Friday, June 09, 2017

Life After Comey

“Life goes on without’ya…” – Just a Gigolo

Answers to the larger Watergate questions – What did the President know, and when did he know it? – must await the final report of Special Prosecutor Robert Muller. In the meantime, the dreaded mainstream media is always able, if willing, to provide convincing answers to smaller but significant questions, not the least of which concerns the traditional relationship between the Director of the FBI, who may be dismissed for cause, and the President – any President – of the United States.

The investigatory functions of the FBI, everyone will agree, are independent of the president in this sense:  while the president has the constitutional power and authority to dismiss the FBI Director, this option by no means guarantees that a specific investigation involving the president will be dropped. Indeed, during his recently concluded congressional interrogation former FBI Director James Comey asserted publicly, for the first time under oath,  that neither President Donald Trump nor any member of his administration asked him to put the brakes on pending FBI investigations; he also asserted that the president was not, during his term in office, the target of any FBI investigation, an assertion the president had asked Comey to make public before, when the contrary notion was being peddled numerous time in numerous publications.

The FBI is part of the executive arm of government and, as such, its director, who serves at the pleasure of the president, is subject to dismissal for or without cause; which is to say, the director may be dismissed at the will and whimsy of the president. Everyone will agree that such authority should, on most occasions, bow to prudence.

As a practical matter, the dismissal powers of any president are politically contingent. Often in the past, powerful directors – J. Edgar Hoover, the guy in the red dress, leaps to mind – have maintained incriminating dossiers on both presidents and powerful civic leaders. Those dossiers have sometimes served as a check on the dismissal powers of Presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and others. Hoover was said to have possessed dirt on the Reverend Martin Luther King as well. Like Comey, Hoover was not above leaking such information to friendly media sources. The dismissal powers of the president and damaging dossiers are two sharp edges to a political sword. On the one hand, FBI Directors fear dismissal; on the other hand, presidents fear the black tar-brush of FBI Directors. This tension serves to preserve the relative independence of both presidents and FBI Directors.

During his interrogation, Comey identified himself as a leaker. He had kept notes of a private conversation between himself and President Trump; and following a broad hint from Trump that there might exist a secretly recorded tape of their private discussion, Comey released his own record of the conversation to a friend who dangled it before a news publication; the questioning of Comey disclosed a timeline problem with his version of events.

In any case, Comey, wisely or not, chose to follow a path set by Hoover, the first Director of the FBI. Comey was unable to answer convincingly questions put to him by Democrat U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and moderate Republican U.S. Senator Susan Collins, not a Trump aficionado: why did Comey fail to advise the President that he could not in good conscience satisfy Trump’s whimsy and  close down a pending investigation?

Comey said he was “stunned” by the President’s apparent suggestion. Comey was not pressed on the point why, when he recovered from this mild shock, he did not do his duty by the president and advise him of the inappropriateness of his apparent attempt to influence a Director of the FBI to shut down a pending investigation. How long, precisely, did Comey remain stunned? Did the blow he imagined receiving permanently short-circuit his moral obligations? Perhaps he was too busy assembling his dossier.  

The interrogatory that elicited the most telling information from Comey, frightened out of his wits by an inept president, was put to him by Senator Marco Rubio, who observed archly that of all the dubious data leaked to the media, most of it damaging to Trump, the most important datum – namely, that Comey had advised the President numerous times that he was not the subject of any FBI investigation – remained a closely held secret that Comey was not willing to share with the journalistic resistance at the New York Times.

Comey, no J. Edgar Hoover, also found this curious.
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