact told the media in January and February that Michael Flynn – the subject of the material – would not be prosecuted.
Indeed, James Comey himself testified in March that the “Trump-Russia” probe is a counterintelligence investigation, not a criminal investigation. That means that, at most, it is about what the Russians may have done – not about anything Trump or his associates did.
Why are we buying this?
Yet Americans have become so unable to remember anything they were told the day before that they don’t even question why the media keep shifting around on their story, and the Democrats are all over the map about Comey, and why there is nothing sensible at the heart of the fictional “Russia” theme – yet it keeps being flogged; and now Trump is supposed to be acting like Recep Tayyip Erdogan by firing an FBI director whom numerous figures in government leadership (as well as the media) considered unsatisfactory.
As with so many Trump moments, this one isn’t about Trump at all. It’s about us. It’s about our overreliance on mainstream media that concoct narratives to sway our emotions instead of keeping an orderly account of the truth.
It’s about our loss of judgment and perspective, even among the best-intentioned and best-informed of us. We can’t trust the media who are trying to sell us a “Trump Apocalypse” story – but we do. We keep realizing later that they haven’t told us the truth, yet as each new day dawns, we accept the narrative they are spinning for us.
I didn’t realize until this week how immunized my mind had become against the media-narrative infection, as compared with what other people seem to be experiencing. It didn’t bother me when Trump dismissed Comey. For one thing, I knew it was an action legitimately within his purview. But it’s also very clear to me that the ruling principle here cannot be appearances.
The reason is simple, but extraordinary and profound: we don’t all agree on what appearances should be now, or even what they are.
Conventionality and agreement in this regard are not even what we should be looking for at this point. Conventionality and agreement are what have made us so vulnerable to believing things that may well destroy us – like, for example, the narrative that our fellow Americans are vicious racists trying to kill each other, or that constitutional principles are racist dog whistles, except when Elizabeth Warren or Jerry Brown invokes them.
In fact, our preference for conventionality and agreement – our assumption that we will automatically have both – is being exploited against us today. Creating the appearance that they are missing causes us to think something terrible is going on.
Yet the reality is this: there was no time at which Comey might have been fired – from July 2016, when he usurped Loretta Lynch’s role to basically exonerate Hillary Clinton, to this week – when it would not have appeared to someone that his dismissal was political and inappropriate.
The reason is that Comey himself has been behaving in an inappropriately politicized manner throughout that period.
That’s the brief against him outlined in the letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. (Daniel Henninger has some nice highlights here, but it’s worth reading the whole letter, courtesy of our contributor Jeff Dunetz at LidBlog. The forwarding letter is from Jeff Sessions.)
Comey chose to exceed the authority of his position in such a way that political officials, on Capitol Hill and in the White House, ended up having an inevitable stake in the decisions he was making. We may never know why he did that. But we can see in black and white that he did it. Obama would probably have been justified in firing him last year. Trump is justified in firing him now.
As for why Trump chose this moment, obviously none of us knows for sure. I suspect it’s because Trump was letting Comey demonstrate what he was going to say and do while he was still in the job, and could be called to the Hill to testify as a senior executive with a portfolio.
Trump now has that information: he knows who Comey is, and has a good idea what Comey knows and what his practices have been. Comey will only come to the Hill behind a wall of lawyers from this point forward. But Trump doesn’t need to see any more of him without that wall in place.
I’ve seen some other commentators make similar, if not identical assessments. Take it for what it’s worth. Keep in mind that Comey himself said the FBI investigation is about counterintelligence – i.e., the Russians, not Trump. If you want to believe that was a lie for some reason, well, knock yourself out. We have no evidence-based reason to think it was. There’s no reason to think Trump dismissed Comey to avert some inconvenient action on Comey’s part.
Would I do things the way Trump does them? In some cases, I can definitively say no. For example, there was no need for Trump to say, as he did in the interview that aired on Thursday with Lester Holt, that he was going to fire Comey no matter what the Rosenstein letter said. I don’t think Trump meant by that what it sounds like. But it doesn’t matter what I think. Trump did say it, and so it does matter what it sounds like. I would pay more attention to that.
But that’s not because our great specter of appearances is inherently the ruling principle of public discourse. It’s for a more important reason. It’s because I can control what my actual words sound like.
Trump can’t control what appearances the media try to create. But he can control what he does and says. I think he could reassure more people by simply refraining from blurting out elliptical phrase-bursts that don’t parse to his advantage. The media are still going to attack every syllable he utters. But this latest word on Comey was gratuitously attackable. Sometimes it’s wiser to just shut up.
Take heart – and let the mental adjustment you need happen
That said, just a couple more observations. One, whichever Republican was elected in November would be the target today of hysterical vituperation from the MSM and leading Democrats.
Two – and I’ve said this before, and it’s critically important – the war for America is the weird one going on inside the Beltway right now. It is a great lie to believe that winning that war will look like a triumph for the conventional order our eyes yearn for. The awful truth is that the conventional order we feel so anxious and untethered without has for decades been papering over the slow destruction of our constitutional republic.
Do not yearn for that order to reassure you. I can’t entreat you more earnestly on that head. It is not your friend. It is a chimera. Learn to not fear breaches of convention.
It’s actually better to see unexpected things happening, the media melting down in fury, leading Democrats beside themselves, and old-consensus Republicans wandering in an irritable fog, trying desperately to grab the reins and unable to do so. Those things mean that the forces of deceitful collectivism and anti-constitutionalism are losing, on one incremental point after another. If it looked prettier, that would be something to worry about.
Of course, those forces against the people will depict everything that happens under Trump as a dreadful catastrophe. But it is the convention they are bemoaning, which has been a long-running convenience for them – it’s not the actual, constitutional workings of the rule of law. Those, Trump has continued to follow, and better than most of his opponents have. There is no reason to believe that will change.