Roundtable – The James Comey Firing

The Roundtable is a conversation about the news among Torchlight’s writers and editors. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and all citations and links were added after the fact. The conversation happened May 14.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Welcome to the Roundtable, Torchlight’s weekly discussion of news and events. With us this week are Politics Editor Christopher Dahlin, Junior Managing Editor David Schmitz, our Tech Lead James Griffith, Artistic Director Blake Smisko, Contributor Adam Lavigne, and myself, Senior Managing Editor Josh Kyu Saiewitz. I’m filling in this week for our Editor-in-Chief, Tom Rich. Today’s topic: the Comey firing, and the flurry of updates we’ve had since this story broke Thursday.

By now most people are aware that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last Tuesday. The reason given, in a recommendation letter from Deputy AG Rosenstein and AG Sessions, was Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation during the 2016 campaign, but that has since been disputed by Rosenstein and the White House itself, with Trump and WH spokespeople basically admitting that the firing was meant to change the way the investigation into connections between Russia and Trump and his campaign was progressing or presented.

With all that context, let’s try and break this down piece by piece.

Let’s start with how we feel about the Russia investigation so far. Do they really seem to be closing in on Trump, or was this another temper tantrum about loyalty and TV ratings?

Christopher Dahlin

Well, it’s hard to say. Trump doesn’t exactly have a bevy of perspective here. Also, despite what anyone feels about Comey one way or another, he sure as hell isn’t telling the President about the status of the investigation. The Senate investigation also seems to be moving apace, or at least acting seriously about it. So it is definitely a tantrum, but he also may just be worried about the investigation, or worried about the coverage of the investigation. Trump is an enigma unto himself, after all.

David Schmitz

It seems to me that the investigations are churning up something, and since we don’t know what that something is quite yet, it was rather convenient that Trump could attempt to quash the primary source of investigation. If there’s nothing to hide, then the appropriate response would be to encourage an open look at all aspects and if little improprieties are found they can be dealt with. The behavior exhibited thus far by the administration just screams out “Stop looking at me, I’m horrible and disgusting, you’ll hate me if you keep looking.” Comey, for all his faults, kept looking.

James Griffith

I think it’s impossible to know given the available information.

Adam Lavigne

So far I would say I don’t think Trump is actually capable of being that concerned about the investigation outside of how he feels it makes him look. As far as we know he’s never faced any kind of real punishment for anything he’s ever done. At worst his brand or his name suffers and that pisses him off. It’s possible my read is off, but I really think he’s just angry that he’s being investigated at all.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

What do we think of the argument that the left shouldn’t be angry at Trump firing Comey because they, too, called for him to be fired? Is the left just reflexively opposing Trump here?

David Schmitz

I don’t know how other people function exactly, but I am capable of having multiple opinions about people, things, and events that are neither contradictory nor difficult to understand. Not liking Comey interfering in our national presidential election but also supporting his apparent dogged investigation into Russian ties of the Trump administration and campaign is entirely possible and I’m doing it right now.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

David, you can either walk or chew bubblegum. It’s a first thought past the post system.

James Griffith

Trump and Sarah Huckabee Sanders demolished that argument immediately after they fired Comey. Even without their confirmation that it was about the Russia investigation–why wasn’t he fired as soon as Trump took office if he was so concerned about the behavior that he praised Comey for with regards to Clinton’s emails? Clinton’s emails are so goddamn irrelevant.

Christopher Dahlin

Yeah, no. That’s stupid. Comey did something seriously wrong, and deserved to be fired for it. (Trump praised him for doing that specific thing, by the way.) Since he wasn’t fired for that, firing him to hinder an investigation does not suddenly make it better.

 

Adam Lavigne

The whole argument kind of hinges on the idea that it’s impossible for individuals to hold complex positions and context is irrelevant. Comey did a massively awful thing, ignoring protocol in an attempt to swing an election. This is pretty much unheard of and is grounds for being fired. He was also investigating Trump, and that is precisely why he was removed, so someone more sympathetic could be put in his place.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

It’s entirely possible that Trump could put the most awful, unqualified crony in as replacement–imagine FBI Director Guiliani–but he also might respond to the enormous (and apparently unexpected) public outcry by putting in someone who seems like a straight shooter. If he does, does that remove the need for a special prosecutor, or does this firing invariably taint any future FBI investigation by way of intimidation and precedent?

Adam Lavigne

There’s no real reason it should remove the need for a special prosecutor. We can both have a competent non-partisan FBI director and a special prosecutor. The only reason to avoid appointing one is because someone really would not like what they found. Additionally, since Trump has exercised his capacity to fire the head of the FBI, it taints the decision since every future appointee knows they only serve as long as Trump is happy with them.

Christopher Dahlin

The problem with that is that the special prosecutor serves at the pleasure of the AG, in this case Jeff Sessions who has recused himself in much the same way that Trump has divested himself of interest in his companies.

The way I see it is that the FBI is more than likely pissed at him, the Senate Intelligence committee actually seems to be making progress, so while I would like a special prosecutor, I think that the whole “loyalty oath” and “I asked if I was under investigation (Oh wait no I didn’t)” are bigger issues currently.

David Schmitz

I see all of this as part and parcel of the demise of our national institutions. How do we trust what any of these parts of our government are doing in the future if they are required to swear fealty to the single person rather than the country as a whole? I saw it elsewhere, we used to be worried about “party over country,” now we have to be worried about “Trump over everything”.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

A lot of pundits are asking whether or not this firing has triggered a Constitutional crisis–what do you guys think? (Or is this a meaningless frame?)

James Griffith

Kind of? In that the Constitution is only equipped to work when there are good faith actors in place willing to enforce it. Congress could get rid of Trump and several other members of his cabinet on obstruction of justice charges starting tomorrow if they had the desire.

David Schmitz

How far back do we go to find the initiation of the Constitutional crisis though? This event? McConnell putting on hold Supreme Court nominations? Full obstruction of Obama policy? W. Bush being installed via SCOTUS decision? That’s just the last ~16 years.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

So we’ve been in a state of crisis for a long time? That may be true, even if it sort of devalues the idea of a crisis.

Christopher Dahlin

Yeah, the problem with government is that at some point, you require good faith actors, and we basically have the bare minimum that we need at this point.

It’s a Constitutional Crisis inasmuch as it demonstrates another limitation of our government functions. America will be here tomorrow, with it’s institutions just that much weaker.  

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Let me ask you this: why is there so much attention on the Russia investigation when Trump could be impeached for his violations of the emoluments clause on day 1? Is the idea that if we find some kind of smoking gun with regards to Russia, the right will turn on Trump and force GOP leadership to take action, whereas nobody cares about conflicts of interest and graft?

James Griffith

I think that’s the gist of it yeah.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Why the hell does nobody care about conflicts of interest and graft? Alternatively, what makes you think people on the right aren’t going to dispute Russia evidence, or stand by Trump anyway?

James Griffith

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Adam Lavigne

As depressing as it is, that has become the default view of politicians. “All politicians are crooks” is not an uncommon viewpoint in America and most people don’t pay enough attention to the news to realize this is most definitely not just business as usual. This viewpoint has been advanced for a reason and we’re seeing the effects of it now. Collusion with a hostile foreign power to undermine our democracy is much more attention grabbing and elevates it to another level in popular discourse. I think they will stand by Trump still mind, they already have effectively, but the more we can make voters angry, the better.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

So you think the right will never ever leave Trump, and we just need to keep riling up Democrats?

James Griffith

Yes.

Christopher Dahlin

Additionally, Republicans have been much more against Russia in the past than graft and personal enrichment.

Adam Lavigne

Independents too. And I think it’s the scenario we need to operate under anyway. We obviously cannot assume they’ll suddenly be good faith actors at any point.

David Schmitz

How’s it go? IOKIYAR. They’ve got all branches of government, no need to rock the boat now. The voters are starting to push back, we see this with the multitude of townhalls getting more and more testy and now the poll out that 78% of Americans want a special investigator to take on the Russia investigation. So, we’re getting there but the power is still in the hands of those who do not want to change the status quo of administration.

James Griffith

We win elections when Democrats show up to the polls.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

What do we make of Trump meeting with the Russian Ambassador and the Russian Foreign Minister in the Oval Office the day after the firing? He’s fucking with us, right? He’s gotta be fucking with us.

James Griffith

And Kissinger. Don’t forget Kissinger.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Right.

Adam Lavigne

I think he’s incapable of realizing how bad that looks. Trump thinks these are legitimately awesome people and has no idea why no one else gets it. My first instinct tends to be that Trump has no real view of optics outside of petty displays of superiority and just does whatever he feels like when he feels like.

David Schmitz

Well, he had to get the recording device in there with plausible deniability in tact. I’m half joking there. I would point to the optics just not being a thing for Trump’s ego to care about at all, until it all backfires and he has to instinctively lash out on Twitter. Again.

James Griffith

Honestly at this point I’m thinking Trump’s senile and trying to ascribe any long term motive to his actions is a path to madness.

David Schmitz

Take what he says and does seriously, if not literally, as we’ve learned throughout this entire ordeal.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Alright, lightning round.

From 0-100, rate the chances you think we have of getting a special prosecutor for the Russia investigation before the 2018 election.

Blake Smisko

17

David Schmitz

35

Adam Lavigne

40

James Griffith

99% because nothing matters and everything is awful so why not dream?

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

I think David was the closest without going over.

Christopher Dahlin

Agreed.

David Schmitz

I love winning.

James Griffith

I think anything under 50% is pessimistic.

Christopher Dahlin

If there is a breakthrough, it won’t be through a prosecutor.

David Schmitz

Agreed, the Senate is our best hope right now.

James Griffith

Comey’s sacking actually roused some Republican politicians and changed public opinion more than anything else I’ve seen happen so far.

Blake Smisko

I think something will happen but I don’t see the DOJ doing much.

Adam Lavigne

I won’t have much faith in republicans until they start actually doing something instead of just wringing their hands.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Next lightning round question. Gut reaction: is Trump knowingly involved in Russian collusion, or a useful idiot who turned a blind eye to his campaign people? Or is he just so stupid he’s covering up a crime that didn’t happen?

James Griffith

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

David Schmitz

Closer to useful idiot who never bothered to open his eyes to his campaign people. He wasn’t supposed to win the Republican nomination, so who cares if those people latching on were crooks?

Adam Lavigne

That’s a bit complex. I think Trump is in bed with Russia. Well, know really. He has enough financial ties there that have been stated by his family and himself that it’s impossible he does not have conflicts of interest. I do not think he particularly worked with Russia while campaigning, as I’m not sure if he would be able to resist crowing about that. I think he is ultimately more concerned with people talking negatively about him than any crime; It’s the only bad thing that ever happens to him.

James Griffith

Everything is so ridiculous all of the above are plausible.

Christopher Dahlin

Yeah, I’m in the all of the above boat.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

Okay, so some of us are not sure, some of us have abandoned all hope of a rational universe. Cool.

Last lightning round question: who would you pick for FBI director and who do you think Trump will pick?

Adam Lavigne

Chris Christie, just long enough to see the glint in his eyes before he’s immediately fired. More seriously, Yates is of course a strong option. I assume Trump will just go with Giuliani.

Christopher Dahlin

McCabe would be a good choice. More likely some crony, Giuliani is likely, I guess. I don’t want to think about that.

David Schmitz

I’ll take Loretta Lynch for FBI director, please. Pretty sure Trump will pick Giuliani who won’t get confirmed and then he’ll pick Wayne LaPierre who will sail through confirmation.

James Griffith

I’m not really up to speed enough on who all the qualified candidates are to have a preference, I liked what McCabe had to say in the hearing but it seems like he’s angling to go out in a blaze of glory rather than for a promotion. Who will Trump pick? Arpaio or Clarke would cause me the most anxiety so let’s go with them.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

I think the best choice with a chance is probably McCabe, but knowing Trump we’re looking at FBI Director Hannibal Lecter.

David Schmitz

Hannibal Lecter, played by whom though?

James Griffith

Actually Trump has mob ties, FBI Director Mafioso. That would fit his trend of appointing people directly opposed to the institutions they’re running.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

At any rate, this certainly seems like the situation is getting worse, not better, as Trump continues to test the strength of our institutions. Final thoughts on what all this means going forward for Trump, the investigation, the state of our Republic?

James Griffith

😆 🔫

David Schmitz

We are heading closer and faster to full Constitutional destruction. But we don’t know what happens or how to go about rebuilding once it does happen, so we’ll probably just slog through til 2018, Democrats will get the House back, file articles of impeachment 30 times because the Senate won’t convict, then finally just vote for full Democratic control in 2020 which will last 4 years before we do it all over again!

Adam Lavigne

Republicans have been eroding our institutions for decades now in an attempt to hold power even as their base declines, Trump has just caused a pretty massive acceleration. Unless we do something about him and really make Republicans scared for their seats, I assume they will institute massive voter suppression which depending on the scale could be an effective death of the republic. I don’t know how likely a real investigation is until 2018 is though.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz

So despite how alarming this firing is, sounds like we’re going to remain in a holding pattern until 2018 at least. That’s all the time we have today; thanks for a lively conversation, everyone!

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