There is no known crime at the heart of the Trump-Russia affair, and no crime has yet been even credibly alleged in President Trump’s involvement in the investigation
James Comey’s public testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee revealed both more and less than expected. It revealed less than expected by President Trump’s critics: Comey related no other incidents as eyebrow-raising as his account of when Trump asked him, in discussing the investigation of Mike Flynn, to “let this go.” Comey wrote memoranda to document each of his direct discussions with the president, but based on his testimony to Congress, none of those other memos contains anything comparable to the exchange about Flynn.
In his prepared remarks for the hearing, Comey described President Trump asking for his loyalty. This is one place where Comey’s testimony was more revealing than expected—not in showing that the president might apply vague pressure to his employees but in showing how ill-defined the relationship between a president and America’s intelligence agencies can be. There is a difficulty here that does not begin or end with Trump, a basic, but unexamined, problem of how the executive branch operates. How can it be both political and, at the same time, above politics? How can the president have full legal authority not only to dismiss the FBI director, as Comey testified, even to direct what the FBI does and does not investigate, while the FBI also holds itself to be “independent”? And what does it mean for any intelligence service to be independent of elected leaders—and thus, independent of the public?
Trump is a political outsider, and he came into office with the same doubts about the independence of executive agencies, including the “intelligence community,” that millions of ordinary Americans harbor. They wonder whether spies and bureaucrats are selfless servants of the public good or every bit as self-interested and ideological as elected officials are. The suspicions that Trump and grassroots Republicans entertain—not to mention many grassroots progressives—may be excessive, but they are sincerely held, and they explain a great deal. They explain why Trump, for example, views the federal bureaucracy as the enemy, and they explain why Trump might be very concerned about “loyalty” on the part of those who serve under him, including the FBI director.High officials such as Comey are no strangers to political pressure, but they are unaccustomed to a president being as blunt as Trump is. In his testimony Thursday, Comey alluded to the Obama administration’s attempt to enfold the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server into a narrative that would serve the Democratic nominee’s interests in 2016: Comey testified that Obama’s attorney general, Loretta Lynch, “had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me.” Lynch’s brief meeting with Bill Clinton on a runway tarmac in Phoenix, Arizona was, according to Comey, what prompted him to speak publicly about the reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s activities. “In an ultimately conclusive way, that was the thing that capped it for me, that I had to do something separately to protect the credibility of the investigation, which meant both the FBI and the Justice Department,” he told Sen. Richard Burr.
Trump’s critics do not need to be convinced that the president has committed impeachable acts—they simply want to get rid of him, and they have never allowed that he could be a legitimate leader (albeit one whose agenda they oppose), regardless of his victory last November. Throughout 2016, many hostile pundits pronounced Trump “disqualified” from becoming president (or before that, the Republican nominee), as though that decision was theirs to make, not the voters’, and as though it were a decision to be made based not on the Constitution’s qualifications for office but on a candidate’s adherence to the “norms” sacred to Washington insiders—but which appear to mean little to a distrustful public.
Trump has violated Washington’s norms egregiously; but he has not actually broken any laws, and even in loose, political terms, he has not obstructed any investigations, based on what Comey testified. Comey did not take Trump’s wishes regarding Flynn as an order. He did not consider resigning—as he had once earlier in his career during the George W. Bush administration. Trump raised the Flynn matter only once. Trump did not try to shut down the investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 election—what he did lean on Comey to do was to state publicly that Trump himself was not under investigation. As Sen. Marco Rubio pointed out, by now testifying to that effect, Comey was finally giving Trump what he had asked for all along.
There is no known crime at the heart of the Trump-Russia affair, and no crime has yet been even credibly alleged in President Trump’s involvement in the investigation. No hush money changed hands, as far as anyone has speculated. Comey affirmed in his testimony that he told Trump that he (Trump) was not a target of investigation in the Russia inquiry. Comey did say that Flynn was in possible legal jeopardy, as a result of his interactions with foreign officials and what he told the FBI. Plausibly, Flynn violated rules for foreign lobbyists, and if he lied to the FBI, he would be subject to prosecution. Trump violated norms in suggesting to Comey that the FBI should “let go” of the investigation into Flynn. But he did not commit a crime by doing so, and he may been unusual less for putting pressure on the FBI than for the personal and direct way in which he did it. Certainly Trump’s desire for Comey to publicly exonerate him in the Russia business seems directly parallel to Loretta Lynch’s attempt to get Comey to play along with a narrative favorable to the Democrats when talking about the investigation into Hillary Clinton.
Unless and until Robert Mueller’s investigators uncover evidence that crimes were committed by Trump associates—and that Trump knew about them or committed some himself—the only scandal here is Trump’s disregard for Washington’s myths and norms. Yet Trump was elected precisely because he showed no respect for Washington’s way of thinking or talking about itself. If the norms of subtle politics are failing, and the myth of an executive branch both political and strictly professional is coming unraveled, don’t blame Trump. Blame the American people—for they have lost their faith in intelligence agencies and selfless bureaucrats and the unimpeachable morality of newspaper columnists. When Nixon resigned, there was still enough popular faith in America’s institutions that the president could not survive if those institutions turned against him. Today none of the institutions of government or media, except the military, still commands that level of popular support. This, even more than the lack of a crime that would justify impeachment, makes the prospect of Trump’s resigning or being removed mere wishful thinking on the part of his enemies.
Full article: The Phony War Against Donald Trump (Strategic Culture Foundation)