Yeomans Work

Trump Keeps Making Trouble for Himself as the Midterms Approach

March 13, 2018

This week, as the embarrassing Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee tried to help Trump darken the Russia investigation, Trump unexpectedly thrust the investigation into the congressional spotlight by firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and teeing up Senate confirmations that promise intensified focus on Russia.

The Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee announced that it is wrapping up its report on its sham investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 election. Not surprisingly, the majority concluded that there was no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russians. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Tex.), who led the investigation whenever Chair Devin Nunes felt obliged to honor his recusal, conceded that there had been some ill-considered meetings and other actions, but dismissed the notion that they amounted to collusion. He also announced that the Republicans did not accept that the Russians’ interference was designed to help Trump. That finding is at odds with the conclusions of the intelligence agencies. It also conflicts with Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian organizations. Mueller alleged that the Russian troll operation began as an effort to disrupt, but morphed into efforts to favor Trump, disparage Clinton, and suppress turnout among likely Clinton voters.

Once Devin Nunes revealed that he was a shill for Trump, the investigation spiraled downward into a partisan Republican effort to suppress truth-finding and promote bogus allegations of FBI, DOJ, and Obama White House bias. The majority abandoned all pretense of conducting a serious investigation when it refused to invite important witnesses to the committee and allowed those who came to appear voluntarily behind closed doors. Witnesses were permitted to refuse to answer questions on the basis of bogus rationales, such as that the president might want to assert executive privilege in the future. The majority was unwilling to follow up with subpoenas that would have forced witnesses to testify fully, formally assert executive privilege or take the Fifth Amendment. The result is a study in how to conduct an investigation for show only, without the necessary desire to extract information and develop the basis for action to protect the country. The Democratic majority has soldiered on and will release its own report. But, it, too, will be hampered by the failure of the committee to employ its full box of investigative tools. As the history of the Russian affair is written, the House Intelligence Committee’s performance will embarrass the Republican Party and provide a tragic lesson in the institutional shortcomings of Congress.

But, shortly after Trump tweeted IN ALL CAPS his praise for the committee and its efforts to shut down the Russia investigation, he tweeted the firing of Rex Tillerson. Yes, he fired him by tweet. Apparently, Chief of Staff John Kelly had called Tillerson in Africa Friday evening to inform him that Trump would eventually remove him, but the tweet on Tuesday was Tillerson’s only notice that now was the time. Notably, Trump seems afraid of in-person firings. Recall, for example, that he sent a letter to Comey in California. Could it be that his signature firings on Celebrity Apprentice gave him the opportunity to do in his role what he lacked the courage and decency to do in real life?

When first selected, many hoped Tillerson would be a moderating force, but he left office with few defenders. He emptied Foggy Bottom, shattered morale among those left in the building, and lacked the respect of his counterparts around the world because it quickly became clear that he did not speak for Trump. Yet, it is telling that Trump fired him shortly after Tillerson denounced Russia for its apparent use of a nerve agent to attack a former Russian spy and his daughter in Salisbury, England. Trump characteristically has been reluctant to join the chorus in denouncing Russia. He conceded Russia might be responsible, but he would need more facts. Is this kompromat, once again, casting its shadow?

Trump compounded his coming difficulties by announcing the nominations of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to replace Tillerson and CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo. By choosing his Secretary of State nominee from within the administration, he assured two difficult confirmations as the Mueller investigation intensifies and the midterm elections loom.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee under Chair Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) will conduct Pompeo’s confirmation hearing. Corker, a one-time critic and now buddy of Trump, will have discretion to conduct the hearing as a broad inquiry into Pompeo’s activities as part of the Trump administration, including whether Trump requested that Pompeo weigh in with Comey on the Russia investigation. Pompeo has spent considerable time at the White House and has processed massive amounts of intelligence, much of which will contribute to oversight of the CIA and might shed light on matters under investigation, if Corker allows it.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will consider the confirmation of Haspel. As a career CIA officer, she oversaw a black site in which prisoners, including Abu Zubaydah, were tortured. Although she has received early praise from longtime CIA folks, who contend she was simply doing her job, her participation in torture would have prevented her confirmation in any previous administration. This history surely should prove a bridge too far for Democrats on the committee, who have spent considerable resources investigating torture. Unfortunately, the nation’s tolerance for torture has increased over the past decade since George W. Bush’s nomination of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General almost failed because he refused to say that waterboarding was torture. Trump, shockingly, enthusiastically embraced the use of torture in his campaign. Haspel’s nomination will be a test of where the country stands now.

Meanwhile, Trump’s manic moves have managed to drive Stormy Daniels “below the fold,” though not, as Trump intended, out of the news altogether. She remains the growing threat that may prove the ultimate test for Trump’s powers of distraction.

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Bill Yeomans is the Senior Justice Fellow at Alliance for Justice. He currently serves as Lecturer in Law at Columbia Law School, and previously taught constitutional law, civil rights, and legislation at American University Washington College of Law. He also served for 26 years in the Department of Justice, where he litigated cases involving voting rights and discrimination in employment, housing, and education, and prosecuted police officers and racially motivated violent offenders before assuming a series of management positions, including acting Assistant Attorney General. For three years, Bill served as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and has also held positions at AFJ and the American Constitution Society. The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily represent the positions of Alliance for Justice.