Good Friday Morning! It’s Jim Comey week in America. Between the release his book, interview requests, and release of his memos he’s everywhere. That’s where I’m leading off today, going through what you should care about, and what you can safely ignore as noise on everything Comey. I’ve also lined up some follow-up thoughts on US Syrian policy, coming off a column I wrote for the Conservative Institute. Links follow.
Note: This newsletter will not be published next week because I’ll be out of town on vacation. It will return the week after, in May.
New this week at the Conservative Institute
I suppose you can understand the paralysis of Congress on some level. Both Democrats and Republicans watched as their rivals were swept out of power after votes on the Iraq War and Obamacare. The lesson they all appeared to learn from those votes was to never vote on anything risky ever again.
The problem is that if Congress abdicates its role in our Republic, then we aren’t a balanced three-part government of competing interests. Our constitutional order has shrunk to two branches, with the executive and judicial still actively asserting their power, while Congress lets everyone else pick up its slack.
Don Draper, in AMC’s award-winning show Mad Men, once said, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” And if you look around the news landscape, that’s exactly what you encounter every day, in newspapers, cable TV, and political punditry: everyone is fighting to change the conversation.
Watching the arguments of various political commentators, all trying to shift the national “conversations” that we “must” have on every conceivable topic, one can’t help but come away thinking none of these people are sincere.
Comey Tours America
You can break this Jim Comey story into three distinct parts: 1) The Book, 2) the news media interviews, and 3) the Comey memos. Neither the book nor the extensive interviews Comey is giving are essential unless you enjoy reading/watching the drama surrounding Comey. The memos are imperative and form the basis for some of the Mueller investigation.
The book and interviews
First, the book and interview tours don’t tell us anything new about the Mueller investigation or the Trump administration. You could find anything revealing from Comey in these interviews in the pages of any newspaper for the last 18-24 months. Let’s assume everything Comey says is right, does it change anything now? Nope. Not a thing.
Second, for the most part, regarding Trump, the book contains nothing but Comey’s opinions and melodramatic accounts of his life. His views, while entertaining, are useless when a special counsel is currently investigating people around the sitting President. Comey doesn’t have any knowledge of Mueller’s investigation, nor could he know the status or evidence surrounding any allegation. Anything he says is going to be pure conjecture.
Third, for all the supposed gasps and exclamations over Comey week, it’s best to pump the brakes just based on Comey’s behavior. In the ABC interview, Comey said he didn’t think impeachment was the answer for Trump — which implies Trump’s behavior doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment (and if impeachment is off the table, then so is an indictment, as I’ve pointed out).
Finally, we know how Comey would react if presented with a situation where he was forced to do something illegal — he’d threaten to resign. He did this in 2004 when the Bush administration was looking at reauthorizing a domestic surveillance program in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Comey didn’t think the plan was constitutional and threatened to resign over it.
And as Rich Lowry and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas both pointed out, nowhere in the book or interviews has Comey said that he threatened to resign because of Trump’s behavior or demands. All of which suggests that Comey views Trump about how any typical conservative views him, morally unfit for the job, but he hasn’t done anything illegal.
The media splash pushing the book isn’t overly surprising either. Every top NYT bestseller this year has been about Trump. It makes business sense from a news media perspective to push something that’s an automatic seller, regarding clicks, views, and book buys. Comey’s book is undoubtedly better, and more factually accurate than Fire and Fury, but it also fits a red-hot book niche right now.
So what matters in all the Comey coverage? The Comey memos.
The memos matter because they form part of the legal basis Robert Mueller would use in any obstruction of justice case against Trump. These memos are the ones Comey wrote up after every one-on-one interaction with Trump.
And I have to say, reading through these situations, the evidence of obstruction is incredibly low in these documents. It’s hard to tease out where Comey’s interpretations of Trump run into what happened in the conversations. Comey has already testified before Congress about these memos, and now that we have them, it’s hard to see anything approaching obstruction.
Robert Mueller likely thinks the same, which is why his team pushed so heavily for an interview with the President. But between the legal questions of whether or not a President can be indicted or served a subpoena, it’s hard to see where they’ll pull the proof.
There are interesting notes in the memos regarding Mike Flynn, who was fired for his failure to disclose lobbying work he did on behalf of Turkey. There are also hints in Comey’s memos that the FBI and intelligence community feared at the time the Russians would try to manipulate/blackmail Trump, with true or false information. It’s interesting to note that publically, it appears the Russians haven’t decided to do that, beyond perhaps fanning flames online on the fringe-left.
Unless you see or read something new on the Mueller front, Comey week is turning out to be about as big of a news bust as infrastructure week for the Trump administration.
Parting shot, if you get news alerts on your phone, read the Comey memos and compare those alerts to what you read. The memos altogether are around 15 pages long. It’s telling to see what news agencies think is newsworthy to say to you vs. what’s in the actual documents.
What to do with the mess that is Syria?
In my Monday column for the Conservative Institute, I wrote about how various media pundits are jumping off into bizarre conspiracy theories. As a foil, I focused the most recent controversy: US air-strikes in Syria. For the left, the strikes were a purposeful distraction from the real stories happening: the Comey book and Cohen investigation.
In response, CNN’s so-called conservative (although I can’t name a single conservative position she holds) pundit Ana Navarro has claimed that the Syrian strikes were concerted efforts to distract the American public from former FBI director James Comey’s soon-to-be-released book and the infamous Stormy Daniels lawsuit. Navarro also claims that the current sitting American president is being blackmailed and controlled by Vladimir Putin and Russia.
Are you kidding me?
Let’s clear up one thing first: the strikes in Syria were as much a strike against Russia as they were against Assad and his use of chemical weapons. The Russians had full knowledge of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks before they happened, and they have blamed other countries for them since.
Furthermore, if Donald Trump is a puppet of Putin, he’s the worst puppet of all-time. The sanctions he’s levying against specific groups are crippling Russia’s economy. Putin’s oligarch friends are even starting to question their loyalty to Putin’s police-state.
If this is Putin’s idea of blackmail, he might want to purchase a “Mob Boss for Dummies” book.
The more concerning section was Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s assertion that maybe Syrian President Basha al-Assad wasn’t responsible for the chemical weapons attack. On that I said:
I get the argument against an all-out war in Syria. That’s an entirely defensible position. But we’re not moving toward an all-out war with Syria — we’re targeting their chemical weapons abilities and destroying them. This is perfectly in line with the standard of all U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
The bizarre claims from Carlson run contrary to those of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said there was “no doubt” Assad used chemical weapons. There were no questions in 2017 about Assad, and there’s no question now that Assad used them again.
Nikki Haley purposely pointed to the Syrian red-line in her recent remarks, saying, “when President Donald Trump draws a ‘red line,’ he enforces it.” But remember the Barack Obama administration’s red-line deal with Russia? Putin promised that Syria wouldn’t have any more chemical weapons, but we’ve seen multiple chemical weapons attacks from Assad since 2013.
Simply put, Obama’s red-lines never got enforced. Now, Trump has had to perform airstrikes in Syria to hamper chemical weapons use. But we still aren’t in a ground war there; we’re merely imposing an international rule against the use of chemical weapons.
I want to tease part of this argument out a bit more. Because there is a substantial debate to be had over US involvement in Syria.
I feel that too often we’re presented all or nothing scenarios in Syria, and that’s wrong. The press usually likes to pretend that Trump got elected as a non-interventionist President, and there’s some truth to that, but he’s not pushing isolationism. Barack Obama is the true isolationist of the 21st Century thus far, and his inaction in Syria has been costly.
The background of Syria
Here’s a thought experiment/what-if history analysis: What if Obama acted in Syria? Before 2013, President Obama had a decision to make on whether or not to move in Syria. He knew two things, first that Assad was using chemical weapons and second that he was butchering civilians. Migrants had just started to flee Syria into neighboring countries.
He chose inaction at the time, and ultimately cut a deal with Russia where Putin agreed to work with Assad to remove all chemical weapons. Two things in part informed his indecision and lack of desire to move in Syria: First, He thought his decision to bomb Lybia to kill tin-pot dictator Muammar Gaddafi, for doing similar things as Assad, was a failure. Libya descended into civil war and strife, with ISIS also getting an early foothold in some regions. His defeat there hit him hard domestically with the 2012 attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Second, Obama got elected on anti-Iraq war sentiment in 2008, and part of his pitch in 2012 was that he avoided getting the US into another land war. His open declaration of what he would and wouldn’t do in a given situation handcuffed him diplomatically because he couldn’t threaten another world leader. So when Russia came calling in 2013 with a get-out-of-jail-free card, the administration jumped at the chance.
What happened from then on out is that Russia refused to remove chemical weapons from Syria, Assad continued to use them on his people, and the slaughter continued. The US also refused to arm and help insurgents and rebel factions opposing Assad, which meant the people on the ground had no chance against Assad backed by a former-world superpower in Russia.
With no hope left in their country, the vast migration out of Syria ballooned exponentially, and migrants began flooding into Europe. Europe was unprepared to deal with a massive wave of outsiders coming into their borders, with no plan, and struggling to come out of the double-dip great recessions. Racial tensions and class resentment fanned the flames of nationalism, bringing Europe closer to the dark roots in experienced in the early 20th century.
Since those events we’ve seen populist groups rise across every single European country and a return of anti-semitism. Brexit swept through the UK as they witnessed the shifts happening in Europe and various Europeans fleeing their countries, needing work as the economies struggling across the EU.
In short, the EU has been roiling with populism and various forms of nationalism ever since the Syrian migrant crisis exploded on their borders.
What happens if Obama acts in 2012/2013 to stop Assad, arm the rebels, and slow the flow of migrants out of Syria? We’ll never know… but one would think that the rise in populism would have received considerably less fuel for its flames and Assad’s chemical weapons abilities would have been destroyed, saving countless lives from horrific deaths.
Trump has new choices with Syria, and he’s chosen to bomb Assad and his chemical weapons facilities. This is a critical step because he’s showing that air raids can occur that hinder Assad’s violations of international law.
It’s not a choice between boots on the ground invasion or doing nothing, as Obama-era officials like Ben Rhodes liked to preach. The US isn’t the only country involved in these decisions either, aside from the UK and France bombing Syria, Israel is also bombing Iranian military forces setting up shop in Syria.
While the removal of Assad is unmistakably a goal for the US and Europe, the talking point by Tucker Carlson and other detractors that we’re risking boots on the ground is farcical. Targeting specific things like chemical weapons allows the US to protect allies in the region. Trump wants to arm and prepare other Arab countries to go in and fight the ground war in Syria. I don’t know if that’s a feasible option, but it is an attempt to produce a solution that doesn’t involve US troops.
In short, our options aren’t getting involved with another Iraq or doing nothing (or doing so little it destroys a country, in the case of Libya). The Obama administration too often handcuffed itself through false dilemmas — which has cost the US in creating a more dangerous world. We need Trump to continue pushing for more outside-the-box thinking because it’s paying dividends.
Ideas have consequences, and that includes inaction. That’s a lesson the previous administration never learned in foreign policy. It seems the current administration has a better grasp on it.
Links of the week
Crossover Sensation Neil Gorsuch: Justice Gorsuch joins the four liberals in Sessions v. Dimaya, applying the void-for-vagueness doctrine to a particular deportation law. – Eugene Volokh, The Volokh Conspiracy
More on Sessions v. Dimaya and Crossover Sensation Neil Gorsuch: This may be the first time Justice Gorsuch joined the Court’s more liberal judges in a 5-4 decision, but it’s unlikely to be the last. – Johnathan H. Adler, The Volokh Conspiracy
Surprised by Neil Gorsuch’s ruling? You weren’t paying attention. – Ilya Shapiro, The Washington Examiner
The Republican High-Water Mark – Rich Lowry, Politico Magazine
The Fatalist Conceit: Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable. – Noah C. Rothman, Commentary Magazine
Why Aren’t Feminist Groups More Concerned that So Many Colleges and Universities Discriminate Against Women in Admissions? Is it they don’t want to admit that females do so well relative to males in high school? They don’t want appear to be defecting from the left-of-center coalition that supports race-preferential admissions policies? Or is something else driving this? – Gail Herlot, The Volokh Conspiracy
Hillary Clinton’s team pressured the New York Times into printing misleading corrections – Becket Adams, The Washington Examiner
A Liberal Democracy—Or a Militant One? The totalitarians’ arguments always end up in the same place – Kevin D. Williamson, Commentary Magazine
CUNY Students Tried to Shout Down Josh Blackman. Here’s Why They Failed. – Robby Soave, Reason Magazine
Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis: The answer to the disparity in death rates has everything to do with the lived experience of being a black woman in America. – Linda Villarosa, The New York Times
Is It Too Late to Stop the Rise of Marijuana, Inc.? America is on the path to legalization, but as pot becomes a big business, lawmakers aren’t yet wrestling with how to regulate it effectively. – Reihan Salam, The Atlantic
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON—In a landmark decision by the country’s highest judicial body, sources confirmed that the U.S. Supreme Court announced Thursday that it had agreed to hear the new Jack White album. “Having already established a precedent when we heard Lazaretto in 2014, we have decided to bring Boarding House Reach before the court,” said Chief Justice John Roberts, adding that the album had already been heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, where Judge Gerald Bard Tjoflat had overridden a lower court’s decision by ruling in its favor. “We consented to review this album because it offers the court the opportunity to further clarify Mr. White’s career, which has on occasion been ambiguous and difficult to define going back to the Elephant-era White Stripes. It is our intention that this ruling will serve as the clear legal basis for all future assessments of his blues-influenced guitar work.” At press time, the Supreme Court had announced in a 7-2 ruling that the album sucks.
Thanks for reading!