Trump’s War on Truth – Year 3 Patriotism – his last refuge

President Donald Trump says the whistle-blower whose complaint triggered impeachment hearings is treasonous. So is Adam Schiff, chair of the committee investigating the complaint. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hates America because she is pushing ahead with impeachment.

The president seems determined to prove Samuel Johnson’s adage that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

Trump’s claim about treason is self-evidently untrue. Treason is the only crime in the Constitution and the requirements are very specific – levying war against the country or giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The whistleblower, Schiff and Pelosi did none of those things. They did the opposite. 

(Illustration by Steve Edwards)

The only way Trump can reach his conclusion is to define patriotism as synonymous with fealty and to equate the welfare of the presidency and the country with the welfare of the one man he cares about.

That kind of reasoning worked for monarchs, but it is antithetical to the president of a republic. When Pelosi reminded Americans recently about Benjamin Franklin’s famous words outside the constitutional convention, she was making an important point.

“Well Doctor,” a woman asked Franklin, “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”

It’s easy to forget 232 years later that the Founding Fathers were deeply worried about a president who claimed the powers of a king because they had just thrown off a king.

Trump claims the powers of a monarch. He argues the House impeachment process is illegitimate and a witch-hunt. His lawyers argue in court that neither he nor his aides nor his former aides can be required to answer to Congress. They also argue he enjoys “temporary presidential immunity” from investigations and prosecution, even if he were to murder someone on Fifth Avenue.

Stars and Stripes

The stars and stripes decorate the cover of the forthcoming fall issue of GJR. It is an issue that celebrates the patriotic work of the Stars and Stripes news organization, from its birth in southern Missouri during the Civil War, to Bill Mauldin’s celebration of Willie and Joe in World War II, to its robust coverage today of the world-wide impact of American power.

The history of the Stars and Stripes is an apt reminder that no one party, or ideology or leader has a monopoly on patriotism. Too often conservatives, hardhats and Trumpists have defined patriotism as “love it or leave it.” Too often liberals have looked at our nation’s sins – from slavery to sexism to unprincipled foreign wars – and stood stone silent during the National Anthem.

We should remember what the 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville said: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”

Great patriots aren’t just Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. They include the great abolitionists, suffragettes and anti-war leaders who sought to make a more perfect union. They include the  Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Betty Friedan. All put the advancement of their fellow citizens ahead of their self-interest.

Call self-centered 

Trump’s call to the president of the Ukraine is devoid of patriotism. It is entirely self-interested.

Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the Democratic presidential candidate he was most worried about, former Vice President Joe Biden. And Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid the Ukrainians needed to defend themselves against Vladimir Putin, whose irregulars are fighting a war in the eastern part of the country.

So Trump was withholding taxpayer money appropriated by Congress for national security and holding it over the head of a foreign leader to get dirt on his political opponent. It’s an echo of 2016 when Trump famously asked, “Russia, if you’re listening” and his son exclaimed “I love it” at the prospect of getting dirt from Russia at Trump Tower. Asking foreign governments to help in an election seems like a family trait.

In this “perfect” call to the Ukrainian president, Trump put it this way: “I would like you to do us a favor though……Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”

Worse than Nixon

This is worse than former President Richard Nixon, in some ways. At least Nixon didn’t personally order the burglars to the Watergate and his lieutenants used campaign funds to pay for the black bag job in search of dirt. Trump used taxpayer money to pressure – or should we say extort or bribe – the Ukrainian president to give him a thing of value – dirt to win an election.

Not only may that be illegal, but it is an impeachable violation of the Constitution’s sacred command in Article II that the president “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The actual patriots of the Ukraine story are Ambassador William B. Taylor, a West Point graduate, one-time member of the 82nd Airborne and career diplomat, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union and who earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, and former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whose parents fled the Soviet Union and Nazis and who was removed as ambassador to Ukraine after she wouldn’t play ball with the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, by investigating the Bidens.

All three testified to the House despite White House pressure to shut them up.  And the story they told left no doubt but that Trump was insisting on a quid pro quo.

Alternative reality of Trump Twitter-feed

Meanwhile Trump continues to fabricate an alternative reality for his hard-core supporters. In that alternative media universe, the whistle-blower’s complaint is “so inaccurate (fraudulent?)” In fact, sworn testimony of White House and State Department officials has confirmed all the particulars of the complaint.

The New York Times investigated Trump’s alternative Twitter universe and found Trump had retweeted a false conspiracy theory about the Ukraine whistle-blower with the hashtag #FakeWhistleblower. It claimed there was an anti-Trump cabal within the government. In the hours after Trump retweeted the hashtag last month, Twitter readers used the hashtag more the 1,200 times per hour.

The effect of this and other Trump tweets, the Times found, is a “frenetic life cycle of conspiracy-driven propaganda, fakery and hate in the age of the first Twitter presidency. Mr. Trump, whose own tweets have warned of deep-state plots against him, accused the House speaker of treason and labeled Republican critics ‘human scum,’ has helped spread a culture of suspicion and distrust of facts into the political mainstream.”

Now the American people will get a chance to hear public testimony from the true patriots – Taylor, Vindman, and Yovanovitch. It will be a test of our republic whether people believe the patriots risking their careers by testifying about the president’s misdeeds or believe instead the unsourced, invented conspiracy theories the president broadcasts in his alternative Twitter world. 

It is the patriotic duty, the constitutional duty of the American media to provide the people with the news and facts they need to make this judgment. And it is the patriotic duty of every American to extract the facts and the truth from the blizzard of false White House claims.

We must take care to preserve what Benjamin Franklin gave us.

William H. Freivogel is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review and a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Trump’s War on Truth – Year 3 Comey did the right thing disclosing Trump’s obstruction

James Comey acted ethically, morally, legally and rightly when he disclosed to The New York Times in 2017 that President Trump had told him to “let…go” of the criminal investigation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

After all, by the time the former FBI director released the information, Trump already had taken two of multiple acts of obstruction. Trump had not only interfered with Comey to get Flynn off the hook, but the president also had fired Comey after he didn’t clear Flynn.

Despite Comey’s strong justification for releasing the information about presidential wrong-doing, he has received tepid support from the mainstream press in the face of the harsh criticism in Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s Aug. 29 report. 

The news organizations that should be supporting Comey’s decision to reveal Trump’s obstruction have instead cowered on the sidelines. The New York Times and Washington Post have not run staff editorials, as of Labor Day, even though they plastered Comey’s disclosures across their pages when they were made in the spring of 2017. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also has been silent.

This is either lack of courage, intellectual confusion or the failure to see Comey’s disclosure in the context of history.

America’s press and democracy depend on government officials violating the rules and sometimes the laws to reveal a president’s or other government official’s wrongdoing.

Think about the last half century – Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, NSA wiretapping, NSA data collection, WikiLeaks. Think John Dean, Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden and Mark Felt aka Deep Throat, himself an FBI head and the most famous confidential source in history. 

Would the Washington Post of the 1970s have sat silently by if the Justice Department had criticized Felt for helping the Post uncover Richard Nixon’s Watergate illegalities?

Just about every reporter who has worked in Washington has tried to persuade a government official to violate the government rules by leaking important information about government wrong-doing. The resulting stories often end abuses and make government work better and more justly.

When Ronald Reagan took over the presidency almost four decades ago, we at the Post-Dispatch were able to persuade Justice Department and EPA officials to leak information showing the Reagan political appointees had intervened to end a criminal prosecution against top McDonnell Douglas executives, to switch the government’s position from support to opposition of the St. Louis desegregation plan and to weaken the environmental response to toxic waste sites like Missouri’s dioxin contamination. None of this would have been known without government officials violating rules like Comey did.

The New York Times, Washington Post and other mainstream media readily took the bait on the IG report. The Times wrote about the IG’s “stinging rebuke.” Newsday editorialized about the “hubris of James Comey.”  The New York Sun concluded Trump was right to fire Comey. Right-wing editorial pages went much farther, with the New York Post writing about Comey”s Road to Disgrace.

No surprise that the obstructor-in-chief took it a step farther in a tweet. “Perhaps never in the history of our Country has someone been more thoroughly disgraced and excoriated than James Comey in the just released Inspector General’s Report. He should be ashamed of himself!”

It is true the IG sharply criticized Comey.  Horowitz said Comey “violated applicable policies and his Employment Agreement,” failed to “immediately alert the FBI” that he had given his lawyers material with six words classsified CONFIDENTIAL, and had engaged in “unauthorized disclosure of sensitive information about the Flynn investigation.”

But did Comey violate the law? No.

Did he lie to investigators? No.

Did he leak classified information to the press? No.

And what was it he disclosed about the Flynn investigation?  It was that the president of the United States had tried to get him to drop it, an act tantamount to obstruction of justice. Comey’s disclosure was a public service that intentionally triggered the Mueller special counsel investigation that turned up all the instances of obstruction by Trump that followed that first one.

Trump trying to fire Mueller. Trying to get the White House counsel to lie about firing Mueller. Trying to get the White House counsel to create a false document to cover up trying to fire Mueller. Trying to get his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about negotiating for Trump Tower Moscow deep into the 2016 election campaign. Refusing to appear to answer questions in person from the special counsel, failing to be truthful in his responses and then refusing to answer follow-up questions.

Benjamin Wittes, the editor of Lawfare, demolished Horowitz’s case against Comey writing he is baffled at “The inspector general of the United States Department of Justice taking the position that a witness to gross misconduct by the president of the United States has a duty to keep his mouth shut about what he saw.” https://www.lawfareblog.com/what-comey-email-report-really-says

Would the nation really be better off if Comey had not alerted the public to the president’s improper and possibly illegal actions?  Would the nation be better off if there hadn’t been a Mueller investigation with its trove of presidential wrongdoing?

The IG report centered on seven memos Comey wrote after meeting with Trump including the document where Comey writes Trump said Flynn “didn’t do anything wrong”…. He said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/4442900-Ex-FBI-Director-James-Comey-s-memos.html

Comey never has lied about what he did with these documents, which he considered personal rather than official documents. He kept the documents at home in his safe with a copy at work. After Trump fired him, Comey gave the document about dropping the Flynn investigation to a law professor to give to the Times’ Michael Schmidt. Comey hoped the subsequent Times story would lead to a special prosecutor and it did.

Horowitz claims the documents were official documents, not personal documents and therefore shouldn’t be been released under department policy. Wittes says Horowitz is arguably right because the government has such stringent rules about documents. But Wittes adds, “Keeping or retaining personal copies of unclassified government records is hardly a big deal.”

And remember this is a document that recorded a possible illegal act by the president.

Horowitz also blasts Comey for not immediately returning the documents after six words were retroactively classified at the lowest classification level of CONFIDENTIAL. But Wittes points out that the belated classification – ironically decided by FBI officials Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, whom Trump considers part of the Deep State conspiracy against him – was overly cautious. In fact a later court ruling on the classification left only one word classified – the name of a country. And the day after Comey learned of the classification decision he told Congress about it. That did not satisfy Horowitz.

Finally, Horowitz criticizes Comey for releasing sensitive information about the Flynn investigation. But, as Wittes demonstrates, former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates had already made all but one of those details about the Flynn investigation public in congressional testimony.

The one fact Yates did not reveal had nothing to do with Flynn’s violation of the law. It was that the president had tried to kill the criminal investigation of his friend.

And that’s a fact the American people were entitled to know.