Monday, July 17, 2017

Straight shooters I and II:
Mueller and Wray raise the bar, and the stakes


PRESIDENT* TRUMP does nothing by half measures, not even arrogance. The shambolic enterprise that his administration has been from the beginning has always been typified by the gale force of the Trump persona. But upon taking office, and for too long since then, he’s assumed the personage of the bloated amateur of a high diver with more nerve than skills, a man whose inescapable cannonball splash is followed by a climb from the water, and a fast but prideful undulating away from the scene, for all the world acting like a man on his way to the medal stand at the Olympics.

This was maybe never more obvious than when he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in a timed-release fit of pique that showed just how thin-skinned and reactionary this president* is. In a Trumpian bellyflop nobody saw coming, Comey was cashiered on May 9, two days before Comey was to testify in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. “In a letter informing Comey of his removal, Trump told him, 'It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.’”

“I don’t think this is rule of law. This is rule by Trump,” former FBI special agent Clint Watts told The Daily Beast on May 9. “[Trump] doesn’t like anybody who’s independent. I think it made him nervous that he couldn’t get Comey under his wing.”

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Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution said Trump’s decision to fire Comey “removes the one person of stature (figurative as well as literal) in the government whom everyone knows will—even when he’s wrong—do what he thinks is the right thing and damn the torpedo[e]s,” Wittes wrote on his lawfare blog. “It removes, in other words, the essential person for a credible investigation.”

It was the power of the Trump brand, his style of decision-making that invited speculation by various seers in the punditburo who debated whether Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI director appointed to investigate the role of Trump and his family and minions in the Russia hacking affair, was compromisable — either through the impact of the Trump persona and the force multiplier of the vast powers of the presidency ... or through some inner failing on the part of Mueller himself, as if the man could be bought and sold in the marketplace after all.

Many on the right apparently felt the same way, with a growing chorus calling for Mueller's head in a basket, too, just like Comey. “The idea that the investigation is illegitimate and politically motivated has been gaining currency on the political right for months,” The New York Times reported June 12. “Conservative writers, radio hosts and cable personalities — emboldened by the president himself, who has called it a witch hunt — have repeatedly sought to discredit the inquiry, its investigators, the mainstream news accounts of it, and the lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are demanding more answers.”

They needn’t have bothered. Mueller was appointed in mid-May, and tasked with a “full and thorough” investigation into the cyberscandal in which Russia tried to thumbscale the 2016 presidential election. A former prosecutor, ex-Marine and as celebrated a former director as any in the annals of the FBI, Mueller took the helm as Director one week before 9/11 — as crucible an event as you could ask for. In the current crisis, he’s presented himself as someone who intends to perform his brief, to fulfill the job he was brought on to do. He made that clear in a statement in a tweet after his appointment: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.” Full stop.

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SO HOUSE TRUMP already faced the expected pushback from Mueller, whose mission is to aggressively investigate what Trump doesn’t want investigated at all — that’s why he fired Comey in the first place. That was bad enough. But then, of course, Trump needed to name Comey’s replacement at FBI; he tapped someone who, with his recent testimony as evidence, may be as much of a problem for him as Comey or Mueller.

FBI Director nominee Christopher A. Wray, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 12, set the terms of engagement for anyone at House Trump who’d try to interfere in any way with the Russia investigation:

There are no terms of engagement. There will be no engagement.

“I would consider an effort to tamper with Director Mueller’s investigation to be unacceptable and inappropriate,” Wray told a committee already predisposed to hosannahs for this former G-man and successful Atlanta litigator. In his comments, Wray praised Mueller as “the ultimate straight shooter.”

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This isn’t just a budding law enforcement bromance in the works. What we’re seeing — and Trump knows this — is a pre-emptive warning to House Trump: Tampering? A late-night phone call just to ask an innocent question? Don’t even contemplate. What Mueller and Wray have done, separately but together, is establish a united front on the Russia hacking investigation, to suggest, without actually saying so, that, while this investigation may have one objective, it's likely to develop through multiple channels.

At least two. Let’s call them Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside. If he’s confirmed, as it appears to be likely, Wray would conduct his investigation from within the bureau, free (as the Director) to devote as many resources as necessary to get the job done from his position. Mr. Inside.

Mueller, on the other hand, would continue in his role of special counsel, a learned outsider making use of his own lawyerly skills, the relationships he’s developed within the government over the years — and the exceptional latitude his new role grants him, in his pursuit of the truth. Mr. Outside.

From these vantage points on the Justice Department, Mueller and Wray will be in the two very best positions to get to the bottom of this fever swamp of a scandal. Both men are or soon will be in positions that are, in some ways, Trump-proof. Neither is subject to the petitions or requests of Trump, his Cabinet or the officers of Congress. The independence of the FBI Director has been a given for generations; on the basis of his Judiciary Committee testimony, we can expect Wray to draw a very bright red line between his agency and the entreaties of an embattled president*.

He said as much last week in his testimony to senators. “No one has asked me for any kind of loyalty oath at any point in this process, and I sure as heck did not offer one,” he said. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law.”

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ON MONDAY, Politico reported that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell plans to gain a Senate vote on Wray’s confirmation before the August recess, sometime around mid-month. Wray, Politico reported, “has since picked up support from several key Democratic senators.”

“Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, has scheduled a panel vote on Wray’s nomination for Thursday, although any one senator could ask for it to be delayed one week. McConnell also has two additional weeks of session to try and confirm Wray, with the start of the annual August recess being pushed back until mid-August,” Politico reported late Monday.

It’s all moving fast now, and in a departure from our historical expectations of the country’s oldest federal police agency, the FBI will be setting the pace at a highly visible level. With a new director who knows the bureau (and as a lawyer who knows the law), and a former director still much beloved in the agency, the FBI has all it needs to pursue a nimble, panoramic, inescapably visible investigation that gets to the root of the most damaging incursion on American democracy in the history of that democracy.

There’s not just one apparent straight shooter working this scandal, there’s almost certainly two. What’s ultimately possible will be more than the formidable sum of their parts.

Image credits: Wray: Alex Wong/Getty Images. Comey: tk. Mueller: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press. Trump: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images.

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