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“I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
In a banner week for embarrassing (and potentially incriminating) leaks from the Trump administration, sources within the White House saved the best for last: On Friday, the New York Times reported that President Donald Trump quite literally told top Russian diplomats that firing FBI Director James Comey had relieved the “great pressure” of the bureau’s Russia investigation.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak, according to a document read to Times reporters by an anonymous source. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Even in a news cycle that has frequently stretched the limits of credibility, the notion that Trump would boast of eliminating this “pressure” to Russian officials might seem inconceivable. But the Times notes that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer “did not dispute the account.” The document relaying this account was reportedly based on notes taken during the meeting.
In a statement replying to the Times article, Spicer said the “real story” is that someone leaked Trump’s conversation with Lavrov and Kislyak.
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage with negotiate with Russia,” said Spicer. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it.”
The Times report further undermines the official White House explanation for Comey’s firing — an explanation Trump has already personally contradicted several times over.
At first, the White House insisted that Trump had sacked Comey over his handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server, on the recommendation of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But Rosenstein’s memo criticizing Comey never explicitly recommended that he be axed, and Trump was soon publicly declaring that he had made his decision before the document was ever drafted.
Last week, during an interview with NBC News, Trump said he was going to terminate Comey “regardless of recommendation.” In the same interview, he blithely mentioned that the “made up story” about his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia was on his mind when he made up his mind about the FBI director.
That disclosure was astonishing enough. But there’s something truly awe-inspiring about learning that the president of the United States, while under suspicion of helping a hostile foreign power rig the last presidential election, met with representatives of that nation’s government and bragged about how he had squashed an inquiry into the allegations. That’s next level.
Minutes after the Times broke the news of Trump’s boasting, the Washington Post reported that a “senior White House adviser” is being investigated as part of the Russia inquiry.
Trump reportedly bragged to Russian officials about squashing the FBI’s Russia investigation was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
“Why in the name of all the saints and stars would you appoint a politician to a 10-year statutory term in a post that is supposed to be above politics?”
Just 10 days after he fired James Comey as Director of the FBI, Donald Trump reportedly views former Senator Joe Lieberman as the frontrunner to replace the man he fired for investigating Russia’s influence in the 2016 election too vigorously.
Lieberman would be a concerning choice. He would break decades of precedent that FBI directors should come from the criminal justice realm. He holds Bill of Rights protections for American citizens in low regard. And his late-career embrace of the American political right — complete with a move into Trump’s own professional locker room after leaving the Senate — would make for a polarizing and potentially caustic tenure at the embattled domestic security agency.
Lieberman has been a professional politician almost his entire adult life. He was just 28 when he first won a state senate seat in Connecticut. After a decade in that legislature and several more years as state Attorney General, he won a U.S. Senate seat there in 1988. He held that office for the next quarter-century.
No professional politician — let alone a career-long one — has ever run the FBI. That is by design, according to Tim Weiner, a veteran investigative reporter and the author of multiple lengthy histories of government agencies and figures including the FBI and the CIA.
“I prefer facts to opinions, but I have a strong opinion on this: No politicians!” Weiner told ThinkProgress. “Republican, Democrat, Socialist, Farm Labor Democrat or whatever that party in Minnesota is — no politicians, nope, uh-uh.”
“The constituency of the FBI director is the law and the constitution of the United States.”
With the FBI directorship suddenly politicized by Trump’s actions, though, the next director will have to balance an unusually intense set of contrasting views and priorities within the government. Could someone with decades of experience in the art of politics therefore be right for our times?
“With all due respect, that is a very Washington thing to say,” said Weiner, whose book Enemies tracks the history of the agency from initial director J. Edgar Hoover through the modern era.
“The constituency of the FBI director is the law and the constitution of the United States. The whole point of the 10-year statutory term that was instituted after Hoover died was to make the position that platonic ideal: Something that’s above politics,” he said.
“Now, why in the name of all the saints and stars would you appoint a politician to a 10-year statutory term in a post that is supposed to be above politics? That is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Lieberman’s Trump ties
After finally retiring from the Senate in January 2013, Lieberman took a large if unintentional step into Trump’s inner circle. The former senator returned to private law practice at the corporate defense firm Kasowitz Benson Torres as senior counsel.
Marc Kasowitz, a founding partner at the firm, has been Trump’s go-to legal attack dog for decades, as the Washington Post detailed last fall. Lieberman’s now-boss has played an especially large role in Trump’s affairs when they pertain to conflicts with the media.
Lieberman’s time with the lawyer Trump pays to quash unflattering media attention puts an extra twist on his potential elevation to the head table of American law enforcement today.
“No politician has ever been a director. That is disqualifying.”
The only reason the FBI job is vacant at all is because Trump became fed up with the agency’s investigation of his campaign’s interactions with Russian interests. The White House initially pretended Trump only fired Comey on a senior DOJ official’s recommendation, but has since acknowledged the president had already made up his mind to ditch Comey. The DOJ official, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, now says that he knew Trump’s mind was made up when he sat down to craft the memo containing a non-Russia rationale for firing Comey.
The next director of the FBI, then, will be stepping into a position in crisis. The FBI Director is supposed to be above politics, as Weiner said. Trump seems to expect that the job involves doing him favors.
Hostility to basic civil liberties
The conflict between Trump’s view that executive branch leaders owe him personal loyalty and the institutional needs of the country casts its own historically unique shadows across this new hiring process. But Lieberman’s political career is full of evidence he would be a dangerous pick to head the domestic security service even under a more normal presidency.
Lieberman is very fond of spying on Americans — and not just in the post-9/11 context. Lieberman pushed to give local police authority to wiretap without seeking a warrant as far back as 1995. Years later, when President George W. Bush had drastically expanded the National Security Agency’s listening capabilities and turned the U.S. informational spying apparatus on his own people, Lieberman emerged as a key Democrat ally to an embattled Republican White House. He called civil liberties concerns about the Bush programs “petty partisan fighting.”
The Bush wiretapping case is another Lieberman resume detail with awkward implications for Trump today. The story contains vague echoes of Trump’s modern, and more personal, conflict with the FBI. When the extent of Bush’s warrantless surveillance of Americans became clear to government insiders, then-FBI Director Robert Mueller and then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey stood athwart the White House’s push to scrap the Bill of Rights. With Attorney General John Ashcroft briefly hospitalized for gall bladder surgery, Bush sent officials to his bedside to seek the incapacitated man’s signature on documents extending the surveillance system’s authorization.
Comey and Mueller got there first, prevented the signing, and then prevailed on Bush to either bring the program back into line with the law or accept their resignations.
“That’s a pretty pivotal thing, when you look the president in the eye and say no,” Weiner said. “That takes integrity. That takes a measure of bravery.”
Lieberman was not part of that backstage drama, which Bush has written caused him to think of the Watergate-era “Saturday Night Massacre” that helped accelerate President Richard Nixon’s downfall. But he was on the opposite side of the argument to Comey and Mueller — two men who stood on principle over politics that day in 2004, and who today are key figures in the ongoing investigation of Trump’s Russian entanglements.
In the debate over a 2007 bill that gave Congressional imprimatur to a slightly modified version of Bush’s surveillance program, Lieberman once again treated the kinds of principled constitutional objections Comey, Mueller, and most civil libertarians raised as mere foibles to be cast aside in the face of the terrorist threat.
“We’re at war. The enemy wants to attack us. This is not the time to strive for legislative perfection,” Lieberman, one of 17 Democrats to vote for the bill, said at the time.
A divisive, caustic figure
Lieberman’s sympathy for neoconservative ideas throughout Bush’s “Global War on Terror” sullied his reputation among Democrats, who nominated him as Vice President in 2000. He set what was left of that reputation on fire over his final six years in Washington.
Lieberman lost the Democratic primary in Connecticut to Ned Lamont in 2006, then defied primary voters’ will by staying in the race and winning as an independent. By 2008, he was endorsing Sen. John McCain for the White House over then-Sen. Barack Obama. In 2009, he was a key figure in purging the “public option” from Obama’s health care plans — threatening to lead a filibuster against Obamacare unless Democrats abandoned the provision progressive organizers had rallied around.
By last summer, when some self-described #NeverTrump conservatives were casting about for someone to mount a third-party bid, the Weekly Standard published an anonymous plea for Lieberman to take up the conservative ideological mantle.
Lieberman today is a figure estranged from the Democratic party, both its grassroots and its senior members. Yet some Republican senators predicted he would sail through confirmation if Trump nominated him to fill Comey’s empty chair.
“Joe Lieberman is probably the only person that could get 100 votes in the Senate,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said Thursday.
Yet Senate Democrats put that pipe dream to rest late Thursday, telling Politico none would support his nomination. Some cited the political grudges Lieberman engendered in the later years of his career. But the primary objections mirror Weiner’s warnings about the demands of the job and the need to keep the FBI above politics.
“[A]ll Democratic senators interviewed for this story said the former Connecticut senator lacks the kind of experience needed for the post,” Politico reported.
Lieberman has spent no time in law enforcement. He spent 42 years gladhanding donors, navigating legislative debates, and kissing babies.
“The republic is at stake,” Weiner said. “Why would you want a politician in charge of the FBI? No politician has ever been a director. That is disqualifying.”
‘Wrong, wrong, wrong’: An expert assessment of Joe Lieberman as FBI Director was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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Protections for those who publish leaked info are based on norms, not the law. Trump wants to target those norms.
Reports that fired FBI Director James Comey kept a record of his conversations with President Donald Trump dominate the news, fueling calls for deeper inquiry into any evidence that Trump may have interfered with an FBI investigation into his own campaign.
One detail from Comey’s reported memo has been inadequately examined.
According to New York Times reporting on the memo, Comey wrote that Trump asked him to shut down an investigation into fired National Security Director Michael Flynn. But the president also urged Comey to try to put journalists in prison for publishing stories based on classified leaks, according to the Times. The memo records that Trump asked everyone else to leave the room before making his plea for jailing reporters, according to the source who read the memo to Times reporters but did not share copies with them.
Those reports raise grave concerns about the government’s relationship with the media, civil liberties groups and non-profits that advocate for press freedom said — in part because Trump’s proposal would test the Constitution in new ways with uncertain outcomes.
“Scary. Scary,” Committee to Protect Journalists executive director Joel Simon said in an interview. “Trump says all sorts of terrible things about journalists but when he says them publicly there’s a political rationale. But this was a private moment. If he said that in a private moment, and that’s what he really believes, then that’s very scary.”
Simon was already alarmed by the administration’s approach to press freedom before the Comey memo reports, he said. “But if this is a thermostat, somebody just turned it up a couple degrees.”
Reports on Comey’s notes have not revealed what, if any, response he offered to Trump’s purported one-on-one request for prosecuting journalists.
But if Trump were able to get the government engine churning in favor of prosecuting publishers and reporters, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Ben Wizner said, the administration would be breaking centuries-old precedent.
“Never in the history of this country has a reporter or publisher been prosecuted for publishing truthful information, classified or not,” Wizner said. “It’s fair to say Trump recommended dispensing with over 200 years of tradition in this country.”
Tradition versus law
The nation’s commitment to the principle that it’s more important to protect a free press than to punish the occasional harmful publication is, in Columbia Law School professor David Pozen’s words, “a matter of practice and norms” rather than statute or judicial precedent.
Even when the Supreme Court found that the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers leaks were protected from censorship, Pozen said, “a majority of Justices held open the possibility that a journalist could be prosecuted after the fact. So that legal threat has been there for a long time time.” The high court raised, but did not resolve, the Constitutional questions surrounding the type of prosecutions Trump reportedly sought, he said.
“But I don’t think that makes them any less resilient,” Pozen said. “The norm is very strong by now that journalists shouldn’t be prosecuted for going about their ordinary business.”
Trump is the sort of figure who can trouble even longstanding and deeply-held norms, however.
Should Trump truly push to shake the norm that reporters and publishers are not treated as criminal for publishing unauthorized leaks, he might end up inadvertently strengthening a principle that is currently informal.
“One way in which norms can harden is if they’re tested and then in response they become codified,” Pozen said. “No court has had to rule on the First Amendment questions that would be raised by prosecuting journalists for their publishing behaviors. If that were to happen, it’s conceivable we’d end up with actually a more robust form of protections. President Trump’s instinct to go after the press could well backfire legally.”
In pursuing journalists as well as leakers, Trump would be rolling the dice in pursuit of his avowed desire to make it easier to punish the press in court. Even if he doesn’t buy Pozen’s warning about a backfire at the bench, Trump has even simpler reasons not to take this tack. If he is frustrated by leaks, Pozen said, that’s an administrative issue, not a legal one — and bureaucracies long ago figured out how to keep suspected leaky parties out of sensitive meetings.
But it is the president himself who is loose-lipped. He can’t very well freeze himself out of security briefings and high-level meetings.
An incautious White House
“Typically it’s been thought that the White House, as an institution, was a voice of caution not zealousness” on leak investigations, said Pozen. The push to prosecute usually comes from intelligence agencies, with the White House and other institutional actors applying the brakes.
“Here, it seems the opposite. Which, of course, reflects Trump’s relationship to the media, and the topsy-turvy times we’re in in general,” Pozen said.
It likely also reflects a key difference between the type of material that’s oozing out of Trump’s administration and the sort of sensitive information that reporters and publishers have typically tip-toed around. The ethical obligations journalists generally endorse around sensitive leaked information, CPJ’s Simon said, are predicated on national security concerns. But while it can be harmful to publish classified information in those circumstances, publicly sharing the leaks that have enraged Trump is consistent with the national interest.
With matters of national security, “many publications have conversations with officials to determine what their concerns might be,” said Simon. “But if it’s just politics or political embarrassment, and the concern is about what powerful people might not want reported, then the default is to publish.”
Buried in bombshell Comey memo, a threat to America’s free press was originally published in ThinkProgress on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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