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Good Friday Morning! Trump continues to reshape Washington DC. This week he fired James Comey as head of the FBI. The main controversy centers on whether or not the FBI’s investigation into Russian malfeasance connected to the Trump campaign prompted Trump’s decision. I’ll also get into France’s Presidential election and the specifics of Trump’s religious liberty executive order. Links follow. As always, please feel free to forward or share this with friends and family.
President Trump fires FBI Director James Comey
By now you’ve no doubt heard the largest story of the week: Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The firing of Comey is the best case study you’ll find in confirmation bias. Over the past year, James Comey received mountains of love and hate by both parties. Sometimes parties have changed their view on the same day. What you think about James Comey is profoundly conditioned on what story dropped that day.
The departure of Comey underscores a point: so much time was spent destroying Comey that everyone is happy to see him go. Comey has an extremely low approval rating. It isn’t just people on the right supporting Trump, liberals also agree with him. During a taping of Stephen Colbert’s Night Show, Colbert mentioned Comey had been fired just before filming started. The crowd cheered! Colbert jokingly called his audience full of Trump supporters. His audience is highly likely to be left-leaning. So their reaction provides us with a focus group-like glimpse into the liberal mind: firing Comey brought applause and praise.
As an aside, this is why I have issues with recent polls showing people disagree with Trump’s decision to fire Comey. The most mentioned survey is one where 54% of Americans believe Comey’s firing was inappropriate. “Appropriateness” is the wrong question to ask. Inquiring whether or not Comey’s firing was appropriate connects the decision to Trump, who has underwater approval ratings. The correct question would be: “Would you fire Comey?” or “Should the FBI have new leadership?” The “appropriateness” question allows an anti-Trump bias into the sample; which skews the number of people who likely believe Comey deserved firing.
Apart from the Russian interference investigation, there is a case to be made for Comey’s firing, as Andrew C. McCarthy lays out:
The memorandum issued by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to explain Comey’s dismissal Tuesday is well crafted and will make it very difficult for Democrats to attack President Trump’s decision. Rosenstein bases the decision not merely on Comey’s much discussed missteps in the Clinton e-mails investigation — viz., usurping the authority of the attorney general to close the case without prosecution; failing to avail himself of the normal procedures for raising concerns about Attorney General Lynch’s conflict of interest. He goes on specifically to rebuke Comey’s “gratuitous” release of “derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal prosecution.” That “subject,” of course, would be Mrs. Clinton.
This (as I noted in a recent column) is exactly the line of attack Democrats have adopted since Clinton lost the election: Conveniently forget how ecstatic they were over Comey’s confident public assessment that the case was not worth charging, and remember only his scathing public description of the evidence — even though both were improper. Significantly, Rosenstein avoids any suggestion that Comey was wrong in concluding Clinton should not be indicted; nor does he in any way imply that Comey’s errors made it impossible to bring a wrongdoer to justice. That is, Rosenstein leaves unstated the partisan Republican critique of Comey. Instead, Clinton is portrayed as a victim. This will appeal to Democrats — especially since it will keep alive the fiction that Comey, rather than Clinton herself, is responsible for the Democrats’ stunning electoral defeat.
Despite this evidence, I tend to think this decision will hamper Trump down the road. Not immediately though. In the near term, I suspect this decision will boost Trump. Comey’s unpopularity correlates with a number of time partisans have spent trying to destroy him. Hitting Comey in the press has been a bipartisan pastime for the last 18-24 months. And while Democrats have complained about Trump destroying institutions and agencies, Comey’s firing does not represent an institutional attack. Trump is only reflecting the views of his constituents.
In the long term, firing Comey in the middle of an FBI investigation into Russian malfeasance in the 2016 election is bad optics. Trump was well within his constitutional authority to fire Comey. There is nothing unconstitutional about Trump’s decision or use of power. The problem comes down to timing and the appearance of impropriety. The same dilemma which proceeds to erode public trust in American institutions, as David French aptly argues:
Amidst all the outrage and fury, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we still don’t have a single credible report of collusion between Trump-campaign officials and Russian intelligence. At the same time, we still don’t know the full story of Russian efforts to disrupt our presidential election. The crisis we face isn’t “constitutional,” it’s a crisis of confidence in our public institutions. In an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy theories proliferate. By firing James Comey, Trump made the decisive case for a truly independent investigation. May it commence with all deliberate speed.
Trump has only furthered the notion that Americans need special prosecutor in the Russian meddling case. The left sees the firing of Comey as a “Constitutional Crisis.” They see Trump’s decision as motivated purely by his fears of the FBI investigating his associates. Firing Comey only exacerbates the lack of trust when it comes to investigating Russian malfeasance in the 2016 election. But as French notes, this isn’t a Constitutional Crisis; it’s an institutional crisis.
Trump will survive the short term fallout from Comey’s firing. The conventional wisdom in DC that this is a crisis is wrong. A bi-partisan slice of the electorate believes Comey needed to go. As for the long term, with grand juries issuing subpoenas against Trump associates, the Russian investigation is going nowhere. Trump’s decision to fire Comey will inflame that inquiry. You can also expect more Senate testimony from Comey. And when the Senate has to find 60 votes to decide on a new head for the FBI, Trump’s decision to fire Comey will come full front again. Comey’s impact on Trump’s administration will continue long after his firing.
Emmanuel Macron defeats Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential Election
In an unsurprising and unsuspenseful event, Emmanuel Macron defeated Marine Le Pen in the French Presidential Election. I say unsurprisingly because French polls are typically quite accurate. They showed Macron winning the election decisively, and a decisive win is what happened. The polls were off by 10 points in Macron’s favor, so not only did he win, he outperformed his polls.
Macron won with 66% of the vote to Marine Le Pen’s 34%. And while Macron’s victory over Le Pen and the National Front looks decisive, it masks over the growing discontent in France. Le Pen underperformed the polls in 2017, but she doubled the National Front’s footprint in 2017. The last time the National Front was in the final round of voting in a Presidential Election was 2002 when Le Pen’s father won 17% of the overall vote and 5.5 million voters. Marine Le Pen won 34% and over 10.6 million voters in 2017. And while the National Front lost the overall vote, it is growing a younger base:
Add to that the fact that the National Front has a loyal and active following among the French youth, and there is a real sense that, even after its loss, Le Pen’s party will continue to find support after 2017, and potentially put up an even stronger fight in the 2022 presidential election. In the first round, exit polling estimated Le Pen won 21 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 24 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds. (In the second round, youth support appeared to mirror the overall results: Ipsos exit polls suggested Macron won about two-thirds of 18- to 24-year-olds, while one third went for Le Pen.) The Front National Jeunesse, or the youth wing of the party, has kept young supporters active in the party, and many young members have run—and even been elected—as National Front candidates at the local level. Le Pen and her team have made a deliberate effort to involve and empower young people in the party. While the full list of legislative candidates is not yet available, it’s likely that some of the party’s younger members will be included.
As I wrote two weeks ago, Le Pen represents the worst form of nationalism. She wants more government control over the economy, she supports openly anti-semitic policies, and her stances on immigration dabble heavily in xenophobia. She makes Donald Trump seem progressive. Watching Le Pen and the National Front grow is like rewatching the evil nationalist ghosts of pre-WWI/WWII come back to life.
Le Pen is a symptom of an old and dangerous sentiment growing in both France and the European peninsula. The American press enjoys casting Le Pen as a conservative, but France has conservatives and a similar version of the Republican Party. Le Pen is neither. And the movement she represents is neither conservative nor liberal; it’s an early sign of fascism. Le Pen wants a heavy-handed state that keeps out people she dislikes and grows government programs she likes. She spent her debate time in the election blasting ideas and policies from Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
I hope Macron is a successful French President. If he is to be a success, he needs to drive down French unemployment, which sits at 10% (near the worst of US unemployment at the height of the Great Recession). If Macron can bring France back to the economic forefront, he will contribute in taking the steam out the National Front and the ideas they represent. Economic growth will help the French populace let off some of its nationalist steam and allow the growing anger and discontent in the country die down.
If Macron is a failure, like the Socialist Party before him, his failure will only strengthen the National Front in France. In five years, if not Le Pen, we’ll see a Le Pen-like character able to take control in France. Macron must become more than another President. He must provide the leadership France needs at this time. The future of the 5th Republic of France may very well depend on him.
The Empty Promises of Trump’s Religious Liberty Executive Order
Among the most promoted of Trump’s potential Executive Orders was his latest one regarding religious liberties. This EO was supposed to be a “promise kept” to his loyal Evangelical base. Instead, it might be the most hollow and empty EO we’ve seen from the President.
The EO, “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” professes to do three things: 1) Promise to protect and enforce religious liberty protections, 2) Not enforce the Johnson Amendment, and 3) Provide religious exemptions to those endangered by Obamacare mandates. All three are meaningless.
The first promise, protecting and enforcing religious liberty protections, is empty. Trump has to tell the DOJ to go out and enforce protections. And frankly, the protections they do have are already enshrined into law and regularly utilized. Trump also needs to nominate lawyers to fill the 99 empty AG spots across the country that enforce these types of laws. He’s yet to do so in any capacity.
The second point in the EO concerns the Johnson Amendment. Refusing to enforce the Johnson Amendment is the most prominent empty promise of the entire order. Trump openly campaigned on getting rid of the Amendment, but this EO does not fulfill that promise at all:
[A]n executive order cannot repeal a statute, and legal restrictions on political activity by churches are statutory. They’re part of the so-called Johnson Amendment, a rarely enforced provision of the tax code that prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from, as the IRS explains, “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
The Johnson Amendment is constitutionally problematic (to put it mildly). Lyndon Johnson rammed it through Congress for the noble purpose of stopping nonprofits from supporting his primary opponent and preserving his own political hide, and it’s been on the books ever since. Though it’s rarely enforced, it hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the heads not just of churches but of every 501(c)(3) in the United States. First Amendment lawyers are desperate to find a good test case to challenge it, but the IRS’s general lack of enforcement means that the right case is elusive. So the amendment remains.
The answer to the Johnson Amendment, however, is to either repeal the statute or overturn it in court. This order does neither. In fact, a lawyer will commit malpractice if he tells a pastor or director of a nonprofit that this order allows a church or nonprofit to use its resources to support or oppose a candidate. Even if the Trump administration chooses not to enforce the law, a later administration can tear up Trump’s order and begin vigorous enforcement based on actions undertaken during the Trump administration.
The Johnson Amendment is highly likely to be ruled unconstitutional by a court – which is why the IRS has never enforced the Johnson Amendment. They know they’d lose a court fight. First Amendment lawyers have done everything but beg the IRS to implement the Amendment so they could sue. Various organizations have even sent tapes of Pastors openly advocating for politicians from the pulpit to the IRS, but the IRS has refused to enforce the Amendment. In other words, the only way for Trump to fulfill this promise is to get Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment. His EO does nothing and provides no protection to any religious group.
All of the above also applies to the last provision in the EO protecting religious groups from mandates in Obamacare. The EO cannot overrule the law. The Supreme Court has provided some protection already. But the ONLY way to protect minority religious groups from these statutes is to REPEAL those rules. Trump has done nothing to push through real protections for conscientious religious objectors. The most important point made by David French: Nothing is stopping Trump from pursuing real religious liberty protections:
The administration can right now begin the rulemaking process to change the contraception mandate. Congress can right now begin the lawmaking process to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Congress can right now work to pass statutes that protect free speech and rights of conscience. That’s the real work of government. Anything else is fluff, a symbol at best.
Trump’s strongest move for life and liberty has been the nomination of an outstanding Supreme Court justice, but let’s be clear — a religious-liberty policy that depends mainly on nominating judges and hoping that they do the right thing is a half-measure at best and a fool’s errand at worst. The story of the Supreme Court of the last 40 years is largely of major battles lost and high hopes dashed. In the modern administrative state, the work of government is conducted through sweeping statutes and regulations that no one can count on a court to overturn. To guarantee protections for religious liberty, you write those protections into law, you don’t wish-cast them through executive orders.
This executive order is not a promise kept. Trump has provided no real support or protections to any religious group in the United States. Real protection begins with legislative action. Something Trump seems reticent to take up.
Links for your radar
Sheriff David Clarke’s Misguided War on #BlackLivesMatter – Kareim Oliphant, Outset Magazine
Clarke is the quintessential token black conservative. Black conservatives like Clarke are swiftly promoted within mainstream conservative ranks because they lend credence to a variety of fallacies.
First, conservative media can cite them as evidence that racism is nonexistent in conservative circles. For if a black man can be considered a prominent conservative leader, the argument goes, conservative racists must be nonexistent. This argument conveniently ignores the fact that anti-blackness is a core tenet of Clarke’s brand of conservatism. There is nothing that white supremacists love more than a black man who is willing to be their public mouthpiece and berate the black community at every turn. In truth, black conservatives like Sheriff Clarke rarely mention black people unless the purpose is to chastise them, or feign outrage at the fact that Democrats enslave them on the “welfare plantation.” For Clarke, if only blacks would join the Republican Party and get off welfare, all their problems would be resolved.
It is undeniably true that Democrats take the black vote for granted. And the progressive notion that more government welfare is the best way to ameliorate poverty is patently wrong. But to pretend as if blacks only vote for Democrats because they want welfare is asinine. People who parrot this claim need to explain why it is that even well-off blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. The fact is that the Republican Party of today can be openly hostile to blacks. It is no longer the Republican Party of Frederick Douglass. Conservatives and Republicans need to start admitting that white supremacists and their sympathizers now feel much more at home in the Republican Party than they do in the Democratic Party. If conservatives and Republicans spent less time patronizingly calling black people slaves to Democrats, and more time purging these white supremacists from their tents (in addition to doing some serious self-reflection on the many other reasons black people largely reject the GOP), perhaps more blacks would be receptive to their message.
Republicans Should Want The Russia 2016 Story Out In The Open – Dan McLaughlin, National Review Online
If you look at the available facts, instead of wild speculation, this is nonsense. As I detailed at length at the time, there is no such investigation: Comey’s own testimony in March demonstrated that he was pursuing a counterintelligence investigation, aimed at Russia – not a criminal investigation of Trump. That makes all the difference in how such an investigation would proceed (it is likely to be conducted in secret, without any endpoint, and without the goal of indicting anyone) as well as what inferences we should draw from its existence (counterintelligence probes don’t require anything resembling probable cause to believe that any American has committed a crime).
Of course, such investigations sometimes spin off criminal investigations; it appears that the FBI is handing out subpoenas to business associates of deposed National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, after revelations of the extent to which he was on the payroll of Russian interests before the election, and Flynn as well as others like Carter Page or Paul Manafort may potentially face legal jeopardy for failure to comply with foreign-lobbyist-disclosure requirements and other disclosure and ethics rules. But while that would be embarrassing to Trump, it’s a very long way away from the sort of thing that “could bring down a president.”
UK Election 2017 Preview: Scotland And Wales – Drew McCoy, Decision Desk HQ
While a Conservative government with an expanded majority is the expected result in the June 8 general election, Tory gains are unlikely to be uniform across the United Kingdom. One of the pertinent questions of this election is how much of their gain over 2015 will be concentrated in regions and seats they already hold.
There simply is not much remaining for Conservatives to gain in the East, South East, and South West of England. It is possible any collapse of the UKIP vote in these areas will result in greatly expanded majorities in already blue seats.
Wales is a different story with an uncertain ending. Labour has held the majority of seats and won the vote in every general election in Wales since first outpolling the Liberal Party in 1922. As recently as the 2001 general election, the Conservative Party won zero seats of the 40 elected in Wales.
Yates Changes Her Tune – Jack Goldsmith, Lawfare Blog
“Sally Yates made the fake media extremely unhappy today—she said nothing but old news!” So tweeted our President a few hours ago about today’s testimony by the former Deputy (and Acting) Attorney General, whom Trump fired on January 30. As with so many of the President’s tweets, this one was inaccurate. Yates made a lot of news today. I’ll have more to say tomorrow about what she taught us about the operations of the White House Counsel’s Office and OLC in connection with the Flynn affair and the Immigration EO. But here I want to focus on some other real news in her testimony that has not yet attracted much attention: Yates changed her story from January about why she refused to defend the (first) Immigration Executive Order (EO).
In January I wrote about the unsigned letter that Yates sent to DOJ officials to explain her decision not to defend the EO in court. To recap what I said then: As Acting Attorney General, Yates had the authority to determine whether DOJ would defend the EO in Court. But under traditional Department practices, Yates had a duty to defend the EO, even if she was unconvinced of its legality or even believed it was probably unlawful, if there was a reasonable argument that could be made for its legality. As I explained in my post, Yates’ did not say in her letter that she has concluded that the EO is unlawful. Nor did she say that no reasonable arguments could be made in defense of the EO. Instead, she gave a series of muddled reasons for her decisions, some based on her uncertainty whether the EO was lawful under the “best view” of the law under all of the facts (which was not remotely the right standard), and some based on policy considerations (which should have been irrelevant to the decision to defend a presidential order). While acknowledging the difficulty of Yates’ position and her obvious repulsion by the EO, I concluded that the reasons she gave in her letter “appear to depart sharply from the usual criteria that an Attorney General would apply in deciding whether to defend an EO in court.”
Today, Yates seemed to change her story. Many of the factors she relied on in the January letter—for example, whether “the policy choice embodied in an Executive Order is wise or just,” and DOJ’s “solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right”—were not emphasized today. Instead, Yates relied on two arguments that (as best I can tell) were not presented in her January letter.
Sally Yates: Much Ado about Nothing New – Andrew C. McCarthy, National Review Online
So, did Obama really recommend that Trump ditch Flynn? I’d be stunned if he didn’t: Obama disagrees with Flynn on issue after issue, and he had good reason to believe Flynn would try to undo the Iran nuclear deal, his most cherished foreign-policy “accomplishment.” But that doesn’t mean he believed Flynn was a spy.
This conscious misimpression leads us seamlessly into the ballyhooed testimony of Sally Yates, who appeared before the subcommittee along with retired general James Clapper, the Obama administration’s national intelligence director.
Yates followed the script. An Obama holdover kept on by Trump to run the Justice Department while Jeff Sessions awaited confirmation, she purportedly developed concerns about Flynn that were so troubling she felt compelled to convey them to Don McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel. What were those concerns? She wouldn’t say; it’s classified. Was Flynn acting on Putin’s behalf? She was not gonna go there; it’s classified. Does she have evidence that Flynn or any other Trump official conspired with the Kremlin to interfere with the election? She wasn’t able to discuss that; it’s classified.
These were theatrics worthy of a kangaroo court. Democratic senators knew Yates would not answer, so they loaded their “questions” with suggestions of heinous behavior. It was a congressional hearing rather than a trial, so there was no lawyer there to defend Flynn, to point out that the interrogators were assuming facts that have not been proved. There was no judge there to instruct the interrogators that they may not ask explosive questions which (a) lacked a good faith basis in solid evidence, and (b) they knew ahead of time the witness wouldn’t answer. In other words, the point of the questions was to smear, not to elicit answers that advanced the inquiry.
President Trump’s Tweets Are A Gold Mine For Foreign Intelligence – Tom Nichols, The Federalist
Are President Trump’s tweets dangerous to our national security? I posed this question on Twitter, and immediately was deluged by the usual flood of partisan answers. The president’s supporters think it’s wonderful that Trump bypasses the media filter and speaks his mind directly to the voters. The president’s detractors think he’s revealing a neurotic personality and that his aides should take his phone away from him.
I approached the question differently. As I watched Trump fulminate against hearings in the Senate—during which former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she warned the White House about fallen National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s Russian connections—it occurred to me that I was getting a real-time look at how the president of the United States reacts to stress.
More important, it also occurred to me that I was not the only one getting a raw feed of the president’s thoughts and emotions. I realized that any foreign intelligence analyst worth his or her salt was almost certainly taking copious notes.
As well they should. Trump’s tweets, from an intelligence standpoint, are a gold mine. Not because they contain classified information or reveal important aspects of U.S. policy, but because they are a direct and continuous stream of information about the president himself. Classified information is important, but an ongoing look inside the president’s head is, in many ways, more valuable than any transitory secrets.
Experts Now Agree: The Deplorables Really Are Deplorable – Michael Brendan Dougherty, National Review Online
New social-science surveys help Democrats explain away Trump’s win: Yes, his voters are racist.
Scene: The lab-coated man comes in from the room. “It was a troubling case,” he admits. “This question of why you voted for Trump.” He snaps on his surgical glove and probes his patient’s mouth in the usual way “A real brain crusher! The boys and I really went a few rounds on the diagnosis. Were you the sympathetic sort? You know, just down on your luck, jobless maybe. Suffering from inequality. Or were you the ‘take my country back’ type. You know? Worked up about Central Americans or whatever. In other words, were you more a case of inequality?”
“You mean you wanted to know whether I had problems or whether I was the problem?” the patient offers
The doctor: “More or less. So, we came up with a new battery of tests. A whole new data set!” The man in the lab coat was clearly excited about the new spreadsheets — he loved them. But then he turned to the man in the chair and started to wince. “We’ve run the numbers, and it turns out . . . ”
“No, doc, give me a chance!” the patient protests.
“You’ve come back deplorable,” the doctor sighs. “It’s really unfortunate.
Satire piece of the week
WASHINGTON — With yesterday’s dismissal of former FBI director James Comey serving as yet another burden on the historic document, the staff at the National Archives reported Wednesday that the U.S. Constitution had rapidly aged another 100 years from the stress of repeated crises. “All the strain it’s endured has really taken an awful toll on its appearance,” said archivist David Ferriero of the wrinkled, threadbare piece of legislation, adding that the accumulated tension from numerous attempts to undermine its status as the nation’s supreme law had caused the parchment to go completely white. “You can really see how all of these affronts to its essential role in our democracy have started to wear on it—you’d never believe a charter this broken down was only written in the late 18th century. I mean, no 226-year-old statement of legal principles should look like it’s almost 350.” Ferriero went on to say that, given all the Constitution had suffered through, he wouldn’t be surprised if it passed away well before its time.
What should be a satire piece but isn’t…
(click the link just to see the book cover)
Normally a fantasy involving a finger-licking-good version of Colonel Sanders would only be shared on the weirder corners of Reddit, but a romance novel called Tender Wings of Desire emblazoned with the Colonel’s muscled biceps is climbing the charts of Amazon’s free Kindle store.
While the novel sounds like it came from the mind of the guy who wrote the porno starring MS Word’s helpful Clippy (…er, maybe don’t Google that at work), it actually has KFC’s stamp of approval. The novella is part of its Mother’s Day push, because all mothers want is a few minutes alone with a romance novel and a bucket of fried chicken. The book reportedly tells the story of Lady Madeline Parker, who runs away from a loveless betrothal only to meet a “handsome sailor with a mysterious past” and presumably a secret recipe for chicken. The novella is only 96 pages long, so you can read it before dashing off your heartfelt ode to Taco Bell’s chalupa. Download your free copy at Amazon.com.
Thanks for reading!