Yesterday's revelation that President Donald Trump disclosed "highly classified information" to senior Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, jeopardizing "a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State," sent the White House into crisis mode. Reporters "could hear yelling emanating from the presidential residence" as senior officials tried to contain the fallout. Amy Zegart estimated the possible damage to U.S. intelligence-gathering at "about a billion" on a scale of 1 to 10.
After sending his national security adviser out yesterday to make a "non-denial denial," Trump asserted this morning he had "the absolute right" to share pertinent information in an "openly scheduled" meeting with Russia, claiming he did so for "Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism." By the way, that meeting was closed to American journalists, as Trump gave exclusive access to a photographer for the Russian state-run news agency ITAR-TASS.
All of the above would be disturbing, even if Trump hadn't just fired FBI Director James Comey and improperly asked Comey whether he was under investigation.
The reaction from self-styled watchdog Senator Chuck Grassley was a classic example of normalizing some of the most abnormal behavior we've seen yet from Trump--which is saying something.
Dar Danielson reported today for Radio Iowa that Grassley "is steering clear of commenting" directly on Trump's leak: “As far as the classified information, I’m going to wait until I can be briefed on it in a secured environment before I can make any judgment about whether that was the case.”
The Washington Post scoop by Greg Miller and Greg Jaffe pointed to systemic problems with Trump's management style, not just one incident of the president blurting out "code-word" information while trying to impress his guests.
“It is all kind of shocking,” said a former senior U.S. official who is close to current administration officials. “Trump seems to be very reckless and doesn’t grasp the gravity of the things he’s dealing with, especially when it comes to intelligence and national security. And it’s all clouded because of this problem he has with Russia.” [...]
Trump has repeatedly gone off-script in his dealings with high-ranking foreign officials, most notably in his contentious introductory conversation with the Australian prime minister earlier this year. He has also faced criticism for seemingly lax attention to security at his Florida retreat, Mar-a-Lago, where he appeared to field preliminary reports of a North Korea missile launch in full view of casual diners.
U.S. officials said that the National Security Council continues to prepare multi-page briefings for Trump to guide him through conversations with foreign leaders, but that he has insisted that the guidance be distilled to a single page of bullet points — and often ignores those.
“He seems to get in the room or on the phone and just goes with it, and that has big downsides,” the second former official said. “Does he understand what’s classified and what’s not? That’s what worries me.”
Many conservatives were horrified by the news. Eliot Cohen, a former counselor to President George W. Bush's Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, commented on Twitter, "This is appalling. If accidental, it would be a firing offense for anyone else. If deliberate, it would be treason."
To hear Grassley tell the story, the apparent dysfunction in Trump's administration is just part of a new president's learning curve. From Danielson's piece for Radio Iowa:
Grassley, a Republican, says he’d prefer to make a general comment about how the White House is being run and why there may be an appearance of disarray.
“You have for the first time in the history of the country somebody that isn’t a politician or a general become president of the United States,” Grassley says. “Even if a senator became president of the United States, there’s an awful lot about the job to learn that you didn’t know about before you became president.”
A lot of presidents have had much to learn during their first few months on the job, but before Trump, no head of state gave top-ranking officials of a foreign adversary information we hadn't even shared with allies. (Most national security experts "believe Russia isn’t remotely as committed to the ISIS fight as the US.") Although the president has the power to declassify information, Trump's actions may still violate federal laws designed to protect details "relating to the national defense."
Grassley took a similar "nothing to see here" approach when Trump sacked Comey, an act many saw as a transparent effort to undermine the rule of law by derailing an FBI investigation. Yesterday, Grassley was still clinging to an abandoned pretext for ditching the FBI director. CNN's Andrew Kaczynski listened to the senator's interview with KVFD 1400AM radio in Fort Dodge.
Grassley, the chair of Senate judiciary committee, cited the [deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein memo as Trump's "main reason" for firing Comey.
"The President made his decision from reasons that are very special to him," Grassley to Iowa local radio station KVFD 1400am on Monday. "Taking advices (sic) as he did from the deputy Attorney General Rosenstein that Comey should not have acted both as a prosecutor and an investigator. In other words, he should be investigating the Justice Department, under then-(Attorney General) Lynch should have made the decision on prosecuting. He seemed to take responsibility for both, which I think is main reason the President made his decision."
Trump himself told Lester Holt of NBC News, "I was going to fire Comey. Regardless of the recommendation [from Rosenstein] I was going to fire Comey." Trump admitted in the same interview, "when I decided to just do it I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story [...].'" Michael Schmidt reported for the New York Times this afternoon that according to a memo Comey wrote, Trump told the FBI director in February, "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting [former national security adviser Michael] Flynn go."
As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, Grassley has unique leverage among Congressional Republicans. He could refuse to hold Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings on the next FBI director until a special prosecutor has been named to investigate Russian interference in last year's elections. The GOP-controlled Congress is not up to this task. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr's first reaction to today's New York Times story was that the burden is on the newspaper to produce Comey's memo.
Unfortunately, Iowa's senior senator is still covering for the White House, telling Danielson today,
“You’ve got to have some evidence of a commitment of a crime,” Grassley says. “There’s been absolutely no evidence thrown out about a commitment of a crime. That’s very basic to having a special prosecutor.” Grassley says it’s known the Russians “tried to interfere with the elections, but there’s no evidence they made a difference and for sure no evidence they changed a single vote.”
Grassley misstates the case for investigating Trumpworld's Russia connections. The potential threat to national security goes way beyond the question of whether Russia's actions influenced American votes. Because Trump has never released his tax returns, we have no idea what financial ties he may have to foreign entities. The salient question isn't whether the president owns property in Russia, it's whether he or his corporations are in debt to Russian lenders and therefore vulnerable to pressure from the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a long pattern of using banks and corporations to advance his political goals.
Trump hired several people who had advocated for Russian foreign policy interests. Trump kept Flynn on for eighteen days after acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House the national security adviser had lied about his Russian contacts. The many undisclosed meetings between Russian operatives and advisers for the president's campaign or transition team (chronicled here by T.R. Ramachandran) raise more red flags to anyone paying attention.
Which apparently doesn't include Grassley--or Senator Joni Ernst. To my knowledge, the woman who promised a national audience that Trump would "work tirelessly to keep our nation safe" has said nothing about the president endangering our intelligence network in the Middle East. Like Grassley, Ernst was unperturbed by Comey's dismissal.
Writing here last year, Kieran Williams observed that “normalization” happens “because people in a position to stop it decide to play along, and find ways to convince themselves that they are doing the right thing, for either the greater good or the narrow good of kith and kin.”
There are many ways in which authoritarian creep can be resisted […]. But the initial challenge is not so much to persuade the powerless – with nothing to lose – that they in fact can make a difference; it is to press those in positions of power – and thus having everything to lose – to resist the temptation to be and do the lesser evil, because it is still an evil.
If Grassley and Ernst will give the president a pass on attempting to obstruct an FBI investigation and sharing sensitive information with top Russian officials, what could ever induce them to hold Trump accountable?
UPDATE: A reader pointed me to Grassley's April 2015 appearance on Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Press" program.
[O.Kay] Henderson: Senator, this past week you kicked off your campaign with a private fundraiser. As you make your case to Iowans for re-election, what is the succinct, one-sentence explanation you'll present as the reason you should be re-elected?
Grassley: I'm one of the few members of Congress that does administrative oversight of the executive branch of government. And if every senator did that I couldn't use this as a reason for running re-election. But I believe in the checks and balances of government and I believe that we not only pass laws but we have a responsibility to see that they're faithfully executed. And I think I have a good reputation in that area, being an equal opportunity one against both republican and democratic presidents. And I think we have to do more of it and I set the pattern for that. Now, to the people of Iowa, oversight might not mean anything to them. But if they study checks and balances and government they know exactly how important that is.
What a farce.
SECOND UPDATE: After deputy Attorney General Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, Grassley's office released the following statement.
As I’ve said many times before, the American people deserve to know how Russia attempted to meddle in our democratic process. The FBI’s handling of recent politically charged investigations has eroded the public’s trust in its ability to be independent. I have a great deal of confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and I respect his decision. Mueller has a strong reputation for independence, and comes with the right credentials for this job. At the end of the day, we need a public accounting of what went on to restore faith in government. Congress will have a role to play in bringing transparency to the American people.
Apparently Grassley doesn't want to remind us that he "said many times before," including this week, that there is no need for a special counsel.
Ed Tibbetts reported for the Quad-City Times,
In a conference call with Iowa reporters on Wednesday, Grassley said he will exercise the committee's oversight responsibilities. "And as I’ve said so often, we need to get the facts out in the open. We can’t just rely upon selective leaks and reports."
Grassley also told reporters that if there was interference, "then it seems to me Comey should have taken action on that interference.” Other Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, have questioned why Comey did not act on the issue.
Grassley added it was likely the Judiciary Committee would hold a hearing on the matter.
Ernst has not issued a press release on any of this week's Trump scandals.
LATER UPDATES: Grassley's office announced on May 17,
WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein along with Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee Chairman Lindsey Graham and Ranking Member Sheldon Whitehouse today called on the FBI to provide all memos relating to former FBI Director Comey’s interactions with his superiors in both the Trump and Obama administrations. They also called on the White House to provide records of interactions with former Director Comey, including any audio recordings.
The requests follow news reports that Comey authored internal memos following meetings and conversations with President Trump in order to document what he perceived to be improper behavior by the President with respect to ongoing investigations at the FBI. The president implied in a tweet last week that the White House may have recordings of interactions with Comey.
In a letter to Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, the Judiciary Committee leaders request “all such memos, if they exist, that Mr. Comey created memorializing interactions he had with Presidents Trump and Obama, Attorneys General Sessions and Lynch, and Deputy Attorneys General Rosenstein, Boente, and Yates regarding the investigations of Trump associates’ alleged connections with Russia or the Clinton email investigation.”
The letter from the senators to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, seeks “all White House records memorializing interactions with Mr. Comey relating to the FBI’s investigation of alleged ties between President Trump’s associates and Russia, or the Clinton email investigation, including all audio recordings, transcripts, notes, summaries, or memoranda.”
The Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, led by Chairman Graham and Ranking Member Whitehouse, is currently conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Committee leadership expects to hold a hearing on these matters.
Grassley and Feinstein released a joint statement on May 19:
WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein today released the following statement after former FBI Director James Comey declined a bipartisan invitation to testify before the committee regarding the circumstances surrounding his removal, stating he will instead testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee:
“We’re extremely disappointed in James Comey’s decision not to testify voluntarily before the Judiciary Committee. There is no reason he can’t testify before both the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, particularly given that the Judiciary Committee is the FBI’s primary oversight committee with broad jurisdiction over federal law enforcement, FISA and the nomination of the next FBI director. Given his commitment to the people and the mission of the FBI, we expected him to be responsive to the senators responsible for vetting its next proposed leader. He should reconsider his decision.”