The shock firing of James Comey is today’s biggest news story. Nobody seems to know what to think about it. I don’t really know what to think about it either. I mean, I have some opinions, but it’s a complicated and hard-to-read issue, and like with every Trump-related headline-grabber, the commentariat seems incapable of finding an objective stance. So I’m not really committed to many of them.
One that I am committed to, though: Senate Republicans should now join with their Democratic colleagues in appointing a special prosecutor to pursue the investigation into Russian interference in the election.
To be clear, I do not beleive for a minute that the Trump Campaign was directly involved in any collusion with the Russians. In fact, I strongly suspect that the inclusion of that notoriously weird and out-of-place sentence in the dissmissal letter…
While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are unable to effectively lead the Bureau
…is just a way of baiting the left. If you’re a hysterical Trump opponent, that will just confirm your suspicion that OF COURSE he’s firing Comey because the investigation into Russian collusion was starting to get too close. If you’re not, it looks a lot more like another example of Trump’s extremely thin skin getting the better of him.1 But there’s at least one other thing it could be, and that’s a trap.
If that’s what it seems like to me, then because I have my own biases here. I think the "Russian collusion" angle is nonsense – an opportunistic conspiracy theory. I don’t have any real doubt that the Russians tried to influence the results of our election – including by leaking DNC documents – it’s just that I’m skeptical any of this influence was (a) all that unfair or (b) connected to the Trump campaign. No doubt some Trump official somewhere has Russian ties – after all, if you’re heavily invested in Russia and Russia has a clear preference among candidates and you have a lot of political and/or economic influence, you might consider materially backing that candidate. It’s no less predictable than the amount of support John Edwards got from various trial lawyers’ interest groups back in 2004. But that’s still outside the definition of criminal collusion. People are free to vote – and lobby for – their business interests. As for whether it’s on the up-and-up for Russian agents to try to influence the outcome of the US election – well, no, of course it isn’t, but what are you going to do? Countries interfere in foreign elections. Lord knows we do. Given that it’s impossible to prevent all interference, and impractical to prevent even most of it, we do what you always do faced with these kinds of problems and triage: we go after only the interference that crosses clear lines. Tampering with voting machines would be a clear violation. So would blackmail, or assassination. Foreign donations are another. We allow them, but only within limits, and going over the limits is a crime. (Indeed, a fact that the Democrats calling for this investigation have conveniently forgotten is that The Obama Campaign was fined $375,000 for accepting illegal foreign donations in 2008.)
So what about leaking documents?
Well, that’s one of those things that I guess people agree should be illegal, but nevertheless have little sympathy for victims of when those documents confirm things the victim has been mendaciously denying. Which was pointedly the case with Clinton. So sure, I’m happy to have the feds investigate the source of those leaks, since they likely violated the law, but I don’t think the integrity of American Democracy is threatened if Russian hackers caught Clinton in a lie that everyone already believed was a lie anyway.
Interestingly, thnking that an investigation is likely futile is not an argument against doing one. I’d like to make the case that appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the US election is a good thing for everyone, even though I expect the investigation itself to be a waste of time.
For one thing, the Democrats really need to tone it down. The hysterical tone a lot of people are taking in response to Trump is damaging the country. If the only way to convince them that Trump is not plotting with a foreign power to engineer a coup is to have a special prosecutor investigate, then it’s money well spent. Of course, conspiracy theorists themselves are highly fact-resistant, so this isn’t going to stop the complaints any more than digging up Obama’s birth certificate ended Birtherism. But like with Birtherism, it will at least confine the complaints to the fringe.
For another thing, even if people like me don’t believe the special prosecutor will find anything, the charges are serious enough to warrant investigation. I may not believe them, but there are enough intelligent and informed people who do that the hard truth is that the only way to resolve the question is to stop speculating and investigate. Democracy means compromising with people you disagree with, and it means allowing that people you disagree with might be right. An investigation would be a waste of time if I really believed that that overwhelming majority of Democrats knew that Trump were innocent of collusion and were stirring the pot just to stir it. But that’s clearly not the case. Belief in collusion is real and sincere among enough of the "investigate now!" crowd that democratic norms pretty much demand it go forward.
But probably the most important thing is that it’s never a bad idea to remind the President that Congress has chains it can yank. Well, alright, maybe not "never." Again, if were pure obstructionism, that would be one thing. But it isn’t. And this President, more than most, needs some reminding of what his position is, and what his obligations are. Congress has rolled over for the President for too long, and while taking this investigation away from the Executive Branch won’t actually restore the balance, every little bit helps.
In addition to all that, it doesn’t hurt to give President Trump some incentive to nominate an FBI director that isn’t going to piss the Democrats off. After all, the director is not supposed to be a partisan appointment. If the Democrats – plus some Republican enablers – demonstrate willingness to go around his nomination with special prosecutors, then Trump has an incentive to appoint someone they trust to stave that possibility off.
A special prosecutor’s investigation into Trump’s likely non-existent Russia ties is a waste of time and money, defined narrowly. But republican government is as much about the public conversation as it is about results and efficient allocation of resources. Yes, this investigation is going to cost money and distract from some things it shouldn’t. There are still more reasons to do it than not. Here’s hoping the Senate coughs up three Republicans willing to vote for moving forward.
The idea being that Trump saw Comey telling him that for what it probably was – a clumsy attempt to manipulate Trump into staying off his back while he investigates – and can’t resist letting him (Comey) know that he (Trump) is too smart for that stuff.↩