Article 1 of the Articles of Impeachment
against President Richard M. Nixon lays out case fairly succinctly. There was break-in as part of an effort to gain political intelligence against Nixon’s Democratic opponents in 1972. Nixon and his minions covered it up. The articles cite nine means used to implement the coverup: lying to investigators, making false statements to the public, withholding documents, etc. For our immediate purposes, number four is the most relevant.
On October 20, 1973, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon terminated Archibald Cox
, the special prosecutor investigating the Watergate break-in, accepted the resignations of the attorney general and deputy attorney general—who had refused Nixon’s order to fire Cox—then abolished the special prosecutor’s office altogether. The investigation was turned over to the Justice Department, whose leader Nixon would appoint.
That night, Cox issued this statement, which rings true forty-four years later: “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
Last night, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, whose agency is investigating Russian interference into the 2016 presidential election and possible ties between the Kremlin and Trump associates. The ostensible reason for his own Tuesday Night Massacre—if you believe it, I’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell you—is that Comey treated Hillary Clinton unfairly, by breaking protocol in holding a press conference last summer to discuss his reasons for not recommending charges against her even though she’d been “extremely careless” with the handling of classified information.
Officials said Comey was fired because senior Justice Department officials concluded that he had violated Justice Department principles and procedures last year by publicly discussing the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Democrats have long argued that Comey’s decisions in the months and days before the election hurt Clinton’s standing with voters and affected the outcome, but the president and his closest advisers had argued that Comey went too easy on Clinton and her aides.
The truth is, yes, Comey almost certainly cost Clinton the election
. That press conference broke protocol, yes. But more important to Clinton’s electoral chances was his decision to send a letter to Congress eleven days before the election announcing that the FBI had “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into Clinton’s email server. It turned out to be nothing, but the political damage was done. Just last week, Comey told a congressional committee
that he felt “mildly nauseous” about the possibility that he tilted the election. (While he talked openly of the Clinton investigation, he kept mum about the ongoing inquiry into Trumpworld’s ties to Russia.)
What he did was arguably a firing offense—not just because of the result, but because of the series of miscalculations
behind his injection of the FBI into politics so close to an election. There was a good case to be made that Barack Obama should’ve canned him. Democrats assumed that Hillary Clinton would fire him soon after taking office.
But not Donald Trump, not while his associates are under an active FBI investigation.
For starters, we know Trump praised Comey’s decision to send that letter to Congress last October
, after previously criticizing Comey for going too easy on Clinton: “It took a lot of guts. I really disagreed with him. I was not his fan. But I'll tell you what he did, he brought back his reputation. He brought it back.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has recused himself from the Russia investigation but nonetheless recommended firing Comey, also praised Comey
last fall, saying he “did the right thing.”
So Trump’s professed motive is an obvious smokescreen. His real motives are all too obvious. Politico gets at the nut of it
President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. … He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.
As the NYT notes
, Comey represented an “independent and unpredictable director with enormous power to disrupt [Trump’s] administration.”
Mr. Trump has been furious with news stories about his campaign’s ties to Russia. The White House has been critical of the leaks at the heart of those stories and tried unsuccessfully to enlist Mr. Comey in an effort to rebut the stories.
In other words, Trump wants a stooge.
It probably didn’t help that, as CNN reported last night
, a federal grand jury in Virginia has been issuing subpoenas to associates of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was fired for lying about his contacts with Russian officials. As CNN points out, “The subpoenas represent the first sign of a significant escalation of activity in the FBI's broader investigation begun last July into possible ties between Trump campaign associates and Russia.”
Nor did it help that, as the Times
reported this morning, Comey had recently asked the Justice Department for more resources for his Russia investigation
Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.
Mr. Comey asked for the resources during a meeting last week with Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who wrote the Justice Department’s memo that was used to justify the firing of the F.B.I. director this week.
This, we’re to believe, a coincidence.
As is this
Yates was the acting attorney general who warned the White House that Flynn might be compromised by the Russians and was collecting intelligence on the Russian ambassador. Bharara was the U.S. attorney in New York, who was investigating both Trump’s Health and Human Services secretary for fishy financial investments and corrupt Russian officials. And Comey, of course, was the head of the FBI, leading the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump associates and the Russian operatives who interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf—an investigation Comey publicly confirmed March 20.
In his letter dismissing Comey, Trump thanked Comey for informing him “on three separate occasions” that he was not under FBI investigation, though the White House wouldn’t say what those occasions were. So for now, I suppose, we’re going to have to take his word for it.
Of course, even if Trump isn’t under investigation now, that doesn’t mean he won’t be at some point in the future. After all, if Nixon taught us anything, it’s that it’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.
As U.S. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, put it in a statement last night: “The decision by a President whose campaign associates are under investigation by the FBI for collusion with Russia to fire the man overseeing that investigation, upon the recommendation of an Attorney General who has recused himself from that investigation, raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter.”
The White House interfering with a criminal matter involving the White House is a constitutional crisis—especially if the only check on such banana-republic bullshit is a U.S. Congress, run by the president’s party, that has largely abrogated its responsibility to hold his administration accountable.
Which brings us to North Carolina’s senior senator, Richard Burr.
To date, Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has appeared uninterested in investigating the Russia situation
. After agreeing to the scope of its investigation, his committee twiddled its thumbs for months, declining to hire staffers or conduct interviews or subpoena documents. According to Michael Isikoff
, an investigative reporter with Yahoo! News, as of late April the committee also hadn’t “requested potentially crucial evidence—such as the emails, memos and phone records of the Trump campaign—in part because the panel’s chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., has so far failed to respond to requests from the panel’s Democrats to sign letters doing so, the sources said.”
After Trump fired Comey, however, Burr issued a statement expressing concern with this turn of events:
I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.
He wasn’t the only Republican to be troubled
. Senator John McCain said he was disappointed. Senator Bob Corker said the timing “raises questions.” Senator Ben Sasse said the “timing of this firing is very troubling.” On Twitter, Senator Jeff Flake said he “spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it."
U.S. Representative Justin Amash
, a conservative from Michigan, went further.
Not surprisingly, Democrats have gone further still, calling for not just an independent commission but the appointment of a special prosecutor
. Also not surprisingly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t care
for either option: "Today we'll no doubt hear calls for a new investigation, which could only serve to impede the current work being done," McConnell said this morning.
Never mind that the word work
in McConnell’s dismissive statement should probably be in air quotes, given what we know of Burr’s plodding pace. The bigger problem is that those investigating the president’s men aren’t up to the task—either because of their fealty to the president or because they’re too worried about the damage their party will incur should something scandalous emerge.
And now Trump will appoint the guy who will lead the investigation into Trump—and only the U.S. Senate, which will vote to confirm the new director, and specifically Republicans in the U.S. Senate, can stop him from tapping a lackey who will do his bidding and derail this Russia inquiry once and for all. That’s plainly what Trump wants: whether there was collusion or not, no matter how far any wrongdoing went up the campaign’s food chain, he quite clearly wants this thing off the front page, not dragging on into the summer or the fall.
So now we’ll see who the patriots are, who cares more about their country than party, who will stand up for what it so evidently right in a moment of constitutional crisis. Senators’ furrowed brows and words of concern—whether from Burr or McCain or anyone else—matter little if they ultimately roll over and acquiesce to the president’s will.
History is watching.
And history is watching Richard Burr. As the head of the intelligence committee and one of Trump’s political allies
, Burr is something of a fulcrum, or maybe the snowball rolling downhill. If he lends his voice to the cause of integrity, to the calls for an independent commission or a special counsel, if he declares that Trump’s Department of Justice and his handpicked FBI director cannot be entrusted to handle this matter of this gravity, other “troubled” Republicans will follow his lead.
We need—we deserve—a thorough, independent investigation worthy of our nation, whether it leads to impeachment or nowhere at all. Trump has shown that his administration is inherently incapable of providing that. And so the matter needs to be taken out of Trump’s hands. Anything less is a dereliction of duty and an affront to the Constitution.
As Archibald Cox said in 1973, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.”
Congress answered that call four decades ago. Will this Congress do so in 2017?
History is watching, Senator Burr.