Last week’s tussle with James Comey is just the latest round.
June 12, 2017
It is easy to forget that the credibility battle between President Trump and James Comey is just the latest round in Donald Trump’s long struggle to overwhelm, single-handedly at first, the entire national political power structure. No one who followed closely really believed that the war was over on election night. The Democrats contested some local results, very unsuccessfully, and then, in their stark disbelief, took out television advertisements reaching tens of millions of people to ask some of the 538 people elevated to the electoral college to break their pledges and vote for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump. It was an absurd fiasco. Democratic Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Richard Durbin made prodigious efforts to block virtually every nominee of the incoming administration to high office. Apart from knocking down Trump’s first candidate for labor secretary, their only achievement was delay and harassment.
From the day after the election, Clinton fabricated the contention that, first among all those responsible for her defeat (among whom she never counted herself) were the Russians. This wild allegation was first advanced by John Podesta, the Democratic campaign chairman. It was then amplified by former Senate leader Harry Reid, and then Clinton got the bit in her teeth. Alleging collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign quickly became the favorite theme of Democratic leaders in Congress and the vast gallery of Never Trump fanatics in the national media, their ranks swollen and made more raucous by the self-exiled snobs of the intellectual conservative movement.
Since Trump had gone to war against all factions of both parties—Hollywood, Wall Street, the national media, academia, the lobbyists and the bureaucracy—there could not be a honeymoon, merely a few pleasantries on Inauguration Day, like a Christmas truce on the Western Front in World War I, followed by the resumption of hostilities. The outgoing Obama administration helpfully conducted surveillance of Trump Tower, and unmasked and leaked to the press the names of prominent Republicans that had arisen in these dubious practices, but no evidence was found.
The Russians jubilantly exploited the near anarchy among Washington’s political and media elites through an imaginative campaign of disinformation. Meanwhile, the upper reaches of the Washington civil service became spigots of malicious and almost certainly criminal leakage to the Trumpophobic press.
Every charge, no matter how fantastic, against the incoming president was given immense play by the morally bankrupt, unrelievedly partisan mainstream media, led by the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC and NBC. All of these outlets had gagged on election night, and all of them refused to accept the legitimacy of the new administration.
There had never been an argument to reelect the Democrats on the merits of the largely failed Obama administration, so their entire campaign was a smear job on Trump. This continued with the Russian collusion scam and as soon as the administration was in place, with the nonsense about racism over the partial travel ban. (The Supreme Court will almost certainly take immigration back from the district and circuit courts and restore it to the president.) Donald Trump hardly made his task easier by some of the bumptious and tasteless comments that he made as this war unfolded. He has generally held the support of his followers, who understood that his assault upon the political establishment was so comprehensive that it would require a full term to implement. Those well acquainted with the key Democratic personalities in Washington confirm that they realize they have absolutely nothing to work with for an impeachment, but are aiming at the immobilization of the regime until the midterm elections of 2018, when the Democrats will try to retake at least part of the Congress against a do-nothing, blustering government.
Trump has fought like a fearless but calculating fighting bull. His greatest problem is not spurious charges or media hostility, which is not uniform and provokes a heavy backlash, but the cowardice of congressional Republicans. Most of them are in the Washington sleaze factory Trump initially attacked, but they owe their majority and the House’s repeal of Obamacare to the president. Speaker Paul Ryan was unable, as the appointment of a special counsel was announced, even to allow the president a presumption of innocence, and confined himself to declining “to prejudge” the outcome. Soon, they will have to realize that the anti-Trump campaign is just a mudslide, and that their only chance of retaining control of the Congress is to pull together and put through the president’s radically sensible program.
The firing of FBI director James Comey (apparently for needlessly dragging out the Russian collusion business), his appearance before the Senate intelligence committee last week and Trump’s press conference the following day have all torqued up the war to new heights of acrimony. But Trump is finally winning: even relatively unbiased commentators have failed to note how one-sided the exchange has been, though the comparisons with Richard Nixon’s firing of Archibald Cox—like the collusion charge itself, the complaints of an attempted back channel between the Russians and the president’s son-in-law, and the charge of misuse of Israeli intelligence (denied by Israeli prime minister Netanyahu)—have vanished, almost forgotten.
Comey conceded that he did not object when former attorney general Loretta Lynch told him to refer to the Clinton investigation as the Clinton “matter.” He admitted—as Trump had claimed, Comey had not previously acknowledged and the press failed to publish—that even after many months of investigation, Trump was not suspected of collusion with the Russians. He acknowledged that while Russia had tried to interfere with the election, there was no evidence that their efforts had changed any votes. He admitted that he had leaked his hotly contested version of a conversation with the president, about the investigation of former national security advisor Gen. Michael Flynn, in order to prompt the appointment of a special counsel. He did attack the media, and generated a retraction at CNN and extreme evasions by the New York Times.
No one is satisfied with Comey’s explanation of why he took it upon himself as a police chief to recite Clinton’s likely offenses with her emails, and then declare that she should not be prosecuted, which was not his decision to make; nor why he reopened and then quickly closed the “Clinton matter” in the last week of the campaign.
In all of these areas, there is little argument that Comey exceeded the powers of his position, and compromised the political impartiality and integrity of the bureau.
The chief takeaways are that the Russian collusion argument against Trump is dead, and that the obstruction argument is reduced to trying to claim, as no sane prosecutor would, that the president’s unwise and inconsequential expression of a hope that Flynn would not be prosecuted constituted an obstruction of justice. The chances of getting any traction on this issue are also zero. Even the endless brayings of Schumer, and Adam Schiff and Mark Warner, (the sanctimonious congressman from Hollywood and the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee), may have to be modulated—to the acoustical relief of the nation. There is little chance that Special Counsel Robert Mueller will find anything that significantly embarrasses the president.
Donald Trump has won this round, but the war will continue for a while longer.
Conrad Black is a writer and former newspaper publisher whose most recent book is Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership (Encounter Books, 2013). He is a member of the National Interest’s Advisory Council.
Image: President Donald Trump takes a moment before taking the stage during a Memorial Day ceremony. Wikimedia Commons/Secretary of Defense