Wednesday, September 13, 2017

What did Donald Trump do today?

He sent a surrogate out for the third consecutive day to declare James Comey a lawbreaker.

Today marked the third straight day on which press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was sent out to accuse former FBI Director James Comey of having committed crimes. The pattern of these accusations is instructive. On Monday, Sanders accused Comey of false "testimony"--she refused to say when--and suggested that the Department of Justice should "look into it." Yesterday, she said he'd leaked "privileged" information. (There is no "privilege" between the DOJ and the White House, and the material Comey made public was not classified.) 

Today, she tried a third tack: that Comey's notes on the Russia investigation--including the memos he dictated to document Trump's attempts to influence him--"followed the protocol of an FBI document" and therefore, by her interpretation of various laws, could not legally be released. Pressed for details, Sanders retreated, saying "I'm certainly not an attorney" and insisting that it was for the Justice Department to decide. (Those who are attorneys expressed serious doubts about the supposed criminality of Comey's actions based on Sanders's description.)

As Trump has slowly and painfully learned, he cannot simply order the Justice Department to start or stop a criminal investigation--at least not without potentially committing a crime himself. (Firing Comey, a DOJ employee, for refusing to stop investigating Michael Flynn is one example.) The blizzard of accusations from Sanders seems to be Trump's next best attempt to "suggest" a course of action to the DOJ without technically, explicitly ordering them to do anything. But it also served as a rebuttal to ex-advisor Steve Bannon, who this past Sunday declared the Comey firing Trump's biggest mistake to date.

Why is this a problem?

  • A president hiding behind a press flack hiding behind her own ignorance of the law isn't exactly demonstrating courage and leadership.
  • The independence of the federal judiciary is more important than solving any given president's criminal exposure.
  • If a president can be goaded into this kind of behavior just because an unrelated third party criticized him, he can be manipulated by anyone.