A New York Times article based on second- and third-hand reports from anonymous sources about comments Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made in the Spring of 2017 is being widely – and legitimately — perceived as someone’s attempt to pave the way for Trump to fire him.
Rosenstein is overseeing Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian governments, after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.
For Trump, who just last week tweeted about the “Illegal Mueller Witch Hunt,” getting Rosenstein out of the way would be an obvious first step to either de facto or de jure closing down Mueller’s investigation.
A number of contingencies in place should Trump fire Mueller would also go into operation if he fires Rosenstein.
The Mueller Firing Rapid Response network includes dozens of grassroots groups like Moveon.org, Common Cause, Public Citizen, the American Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International Union.
Over 400,000 people have already signed up and promised to take to the streets — at more than 900 events, in every state — within hours of Trump crossing one of the agreed-upon “red lines” for the rule of law.
And the network’s plan specifies that the line would be crossed by “Actions that would prevent the investigation from being conducted freely, such as replacing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.”
“Obviously, today’s report in the New York Times has us again looking closely at our plans to confirm we’re prepared in the event that Trump fires Rosenstein and attempts to interfere with the independent investigation being led by Robert Mueller,” said Brian Stewart, a Moveon.org spokesman.
Congressional response, while less predictable, would also be quick.
In February, Congressional Democrats sent Trump a letter warning him that “Firing Rod Rosenstein, DOJ Leadership, or Bob Mueller could result in a constitutional crisis of the kind not seen since the Saturday Night Massacre.”
And in April, Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters: “I’d like to make something crystal clear to the president. Mr. President, any attempt to remove Rod Rosenstein will create the exact same constitutional crisis as if you fired Special Counsel Mueller. Don’t do it, do not go down this path. For the sake of our country, we plead with you. Don’t put this country through a constitutional crisis. Whether by firing Mueller, Rosenstein, or otherwise impeding this investigation from going forward. The rule of law is paramount in this country. No man, not even the president is above it.”
Donald Trump’s morning tweet doubting Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser’s allegation of sexual assault was grotesque: pernicious and ignorant in the presumption that all sexual assaults are reported; misogynistic in its implication that the sexual assault wasn’t “as bad as she says”; dishonest in that he said he had “no doubt” about something he knew wasn’t true; and combative in that it dared her to bring forth nonexistent documents.
But to the New York Times, at least in its “breaking news” alert and initial report by Eileen Sullivan, it was only newsworthy because it “ended his dayslong restraint from commenting on the accusations.”
That was the only context provided.
Otherwise, the Times reprinted the tweet and then quoted from it.
Ford said she told no one at the time what had happened to her. She was terrified, she said, that she would be in trouble if her parents realized she had been at a party where teenagers were drinking, and she worried they might figure it out even if she did not tell them.
She said she recalled thinking: “I’m not ever telling anyone this. This is nothing, it didn’t happen, and he didn’t rape me.”
The Associated Press story by Alam Fram and Lisa Mascaro is, as of this writing, primarily about “Trump’s apparent shift in strategy.”
Stories about Trump’s tweets shouldn’t be simply about the fact that he tweeted them. And they shouldn’t just assume that readers can understand what’s so wrong about them. Journalism requires context, here more than ever.
Previous presidents earned the presumption that most of what they said was worth reporting simply as news, with the context coming later. Not this president.
Highly relevant video from last night:
Trump suggests Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault was not “as bad as she says” and asks why she didn’t come forward when she was a teenager. Charles Blow explains in personal detail why some rape victims don’t come forward. pic.twitter.com/iqKJQrSQLR
Trump "has no doubt" [cynicism] that IF the attack on Ford [doubt] "was as bad" [trivializing] as she alleges [doubt] charges would have been "immediately filed" [blame] by either her or her loving parents [condescension] https://t.co/HreHoj3RDC
This is a new low for Trump. Absolutely disgusting. Thinking that a woman who delays reporting sexual assault wasn't really assaulted "as bad as she says" is insane. And terrible. And displays a fundamental lack of understanding about why most rapes and assaults go unreported. https://t.co/Jcw5wGA80O
It's sad to see Pres. Trump veer from supporting Judge Kavanaugh to suggesting that Dr. Ford is exaggerating or fabricating. Rape is under-reported partly because it's the women who often end up savaged, and the president is adding to that problem now as he piles on. https://t.co/kN9Dh5S6ak
Inae Oh at Mother Jones also points out that “Trump’s parallel made no mention of the string of sexual assault allegations—many of which include the very details of “date, time, and place” he claims is lacking in Ford’s story—that have been made against him.”
Appropriate speculation about motive:
President Trump, who has bragged about groping women, is trying to smear a survivor of attempted rape. Dr. Blasey Ford is now facing death threats and targeted harassment simply for coming forward—we all know why women are often too afraid to report their assaults. #WeBelieveHerhttps://t.co/NfOcMHtw9Z
Here is some research documenting the reasons why sexual assaults victims do not report immediately. (Hat tip: @bmyeung.)
It’s often fascinating to see breaking New York Times stories develop over the course of the day, using Newsdiffs. Here are the first set of changes made to the original version of the Trump tweet story, including the addition of a new fourth paragraph that says: “Many women are reluctant to come forward and report sexual assaults to authorities, in part because they fear they will not be believed.”
Another disgusting attempt to discredit Dr. Ford, who has risked her own safety and reputation in coming forward. Many survivors of sexual assault choose not to speak out, for a thousand different reasons. But when they do, they deserve to be heard, @realDonaldTrump – not shamed. pic.twitter.com/NjKhMLPU6v
Things will change after the midterm elections, one way or another.
If Republicans maintain control of Congress, Trump will feel even more empowered to indulge his impulses, knowing he has two more years to operate essentially unchecked by the legislative branch.
But if Republicans lose control of one or both houses, Democratic committee chairs will use their regained subpoena power to demand answers about the many scandals burbling throughout the executive branch, virtually any one of which would have been an exception and an outrage in previous administrations.
American Oversight, launched in early 2017 to fill the void left by a supine Congress in the Trump era, has been laying the groundwork for future congressional investigations through the extensive use of Freedom of Information Act requests, followed by aggressive litigation.
The eventual goal of the group’s “parallel investigations initiative” is to pair FOIA litigation with aggressive congressional oversight, to create “a feedback loop of oversight that is much harder for agencies to resist,” according to the group’s website.
The group is also working in parallel to what few investigation the current Congress is conducting. So when the chair and ranking member of the House Oversight Committee asked the Department of Homeland Security for documents related to preparation for Hurricanes Irma and Maria, American Oversight followed up with a similar FOIA request.
The FOIA process is a notoriously slow and sometime onerous way to get information from government agencies, where understaffed FOIA offices often slow-walk requests and over-liberally apply exemption rules.
But American Oversight founder Austin Evers, who handled oversight requests for the State Department in the Obama administration, said that congressional subpoenas aren’t a “magic wand” either.
“They are notoriously difficult to enforce against even the most faithful administrations – and no one should expect ‘complying with subpoenas’ to be the first norm that President Trump decides to obey,” Evers said.
“Our parallel investigations initiative will give congressional oversight an extra set of teeth. Unlike congressional document requests, there is mechanism way to enforce FOIAs in court quickly and aggressively. Congress can use what we extract at hearings and in negotiations, and if we get something they didn’t, it can be evidence of obstruction.”
Politico recently ran profiles of the prospective Democratic committee chairs “poised to torment Trump,” whose “questions cover a host of Trump scandals, including his tax returns; the Trump International Hotel; Russia, the 2016 election and Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin; security clearances; immigration, family separation and the border wall; and the president’s attacks on the media.”
And Axios reported on a spreadsheet “that’s circulated through Republican circles on and off Capitol Hill — including at least one leadership office — that meticulously previews the investigations Democrats will likely launch if they flip the House.”
The spreadsheet included 18 topics, several mentioned above, but also including Trump’s hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels, White House staff’s personal email use, and discussions of classified information at Mar-a-Lago.
Clark Pettig, American Oversight’s communications director, said “we had already filed FOIAs on at least 11 of the topics on that list.”
In an interview on Wednesday, Donald Trump said the FBI should have told him about campaign staffers with links to Russia so he could have fired them.
“They should have come to me and said, ‘Sir, you’re dealing with people that may have something to do with Russia. We want to let you know.’ And I’d say, ‘I’m sorry whoever it may be, you gotta go, sorry,’ ” Trump said.
Trump also continued to maintain that the whole investigation into collusion between his campaign and the Russian government is “a hoax.”
But his suggestion that he would have responded if warned is a new line of defense that to some extent contradicts his absolute denials.
Trump’s comments came in an interview with John Solomon and Buck Sexton, two sympathetic media figures (the only kind Trump talks to.) Solomon, after a long and checkered journalism career that includes writing articles that spread right-wing conspiracy theories, works as executive vice president of The Hill in charge of digital video. Sexton is a right-wing talk-show host who coanchors The Hill’s new morning video offering.
It’s not the first time Trump has suggested that the FBI should have informed him earlier. In a May 26 tweet, he asked “why didn’t the crooked highest levels of the FBI or ‘Justice’ contact me to tell me of the phony Russia problem?”
With Spies, or “Informants” as the Democrats like to call them because it sounds less sinister (but it’s not), all over my campaign, even from a very early date, why didn’t the crooked highest levels of the FBI or “Justice” contact me to tell me of the phony Russia problem?
And in a May 31 tweet, he tweeted a quote from right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh suggesting that the FBI didn’t contact Trump because “they were pushing this scam” that was “targeting Trump.”
RUSH LIMBAUGH “If the FBI was so concerned, and if they weren’t targeting Trump, they should have told Trump. If they were really concerned about the Russians infiltrating a campaign (hoax), then why not try to stop it? Why not tell Trump? Because they were pushing this scam.”
On July 22, he asked why President Obama hadn’t told him about it and replied: “Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!”
So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign? Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!
(Hat tip to the fabulous, searchable database of Trump statements at Factba.se.)
But in the past, Trump’s argument was that the lack of warning showed that the FBI investigation was a scam. This time, he said he would have fired people if he’d known about their Russian ties.
And to some extent, Trump was warned. NBC reported last December that soon after he became the Republican nominee, the FBI gave him a generalized warning that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign.
After I posted a Tweet calling attention to Trump’s statement this morning, one reader replied:
Excuse me?!? RUSSIA warned the campaign they were trying to make the suspicious links! And the Trump campaign said – – – – >Okay! I love it!
Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me it appears Trump is using a tactic called “arguing in the alternative.”
Like: “I wasn’t there.” “If I was there I didn’t do it.” “If I did it I didn’t mean to.”
German also said there may have been many legitimate reasons why the FBI wouldn’t have given Trump a heads-up about their investigation.
It could have been they didn’t know very much at the time. “So to go to a presidential candidate and say ‘fire him,’ ‘fire him,’ ‘fire him,’ may have been premature from what I know.”
And then there’s a question of “whether there was any indication there were actually higher people in the chain that you didn’t want to tip off.”
Frank Figliuzzi, a 25-year FBI veteran who retired in 2012 as assistant director for counterintelligence, said in an email that the “FBI warned him and told him to call if certain things were happening.”
Furthermore, Figliuzzi wrote: “The lack of more briefings or more detailed briefings reflects they thought he was involved.”
In the interview, Trump raised, as a contrast, the case of California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and her driver.
A Politico article in late July noted in passing a comment from a source “that Chinese intelligence once recruited a staff member at a California office” of Feinstein.
The San Francisco Chronicle then confirmed “that the FBI showed up at Feinstein’s office in Washington, D.C., about five years ago to alert the then-chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that her driver was being investigated for possible Chinese spying.”
According to the Chronicle: “The FBI apparently concluded the driver hadn’t revealed anything of substance,” and Feinstein forced him to retire.
Trump on Wednesday complained that he didn’t get the same treatment: “They notify her, and she immediately fires the guy.”
Trump and Feinstein had a spirited Twitter exchange on the topic in early August.
(1/2) The FBI told me 5 years ago it had concerns that China was seeking to recruit an administrative member of my Calif staff (despite no access to sensitive information). I took those concerns seriously, learned the facts and made sure the employee left my office immediately. pic.twitter.com/qpVyPanpJk
The FBI (now Robert Mueller’s) investigation is also not about an isolated incident with no apparent significance, it’s about potential collusion at the highest levels of the campaign.
During the interview, Trump also complained “I don’t have an attorney general,” and said he hopes to be able to cite his longtime battle with the FBI “as one of my crowning achievements that I was able to…expose something that is truly a cancer in our country.”
Trump’s interview with Solomon and Becker calls more attention to the curious transformation of The Hill, once a staid and reliable publication that has now become, in the words of Esquire’s Charles Peirce, “a shameless clickfarm… having a breakdown.”
Wemple reported that Bob Cusack, editor-in-chief of The Hill, had told colleagues concerned about Solomon that “[E]ffective immediately when he writes for us, it will be as an opinion contributor.”
But the Hill didn’t put any such caveat on Solomon’s articles about the friendly Trump interview – in which Trump several times gave credit to Solomon’s articles.
A tweet and phone call to top editors at The Hill got no immediate reponse. I’ll update if they do.
Here is the full text of the question and answer, as transcribed (and apparently cleaned-up) by The Hill:
ON INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY’S FAILURE TO ALERT HIM TO RUSSIA CONCERNS
President Trump: I’ve always said that the Russia hoax was an excuse for them losing the election. Even though actually, amazingly that started seven months before. That started when it looked like I may have a chance to win, OK? But see that didn’t do anything to me because I didn’t know about it.
One thing on that again, also, if they thought there was something with Russia, and I’m one of two people that are gonna be the president of the United States, they should have come to me and said, “Sir, you’re dealing with people that may have something to do with Russia. We want to let you know.” And I’d say, “I’m sorry whoever it may be, you gotta go, sorry.”
John Solomon: They never did that, did they?
President Trump: They never did it, no, they never did it. No, but wouldn’t you think they’d say hey, you know there’s two people that have a chance.
(There was a brief interruption in the interview.)
President Trump: They, they should have come to me and said “Hey, you know we have an obligation,” like they did with Dianne Feinstein with her driver. You have somebody that is possibly a Chinese spy, now she had the guy for 20 years. But they notify her, they don’t investigate her. They notify her, and she immediately fires the guy. They certainly did it with Hillary Clinton. I mean what, that, that’s the other thing that people are so upset about.
A comedian who will not be named opens up one of his movies with an old joke: “Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.'”
I was reminded of the joke by Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple‘s article Tuesday on the White House Correspondents’ Association’s repeated requests for more press briefings from Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
But more importantly, they are useless when it comes to genuine news gathering. They are a mockery of the format. They are a mockery of the press.
Wemple acknowledges that view, but explains his own:
The briefings are the one place where reporters can get on-the-record replies to their questions, even if those replies amount to junk-food information. Otherwise, reporters are dependent on the mercurial president’s comments at ceremonial events and, of course, “senior administration officials” spinning the news on background. And as Knox wrote in a piece titled “Save the (terrible) White House briefing” — and written during the Obama administration — the briefing conveys the helpful message that no one is above being questioned.
I agree that the press briefing is hugely important – in theory. White House reporters – again, in theory – serve as the representatives of the public. No one else gets anywhere near as much access to the president and White House officials. The press is uniquely in a position to demand answers to the questions the public most deserves to have answered.
This access is particularly relevant in this administration, as Trump limits his public appearances to campaign rallies filled with rabid fans, or institutional settings where his role as Commander in Chief precludes dissent.
But as with many other elements of his presidency, Trump has simply taken an existing trend one gigantic step farther. George W. Bush, for instance, also hid behind the presidency to avoid contact with people who even potentially disagreed with him. (See my extensive coverage of the “Bush Bubble” in the previousl incarnation of White House Watch).
Similarly, as long as I’ve been watching press briefings carefully (i.e. since Bush II) they’ve been quite overtly all about deflecting questions, rather than answering them.
Ari Fleischer, Scott McClellan, Tony Snow and Dana Perino all became famous for their own special ways of saying nothing. (Although McClellan, to his undying credit, came clean afterwards – see here and here — which is probably why see him on cable TV about as often as you see Snow, who is dead.)
Barack Obama’s talk about transparency during his first presidential campaign made many journalists hopeful. (Boy did I have hopes.) But when Robert Gibbs walked up to the podium in the White House Briefing Room for the first time, it was no different. In fact, Fleischer chortled that the efforts to control press access and coverage belied Obama’s promise of open government.
News of Jay Carney’s appointment at first delighted his fellow journalists, but he quickly disappointed. Josh Earnest was more of the same.
And then came Trump, whose press secretaries – first Sean Spicer then Sanders – shifted from deflecting questions to answering with blatant lies and prickly hostility. Along with Trump’s Twitter feed and campaign-rallly free-association, they have created an alternate reality for Trump supporters where Trump wins all the time.
Sanders has actually taken Spicer’s dissembling to a new level. As Wemple writes in another piece, “She is the master of the unassailable and ultimately meaningless reply.”
Larger servings of that are not in the interest of the American public.
What should the White House press corps be asking for? Well, it doesn’t really matter what they ask for as long as Trump is president.
As with many unofficial White House rules that Trump has completely broken, maybe now is the time to fix it right, for the next presidency.
So let’s ask another question: What should the standards be, going forward, for a president’s relationship to the press? Can such standards be established in some objective and concrete fashion? What is a reasonable expectation when it comes to how often the president should hold press conference, sit down for in-depth interviews with non-sycophantic journalists, hold town halls, and so on?
How could such standards be enforced? Could civil society play a role?
Consider this the beginning of a long discussion on this topic. I’ll follow up repeatedly in the coming weeks and months, including with interviews with experts and suggestions from readers.
The midterms will be a referendum not just on Donald Trump but on the future of authoritarianism in American politics, Hillary Clinton told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Tuesday night.
“The actions that we have seen coming from the White House in this administration in the nearly two years since the election have raised all kinds of signal flares, alarm bells about what is happening to our democracy,” Clinton said.
“What I’m worried about is these authoritarian tendencies that we have seen at work in this administration with this president, left unchecked, could very well result in the erosion of our institutions to an extent that we’ve never imagined possible here.” She continued: “And I know that if we don’t have a very big rejection of those tendencies come in this midterm election, left unchecked and unaccountable, I think you will only see more of these attacks on our institutions, on our norms, on the rule of law that could do lasting damage.
“We’re not there yet, but that’s because we have an election. And it’s an election that could not be more critical to ending any continuing threat from authoritarian tendencies.”
Clinton is on a book tour for a new edition of her book, “What Happened.” An excerpt from the new afterword ran in the Atlantic on Monday, and I wrote about how she said the biggest challenge to democracy is not Trump himself, but “a small group of right-wing billionaires” building an “alternative reality” and the “increasing radicalism and irresponsibility” of the Republican Party.
She’s also very focused on the midterm, and what Trump does afterward. She told Maddow she expects him to fire many of his top appointees and start acting even more erratically – especially if there is no on in Congress holding him back.
“If we ignore the importance of the midterm election and there is no check and balance — we don’t take back one or both of the Houses of Congress then I think you’ll see even more of the dismantling of our institutions, with very dire effect,” she said.