Just because I’ve retired doesn’t mean I’m going to turn into one of those old guys who watches cable news all the time. For one thing, we don’t have cable. The Fabulous Wife and I cut the cord six years ago, when our monthly bill reached a hundred dollars.
For another, in my old job I learned about how the news gets made, and how unlikely we are to get the full story even when it’s reported at length.
But I’m also not going to turn into one of those people who thinks politics is irrelevant to daily life. If you don’t think things can go from normal to hell over politics, talk to a Syrian.
This week we heard about two political situations with no easy answers, and it was interesting to see how the decision makers reacted. Let’s start with Syria, where Trump and his counterparts in Western Europe had to decide what to do about Assad’s use of chemical weapons. There had to be a consequence for such a horrific crime against humanity. But Assad has powerful friends in Russia and Iran — and there are plenty of other reasons not to get further involved in Syria’s catastrophe. So Trump and his colleagues took the middle ground, bombing Assad’s chemical facilities (or so we’re told) and stopping there. That seems the best option, so for once, count me on Trump’s side. (Probably McMaster or Mattis made the call. They’re still there, right?)
The other difficult situation didn’t arise this week — it arose in late October 2016 — but the decision maker didn’t reveal his thinking until now. In his new book, former FBI director James Comey explains that he went public about the FBI’s re-opening of its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information in her emails because he assumed she would win the election and was concerned “about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation.”
So instead he violated this March 9, 2012 memo from the Attorney General of the United States, which I believe was in effect in October 2016 and remains so now. It’s possible I’m taking the memo out of context, since it specifically addresses election crimes such as violation of campaign finance laws. But the admonition in it is written broadly:
Simply put, politics must play no role in the decisions of federal investigators or prosecutors regarding any investigations or criminal charges. Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party.
Granted, it wasn’t an easy decision. Comey thought he was preserving the integrity of the investigation — and the nation’s political stability — by going public about it days before the election (and not going public about the FBI investigating Trump campaign personnel over possible collusion with the Russian government). He didn’t imagine the decision might influence the election.
Wrong call. And not just because it violated policy.
Let’s play this out. If Clinton had won, does anyone think the authoritarian right would have let go of the email issue just because Comey announced the investigation was re-opened prior to Election Day? For that matter, does anyone doubt Congress would be investigating Clinton for everything up to and including Pizzagate right now, and that she’d be facing either the prospect or reality of impeachment?
I admire Comey’s forthrightness. Trump accusing him of being an “untruthful slime ball” is the most brazen example of psychological projection I’ve ever heard. But with the additional rumination time (the third of my four retirement R’s, the others being running, reading, and writing) I regretfully conclude that when it comes to this week in difficult political decisions, it’s Trump 1, Comey 0.