Demanding Loyalty,
Demanding Adoration


 

President Trump responds to the allegation that he demanded personal loyalty from then FBI Director James Comey:

I hardly know the man. I’m not going to say, ‘I want you to pledge allegiance.’ Who would do that? Who would ask a man to pledge allegiance under oath? I mean, think of it. I hardly know the man. It doesn’t make sense. No, I didn’t say that.

President Donald Trump,   June 9, 2017

Some boorishness might be expected in a well known figure thrust suddenly, unexpectedly, into a position of national leadership. Some might have expected that the disrespectful liberties taken with unwilling women would provoke lasting damage. History will show none of that. Such incidents instead have served as a portend, a quest for complete dominance characterizing every relationship.

Even taking control of ongoing investigations, manipulating them to his own purposes would never serve as a warning to the most slavishly loyal of his followers.

When a national leader, one who insists on personal loyalty above all else, even loyalty to country, meets with officials of his administration, we might expect some bowing and scraping. After all, those whose future depends on the good will of the one they serve are to be expected to heap praise upon him, to seek his blessing, to assume an attitude of worship.

There is no actual transcript of the meeting. If there ever was, it was lost to history. But there are occasional reenactments. The entire nation witnessed one theatrical performance the other day.

There were expressions of humble gratitude, humble thanks for unexpected honor:

thank you[1]

thank you for the opportunity[7]

For the privilege

can’t thank you enough for the privileges[9]

an incredible privilege[14]

great privilege you’ve given me[1]

privileged to be here[8]

It’s a privilege to serve[13]

greatest privilege of my life[19]

The honor

what an incredible honor[9]

an honor to serve[14]

It was a great honor[2]

it’s an honor[3]

an even greater honor[2]

honor to serve[1]

Deeply honored[8]

a great honor[10]

deeply honored[5]

Personal Praise

the leadership that you’ve shown[9]

with your direction[16]

leading across the board[15]

I want to congratulate you[6]

You’re absolutely right[16]

my hat’s off to you[12]

Messages from the people, his people,
of their love and adoration:

The response is fabulous around the country.[4]

excited and enthusiastic folks are[9]

Hundreds and hundreds of people
were just so thrilled
[11]

The enthusiasm was uncontainable,
soaring into worship

It’s a joy[17]

an honor to be your steward[5]

It’s a new day[15]

Finally blossoming into a climactic benediction of worshipful praise and gratitude:

We thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us[18]

A sort of deification of national leaders can be expected after they are gone: a part of traditional reverence to the past, a respectful bow toward those who once led the most powerful nation on earth.

Still, we might expect a bit of shock when an emperor proclaims himself to be a god while he is still living.

As we learn that those same leaders were then ordered to wait on him and run beside his chariot as if they were hounds, we can begin to get the full measure of the obeisance he needed, and demanded, and got.

The dominance, the demand for personal loyalty, the need for worshipful adoration, were part of his eventual downfall.

Nearly two thousand years later, Caligula is still remembered.

He will never be remembered fondly.


Note: We thank the participants in this week’s re‑enactment:

  1. Rex W. Tillerson
  2. Steven Mnuchin
  3. James N. Mattis
  4. Jeff Sessions
  5. Ryan Zinke
  6. Sonny Perdue
  7. Wilbur Ross
  8. R. Alexander Acosta
  9. Tom Price
  10. Ben Carson
  11. Elaine L. Chao
  12. Rick Perry
  13. Betsy DeVos
  14. Mike Pompeo
  15. Nikki R. Haley
  16. Mick Mulvaney
  17. Dan Coats
  18. Reince Priebus
  19. Mike Pence

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Reining In the Insurgent FBI

For the first time in the history of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it becomes necessary for a President, a newly elected President, to fire the agency’s Director. It is politically painful. It is not an easy thing to cut short the 10 year appointment that was made by a previous President.

But newly elected President Clinton has to take action.

I called Director Sessions a few moments ago and informed him that I was dismissing him, effective immediately, as the Director of the FBI.

We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI.

President Bill Clinton, July 19, 1993

William Sessions insisted he had done nothing wrong. A report from the ethics board of the Justice Department, the Office of Professional Responsibility, said otherwise.

Officially, the primary offense had been a series of private trips using public aircraft. The trips were to private events and visits to relatives, with little side trips to minor public functions to maintain a facade. The Director had taken along his wife.

But there had also been complaints about a lack of leadership. Director Sessions had a management style often described as disconnected. He seemed to enjoy the trappings of office more than the duties.

I think about those charges: the incidents of taxpayer funding for private trips, the pattern of listless management, when I consider the more recent, stunning involvement of the FBI in the just concluded election for President.

The shock of a reverse Trumanesque election may drown out what ought to be one of the most disturbing aspects of the campaign. We can hope not.

We have had horrible Presidents before.

I would not have thought it plausible that the tragedy that was President George W. Bush would be eclipsed by a more dangerous administration. As I see it, Mr. Bush could have been a capable President if he had shown the same interest in policy as he did in baseball.

I see a dim possibility of a more constructive variation. Donald Trump, like the last Republican President, has a notoriously limited span of attention. If a similar vacuum develops, it is within the realm of imagination that a responsible member of the new staff will achieve control. Reince Preibus has been mentioned as a possible Chief-of-Staff.

Sometimes the escapism of fictional entertainment gives me a break from the disturbing patterns of contemporary conservatism, especially as conservatives are about to take control of government. Sometimes the lessons of fiction can be applied to life.

One of my favorite television programs is “Blue Bloods” with Tom Selleck as Police Commissioner Frank Reagan. Selleck may be a bit of an ass in private life, demanding and paying for water for his plants during a California drought. But his introspective television persona is near perfect art.

Some of the scenes are kind of silly. Donnie Wahlberg plays one of the Commissioner’s two sons, Detective Danny Reagan. Danny seems to run through the city streets every other episode. “Stop! Police!” he yells. Then follows up with “Hey!” He chases a suspect on a sidewalk, dodging pedestrians. “Hey!” he hollers. He rounds a corner, on the heels of the perpetrator. “Hey!” He closes in “Hey!”

Perhaps there is some reason, beyond that initial self-identification as a police officer. To the uninitiated viewer, which is to say me, the only purpose would seem be saving the pursued criminal the trouble of glancing over his shoulder. Kind of like belling the cat. The person being chased knows exactly where Detective Reagan is at any given moment.

There is a more serious objection. One basic premise is a conservative’s pet delusion. Detective Danny is only too eager to break the rules, roughing up the occasional suspect to obtain a confession, threatening a witness with bodily harm to get a much needed clue. He is constantly reined in by more cautious superiors, who none-the-less appreciate his extreme success in solving cases that are beyond the reach of more orthodox investigators.

The Commissioner himself hosts a discussion at Sunday dinner with adult kids and grandchildren. He poses the cliché we have heard so many times. Suppose the only way you can find a hidden bomb is to beat information out of a suspect. Would you break the rules to save countless lives?

The easy response, the right response, is, well, yeah for sure. I would beat the guy until he gave it up. But we should also challenge the premise. The responsible answer has to be a little more complete.

If I could save my children from serious harm by cutting off my fingers, I would do that as well. But I don’t cut off my fingers as a first response if I hear a scream, because I am sure to a moral certainty that would not help. There are effective ways to save kids. Self-mutilation is almost never one of them.

It is not intuitive, but threats and beatings are not an effective way to get at the truth. Our fight against terrorism has taught us that physical pain is effective at getting false confessions. Torture does not get us the truth. Considerable police research is going into finding what is effective, and what simply wastes time. So far, we know that ticking bombs will more quickly be found by engagement than by brutality.

Television provides weekly morality plays, hypothetical fiction that occasionally makes us think. One episode struck me as especially thoughtful.

The Police Commissioner discovers that a behind-the-scenes investigation has uncovered something damaging about a political opponent of the city’s mayor. The mayor, the commissioner’s boss, demands the information. The Commissioner refuses, even when the mayor threatens his job. Unless an investigation results in court action, nothing goes to a politician. Not if a politician is a candidate. Not if a politician is already in office. Not even if a politician is the boss.

Well, good for that fictional enforcer of the law! Prosecutors and investigators alike have always been subject to a universal ethic. Information from official investigations are not to be shared outside of court, except in those extraordinary situations where lives are at stake. And no information is to be exposed when an election might be influenced.

That is a bedrock principle. The misuse and abuse of investigatory authority is not compatible with the essential functioning of a Republic. The use of the power of investigation by politicians can effectively end democracy. The use of the power of investigation by investigators to influence elections is just as dangerous.

In July, 2016, the Director of the FBI told Congress that an investigation into the private email server owned by Hillary Clinton had uncovered nothing that would merit criminal action. Then he launched into a public scolding, a severe public reprimand of Mrs. Clinton.

With eleven days to go before the Presidential election, he sent a dramatic letter updating Republicans about possible new evidence that might reveal some criminality. The weekend before the election, he sent a final letter confirming that there was nothing new after all.

Each turn of the vicious cycle was dangerous to the democratic process. The original report was ethically wrong. The public scolding was ethically wrong. The update to the original report was ethically wrong. The update to the update to the original report was too damn little, too damn late.

Reports indicate there were even vicious circles within those vicious circles.

A renegade right wing group inside the New York office of the FBI supposedly interviewed the author of one of those many highly creative conservative research books into the evil of all things Clinton. A small group of agents wanted to use it as the basis for an active investigation connecting a host of disparate points into a collection of connected stray dots. More mature superiors and attorneys in the Department of Justice gently explained rules of evidence and vetoed the idea.

The conservative cabal of aging, rebellious agents then conducted their own disinformation campaign. They told sympathetic representatives of right wing outlets that indictments of the Clintons were imminent.

The stunning upset election of Donald Trump can’t be credited to the FBI fiasco. In a sense that is unfortunate. It is a scandal that may pass unnoticed into precedent, unnoticed until the next time.

Some defenders of Director James Comey maintain that his violation of protocol was simply an attempt to head off the disinformation campaign by a few in some corner room of the New York office of the FBI. If Director Comey was guilty of anything, it was an absence of leadership.

It brings us to the final circle within this dangerous precedent, an arc going back to a public announcement 23 years ago.

We cannot have a leadership vacuum at an agency as important to the United States as the FBI.

If necessary, the new President should remove the Director. It is doubtful that Donald Trump will see that as a clear duty.

President Obama has enough time left in office to save President Trump from that decision. He can fire Director Comey himself.

Director Comey can save both Presidents from that damaging necessity. He can do the right thing.

Along the way, a private cell of rogue agents in New York should be escorted out of the agency and away from any investigatory authority.

Forever.


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The Director’s Disfunction

The Republican Chairman of the House Committee of Government and Oversight provided the gleeful announcement.

FBI Dir just informed me, “The FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” Case reopened

Jason Chaffetz, Chairman,
   House Government & Oversight Committee

And, of course, it went forth to the campaign trail.

They are reopening the case into her criminal and illegal conduct that threatens the security of the United States of America.

Donald Trump

Well, that was bracing.

And just when we thought the firestorm was at its hottest, the Director released raw files from more than 10 years ago about Presidential pardons issued by Bill Clinton back when the new century was just beginning. Before the ancient files sank like a rock beneath the waves, the release threatened to eclipse the on and off and on controversies over emails and servers and all things electrical.

Reports are now coming in that none of the new emails were sent by Hillary Clinton, or sent to Clinton. Most or all may be duplicates of emails already reviewed. Or they may have nothing to do with anything. Nobody has read them.

So lets trot once more over the well worn ground back to the source, shall we?

Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your Committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony.

James. B. Comey, Director, FBI,
   to Republicans in Congress.

How’s that again?

…the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant…

So the news is that there is material in the form of emails. Nobody knows whether the material is relevant to Hillary Clinton, or to any other investigation. So all we know, all the FBI knows, is that there is material. Period.

…cannot predict how long it will take…

So the material that may be material to something, or may not, will be read, no matter how long it takes to read it.

…important to update your Committees…

Important to let you know that we don’t know the importance of some unread material that will eventually be read.

This would have been unprecedented, except for one.single.prior.incident.

That single precedent was established by Director Comey himself in July, when he gave Congress an update on the investigation into email messages on the private server of Hillary Clinton. The controversy was caused by her practice of deciding much later whether email messages were private or official, years after they were sent. The consensus by those who judge such things is that she should have decided beforehand, while she was sending or receiving them, rather than later.

Here’s the right way:

Let’s see, this one I just got is private, but this one I just got is official.

And here’s the wrong way:

Let’s see, this one I got years ago was private, but this one I got years ago is official.

Most of the public doesn’t seem to see the controversy. I confess to being part of that baffled majority.

In July, Director Comey reported to Congress that there was nothing that had been found that would merit any sort of criminal charge. But he added his own private opinion, which was harsh and judgmental. Boy was she ever careless.

You see, three classified email messages had been discovered, each with a special mark somewhere in a paragraph near the bottom of the first page. None of the three had been sent by Secretary Clinton, all had been sent to her. The three messages dealt with matters so harmlessly routine; an announcement of an impending retirement, a note of congratulations, the election of a foreign leader; they were found to have been classified in error. Ridiculous error.

Director Comey’s report to Congress was a first. His stern opinion that went with it was a first on top of the first. A sort of second first.

Updates to Congress on investigations had not happened before.

Not ever.

For example:

Before he became a presidential candidate, before becoming a United States Senator, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy had ordered a series of aggressive investigations into union corruption and organized crime. Years after his death details began to filter out. But during his life, Kennedy never provided updates. Not even after he had retired as Attorney General. Those were investigations and they were not to be discussed.

Ever.

For example:

Reports to Congress about on-going investigations did not even happen under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, whose behind the scenes abuses have been clarified by post obituary documentation. He blackmailed legislators, attempted to destroy the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and orchestrated civil rights abuses. There was one line he never crossed. He never provided updates to Congress regarding ongoing investigations.

Ever.

There is a reason for that. It isn’t some odd tradition that survives mostly on inertia.

Investigations by legal authorities are held to be confidential precisely because the strong arm of the law can so easily be abused, even inadvertently. Unless a case goes to trial, prosecutors and investigators keep their findings confidential. In those rare cases where they don’t they can face prosecution themselves for abusing their authority.

That’s one way we keep the Republic functioning as a democracy. Want to know why? Because unofficial findings by the government can be used to suppress opponents – or even ordinary people caught up in something innocent.

When a corruption prosecution against Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Labor failed and he was found not guilty, Raymond Donovan was justifiably angry about the lasting damage.

Which office do I go to get my reputation back?

– Raymond Donovan, May 25, 1987

At least details of that investigation were only revealed by federal authorities in court.

In 1996, Richard Jewell, a security guard, discovered a bomb just before it blew up, killing two people. He saved others, at some personal risk, by evacuating the area. For his courage, he became the subject of investigation himself. Did he plant the bomb in order to play the hero? Well, you have to investigate all possibilities, right?

Richard Jewell was named publicly as a “person of interest” in law enforcement leaks, suffering for years, even after he was publicly cleared a few months later.

Public figures are especially vulnerable, exposed as they are to public scrutiny. That is one reason long established guidelines prohibit law enforcement officials from revealing investigatory details, or from publicly charging elected officials in the weeks leading up to any election. It is as much an ethic as it is a tradition.

Banana Republic should be a trend-setting clothing outlet, not a system of government.

You don’t report on investigations to a legislature because you must not trust every elected official not to order up what should be private in order to get at an opponent.

But James Comey did report to Republicans in Congress. Then he went even farther and gave them an update. It should not have been difficult to predict that they would abuse that confidence and distort that information.

In a separate letter, Director Comey explained to FBI personnel why he wanted to update Republicans in Congress about what unknown emails had been discovered, why he needed to reveal the fact that there were no facts, why he felt it was important to tell them that he did not know of anything important to tell them.

I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.

James. B. Comey, Director, FBI,
   explaining his letter to Republicans in Congress.

So the Director wanted to set voters straight. Otherwise they might be misled.

…we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails…

The Director had not read the emails in question. Doesn’t know when he will.

…I don’t want to create a misleading impression.

No misleading impressions about the impressions that were based on unknown, unread emails. He could certainly count on Republicans to refrain from relaying his information inaccurately. He wanted these Republicans in Congress to know all that could be known about what was unknown, that was of unknown importance, that would remain unknown for an unknown period of time. Because it was important not to mislead voters just before an election.

This has been the Seinfeld controversy, based on nothing.

It turns out to be the old wry observation about Los Angeles. There is no there there.

Another Shakespearean act, Much Ado about Nothing, sound and fury signifying… well, you know.

It looks at the moment as if these new violations of established practice will not have an effect on the national election itself. We are shaken but not stirred. However, vulnerable Republicans for local office may be grateful for unexpected survival.

The presence of liberal Democrats has always inflamed the inner serial killer in some conservatives. This campaign season has seen as high a level of partisan rage as I can recall.

But Director Comey, in his low key, professional way, has blazed a trail into an ethical wilderness.

Once the dust has settled, the course of action most consistent with his previous image of integrity will be quietly to submit his resignation to the new President.

Whoever she may turn out to be.


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