The Comey Canning

As Forrest Gump might have said, any day with the Trump Administration is like a box of chocolates:  you never know what you’re going to get.  Yesterday, we got the decision from President Trump to fire the Director of the FBI, James Comey.  And, to accentuate the bizarre, bolt from the blue aspect of the decision, Comey apparently learned of the decision when the news flashed across the TV screen behind him while he was giving a speech, and he initially chuckled and thought it was a joke.

The White House says that Trump acted on the recommendation of senior officials in the Justice Department, who concluded that Comey botched the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s questionable email practices and, in the process, caused “substantial damage” to the credibility and reputation of the FBI that has “affected the entire Department of Justice.”

FILE PHOTO: FBI Director Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in WashingtonThe Deputy Attorney General, Rod J. Rosenstein, prepared a memorandum citing reasons for Comey’s discharge that stated:  “I cannot defend the director’s handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken. Almost everyone agrees that the director made serious mistakes; it is one of the few issues that unites people of diverse perspectives.”  Among other mistakes, Rosenstein cited Comey’s curious July 5 press conference, where Comey announced that charges would not be pursued against Clinton but then castigated her creation of the servers and her handling of confidential materials.  Rosenstein stated that Comey acted “without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders” and added: “Compounding the error, the director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation . . . we never release it gratuitously . . . It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”

There is truth the Rosenstein’s statement about a bipartisan consensus that Comey’s handling of the email investigation involved a lot of mistakes; Comey’s actions and his decision to make an abrupt, pre-election announcement of a renewed investigation into Clinton’s email servers were criticized by former attorney generals in both Republican and Democratic administrations.  And only this week, the FBI had to correct misstatements Comey made in recent testimony to Congress about the email investigation.

But there is something very unsettling about the Trump Administration’s abrupt decision to discharge Comey for actions he took months ago, because the decision comes in the midst of an ongoing investigation into Russian influence into the last presidential election and the actions of the Trump campaign in relation to the potential Russian involvement.  Trump’s letter to Comey giving him the boot oddly acknowledged the ongoing investigation, stating:  “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.’’  And Rosenstein has only been at his Department of Justice post for two weeks, which suggests that his first job assignment in his new position was to consider whether Comey should be fired.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are up in arms about the decision, which they compare to Richard Nixon’s infamous “Saturday night massacre” of Justice Department officials, and members of Congress are calling for an investigation.  I think an investigation makes sense, but until then I’m going to reserve judgment and see what develops.  There’s no doubt that Comey had his issues, and it may well be that — unfortunate timing aside — the White House and the Department of Justice had legitimate concerns that he simply was incapable of handling the kind of highly sensitive investigations the FBI must undertake in a non-partisan way.  On the other hand, the timing is unfortunate, and naturally gives rise to suspicions about what really happened here.  A through investigation will help to establish the facts and clear the air.

The Inevitable Post-Election Tell-Alls

It’s been six months since the last presidential election, which means it’s time for those tell-all books about the campaign to start coming out.  The first one that I’ve read about is called Shattered:  Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.

hillary_abcAs if often the case, the publishers of the books try to gin up interest by releasing supposedly tantalizing details about incidents that occurred during the campaign.  In the case of Shattered, the incidents involve a phone call in which Hillary and Bill Clinton both unloaded on the campaign staff, and the prep sessions for one of the debates with Bernie Sanders in which Hillary Clinton got mad and made one of her preparers stand up and answer questions while she critiqued him.  The underlying message of both incidents was:  Hillary Clinton was angry that she wasn’t doing better and just couldn’t recognize that the problem was due to her personal failures, rather than failures by her staff.

I enjoyed the Theodore White Making of the President books way back when, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing:  On the Campaign Trail ’72 remains one of my all-time favorite books, but I’ve long since stopped reading the “insider” accounts that now come out after every election.  I haven’t read one in decades because the lack of loyalty inherent in the form of the book makes me sick to my stomach.  Professional staffers provide juicy tidbits as part of an overall information campaign to cover their own butts, make themselves look good, and position themselves to get hired and do it all over again in the next campaign cycle.  The losing candidate always gets torn down, while the wise, far-sighted staff that the candidate was supposedly stubbornly ignoring get elevated.

So, Hillary Clinton was frustrated that she wasn’t doing better, and from time to time lashed out at her staff when voting results or polling weren’t favorable?  Gee . . . is anybody really surprised that a person who is seeking the presidency — and who saw her election as an historic opportunity to shatter a very visible “glass ceiling” for American women — from time to time had that reaction?  When you’re on the griddle for months, 24/7, as presidential candidates are, of course there are going to be times when fatigue and frustration leave you not at your finest, and when the results aren’t going as you hoped, the effects of that fatigue and frustration will inevitably be compounded.

So Hillary Clinton lost her temper, and she and Bill Clinton administered an occasional tongue-lashing.  So what?  She lost.  Can’t we just let it be, without having rat-like staffers heaping scorn on the losing candidate with anecdotes carefully pitched to make themselves look good?  If I were a potential presidential candidate, I would never hire somebody whom I suspected was the source of leaks in one of these tell-alls.  Loyalty is an important quality when you are working for a politician, and people who leak stories to promote themselves are finks who simply can’t be trusted.

Finally Over

Today the Electoral College voted, and the results made Donald Trump, officially, the President-elect of the United States of America.  There were a few defections, on both sides, but for the most part the electors did what they typically do — they voted for the candidate who won the popular vote in their state.  Concerns, or hopes, that there might be a significant number of “faithless electors” turned out to be largely unfounded.

az2016 has been a crappy year for a lot of reasons, but the 2016 presidential election is one of the biggest ones.  The election dominated the news all year, from the seemingly endless and embarrassing Republican primary debates to the improbable Bernie Sanders movement to the unfathomable, and for the most part totally unpredicted, victory of Donald Trump.  Every night, we got hit over the heads with Trump’s latest outrageous tweet, or Clinton’s big-money speeches to Goldman Sachs, or Trump’s appalling comments about women, or Hillary’s ill-considered private email server.  It was a year of all election, all the time.

There are those who are happy with the results of the election, and there are those who are bitterly disappointed, and angry, and disgusted.  And then there are people like me:  I’m just glad that this wretched election is finally, officially over.

When All Will Be Revealed

Tomorrow we’ll see the finale of HBO’s Westworld.  We’re being assured that all will be revealed, and after the episode the show will actually make sense.

Yeah, right!  I’ll believe it when I see it.  That’s like expecting triumphant Trump staffers  and bitter Clinton campaign operatives to reach friendly consensus on why Donald Trump won the election, or imagining that fair-minded Michigan fans will freely concede that the referees correctly spotted the ball on the 15-yard line after J.T. Barrett’s fourth-down keeper in the second overtime of this year’s classic version of The Game.

Westworld is right up there with The Leftovers as the most confusing show since Twin Peaks.  It’s so intentionally mystifying that I don’t even try to understand it, or piece together the disparate threads of the plot.  I just wince at the horribly bloody violence that is likely to occur at any tender moment, groan at the show’s troubling core assumption that any human who goes to a fantasy world will promptly turn into a blood-soaked, sex-crazed lunatic, and recognize that any character in the next instant could be revealed as a robot, a cold-blooded killer, a psychopath, or all three.  (I also cringe for the actors who have to routinely sit buck naked on chairs on a sterile set while other characters question them and tap iPads, but that’s another story.)

I’ve stopped trying to figure it all out.  Kish and I watch the show, and I just let it kind of wash over me, rather than struggling to make sense of why Dolores’ outfit changes from instant to instant or why Bernard’s interactions with his fake dead son are so significant.  I realized that the show had reached the point of ridiculousness this past week, when I was walking back from lunch with two friends, one of whom watches Westworld and one of whom doesn’t.  The watcher and I started talking about the show, and after a few minutes of discussion of “Billy” and the possibility that the show’s plot is running along different timelines and the importance of the photo of Billy’s bethrothed and whether the twitching beings at the church Dolores visited were troubled robots looking for some kind of salvation, the non-watcher asked, with a baffled laugh:  “What is this show?”  And I realized that it was all pretty silly.

So I’ll watch the finale, but I’m not expecting that I’ll get everything in this episode, because that sure hasn’t been the case in the past episodes.  I just make one request:  before we move on to “the new narrative,” can you at least let us know what the old narrative was all about?

American Tune

I always listen to music walking to and from work.  This evening, as I was listening to my acoustic playlist, it struck me that American Tune by Paul Simon — a beautiful song that is one of my favorites — pretty accurately captures how many people are feeling these days.  I’m not just talking about disappointed Hillary Clinton voters, either.  There seems to be a strong sense of disquiet, an unsettled feeling, mingled with curiosity, trepidation, raw hope, and uncertainty about what might happen next, lurking throughout the general populace.  Some of those feelings stem from the election results and the thought of Donald Trump as President, to be sure, but some of them also seem to flow from concerns about the direction of the country as a whole.  Where is our road leading?

American Tune, which was released in 1973, aptly crystallizes this odd mixture of emotions and sensations.  Simon wrote:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
Or driven to its knees
Oh, but it’s all right, it’s all right
For lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what’s gone wrong

Two verses later, the song concludes, in a mixture of pride, doubt, fatigue, and resignation:

Oh, we come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing an American tune
Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right
It’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying to get some rest

It says something about the universality of music when a song written at the end of the Nixon Administration can so perfectly express how so many Americans are feeling, 45 years later.

Protests In The Aftermath

We’ve seen several nights of mostly peaceful protests, in a number of American cities, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s shocking election of Donald Trump.

In Oregon, two Portlanders have submitted a ballot proposal to have Oregon secede from the Union — although they say it’s only “partially” a response to Trump’s election, because they feel much of the United States no longer subscribes to “Oregon values” of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality.  Groups in California also are talking about secession.

1ovzjwd1g7d0h7tar9tvcdwAnd, because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, people are asking questions — which get raised after every close presidential election — about whether we should abolish the Electoral College and just elect our President through a simple national referendum.

I’ve got no problem with any of these developments.  In America, people have the right to protest thanks to the First Amendment, and we’ve also got the right to take a fresh look at our constitutional institutions and decide whether to change or reject them through the constitutional amendment process.  I’m not in favor of the states along the west coast, where we have lots of friends and family, actually seceding from the United States, of course, but I also have no problem with people seriously discussing the disconnect between the perspective on the coast, where voters gave huge majorities to Hillary Clinton, and the results found in the interior, where Donald Trump racked up huge vote totals.

I think all of these developments are signs of a healthy, functioning democracy, and they also convey an extremely important message:  elections have consequences, and voting is the way to produce the consequences you favor.  In 2016, tens of millions of Americans didn’t vote at all.  Hillary Clinton got about 6 million fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012, and early indications are that certain groups — like “Millennials” — didn’t turn out to vote in the same way they did in 2008 and 2012.  We’ll never know what the election results would have been if all of those eligible voters had exercised the most basic democratic right of all, but it sure isn’t a bad thing if the people who didn’t vote now feel remorse and resolve that it will never happen again.

Wouldn’t you like to know whether all of the people out protesting Trump’s election actually voted on Election Day?

The Fruits Of Polling Failure

One last point about the election, and then it’s time to move on:  it’s pretty clear that the entire polling edifice about which modern campaigns, and much of modern political journalism, have been built came crashing down Tuesday night.

poll-public-opinion_001-13The Hill has an interesting article on the degree of polling failure, with a headline stating that pollsters had sustained a “huge embarrassment” as a result of their general failure to predict, or even detect the possibility of, a Donald Trump win.  By way of example, no poll indicated that Trump would win Wisconsin, and instead showed Hillary Clinton with a 6.5 percent lead in that state.  As a result, none of the know-it-all pundits who were pontificating on Election Day even identified Wisconsin as a “battleground state” — when in reality Wisconsin may be the crucial state that handed the presidency to Donald Trump.

I’ve written before about the many judgment calls that go into polling, and how a few tweaks in turnout modeling and the demographic makeup of “likely voters” can change the results.  With this election, we’ve seen the suspicion that polling is not quite as “scientific” as we’ve been led to believe become a painful reality.  Pollsters were just wrong in predicting who would turn out, and in what numbers, and as a result their numbers were skewed — which is why the ultimate results were such a shock.

Polls have become a crutch for campaigns and journalists, and also have been used to crush the aspirations of challengers out seeking to raise money.  Maybe now the “national media” covering the elections will actually get out on the campaign trail, go to events, and report on what the candidates are actually saying and how their audiences are reacting, rather than reporting on polling data and insider leaks about the shape of the horse race.  Maybe now campaigns will pay more attention to what people on the ground are saying and doing, and whether they are responding with enthusiasm to a candidate’s message.  And maybe people deciding which candidate to vote for or financially support will pay attention to the candidates themselves, rather than trying to pick a likely winner based on polling data.

I would never say that this awful election had a positive impact on anything, but if it results in our political processes being much less poll-driven, that would be a step in the right direction.