President Trump has today rightly complained that he has been treated abysmally by the US political and media elite ever since he became President in January.
The two false “scandals” of the last two days, the nasty and frankly sinister story that he endangered national security by leaking ‘highly classified information’ to the Russians, and the even more absurd story that his essentially innocuous comments to former FBI Director Comey during their meeting on 14th February 2017 amount to obstruction of justice and qualify as grounds for impeachment, are cases in point.
However there is no escaping the fact this most inexperienced and impulsive of Presidents is the author of many of his own problems. His mishandling of Comey is a case in point.
I reiterate my view that Comey’s sacking was overdue and necessary.
Putting aside Comey’s mishandling of the Hillary Clinton emails affair, the fact is that he has been carrying on a counter-espionage investigation looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia for 8 months, and a criminal investigation for a possible breach of the Logan Act by President Trump’s former National Security Adviser General Flynn for 3 months.
In those times neither of these investigations seems to have gone anywhere.
In the case of the first, we hear regular as clockwork statements from various people privy to the the results of the investigation that no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has come to light.
In the case of the second, instead of charges under the Logan Act the investigation of General Flynn seems to have gone off on a complete tangent, with talk of Flynn now being prosecuted on wholly unrelated charge under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
However despite the fact that neither of these investigations has resulted in charges, or in the finding of any evidence upon which charges might be brought, or – in the case of the first – even in the discovery of a crime which might be prosecuted, the investigations instead of being wrapped up and brought to a close, have been allowed to grind on endlessly as they degenerate into fishing expeditions.
In the meantime, because of Comey’s failure or inability to bring the investigations to a conclusion, a feeding frenzy has taken hold, in which the reputations of US citizens against whom there is no evidence of any wrongdoing are being continuously and publicly trashed.
Beyond this there is the fact – which I have discussed previously – that these same US citizens have as a result of these investigations had to endure months of unwarranted surveillance, including during the election period.
Meanwhile, as the investigations Comey has presided over have been going nowhere, Comey has resisted requests that the FBI investigate leaks of classified material which have done huge damage. This notwithstanding that these leaks – unlike the allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia – involve what is indisputably a crime of which there are indisputably offenders.
If Trump was undoubtedly correct to sack Comey, his handling of Comey has however in almost every other respect been nothing short of disastrous.
Firstly though the reported words used by Trump during his conversation with Comey on 14th February 2017 by no stretch constitute obstruction of justice, the key point is that it was a huge mistake for Trump to meet with Comey at all.
Given the hostility to Trump from all sides of the US political establishment, Trump should have realised that meeting Comey whilst the investigations were underway risked exposing him to charges of putting pressure on Comey to curtail the investigations.
In these sort of situations the appearance of propriety is almost as important as the fact of propriety itself. At the very least by meeting Comey – and doing so repeatedly – Trump has put himself in a situation where his actions are open to being misconstrued, whether fairly or not.
Secondly, having been provided by Assistant Attorney General Rod Rothenstein with perfectly valid – indeed unchallengeable – grounds to sack Comey on the grounds of Comey’s mishandling of the Hillary Clinton emails investigation, Trump promptly undermined his own case and gave ammunition to his critics by admitting that the “Russia thing” was in his mind when he sacked Comey.
Trump also contrived to make matters worse by writing – pointlessly and unnecessarily – in his letter sacking Comey that Comey had thrice assured him he was not himself under investigation. Needless to say that made everyone assume (falsely) that he was.
Last but not least was the manner of the sacking.
Instead of inviting Comey to the White House, asking him to comment on the Rothenstein memo, and then dismissing him afterwards, Trump cruelly and unnecessarily sacked Comey without speaking to him first, or warning him about what was coming, despatching instead a former bodyguard to hand deliver a letter informing Comey of it.
The result is that the proper and necessary decision to sack Comey – who had lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington at the time of his sacking – has been botched, and has morphed into a major and completely unnecessary scandal.
Though the harm done is considerable, it is not in my opinion either mortal or irreversible. There is still time to turn things round.
However if disaster is to be avoided then the President has to change his ways, and has to realise that he cannot go on trying to run the government in the same seat-of-the-pants way that he ran his business.
Above all that means the President needs to get himself some proper professional advice and help, since it is clear that his existing advisers – Bannon, Kushner and Preibus – are simply not up to the job of doing it.
As in the realm of foreign policy, where because of his lack of experience and because he has listened to bad advice, Trump has also made some extraordinary mistakes, there are plenty of tough minded political professionals in Washington who are sympathetic to Trump’s views and who would be willing and even anxious to help him. If Trump can persuade himself to find them and listen to them, he will be able to avoid the repeated unenforced errors he has made in his handling of Comey’s case.
What Trump needs to do is consult widely, hunt these people down and bring them into the White House. There are plenty of grizzled political veterans in Washington like former Representative Ron Paul who if asked would help him do that.
In the realm of foreign policy Trump may – more one suspects by accident than design – have stumbled on a professional adviser in the person of Rex Tillerson, who over the last few weeks has emerged as the dominant voice in foreign policy, and who seems to be both realistic and capable.
For the sake of his Presidency Trump now needs to find such a person to help him get a grip on domestic policy and to find his way round the bureaucracy in Washington. There is still time to do this, but it is running out fast.