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The Year of the Personnel Blunder

By firing FBI Director James Comey, Trump set in motion a chain of events that could threaten his presidency.

December 21, 2017

It’s hard to remember now, but for nearly the first four months of Donald Trump’s presidency, there were several stories contesting for predominance. There was the repeal of Obamacare, the Muslim travel ban, the unprecedented conflicts of interest, and even the attacks on “fake news.”

But that all changed May 9th in what may one day be seen as one of the biggest personnel blunders in American history: Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Since then, trying to keep up with all the news in the wake of Comey’s firing – the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, Comey’s congressional testimony about Trump asking the FBI Director to publicly clear him and to drop the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the indictments of Paul Manafort and his aide, Rick Gates, and the guilty pleas of George Papadopoulos and Flynn, has been a bit like trying to sip water from a fire hose.

Rather than a simple chronology of the year’s events, which relies on the reader to make connections between disparate elements, the following is a thematic review of the Russia probe, enabling the reader to more clearly understand the contours of the landscape.

Justice as Personal Privilege

James Comey learned he was out of a job while speaking to FBI agents in Los Angeles. As he stood at the lectern, a television behind him flashed the news he had been dismissed. He thought it was a joke at first. It wasn’t. 

The firing touched off a sequence of events that for a moment seemed as if they might threaten the Trump presidency, and in fact, they may still,

To some, Comey’s firing appeared as a desperate final act by Trump, scrambling to derail a criminal and civil investigation into his associates, his business, his family, and even himself. It immediately raised the prospect that the president had obstructed justice—that he was perverting the fair and dispassionate rule of law to protect his own interests.  

It didn’t help matters when evidence quickly emerged that Trump had a sense of entitlement when it came to federal law enforcement.

For instance, the day after Comey’s dismissal, Trump held a meeting in the Oval Office with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and its then-Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, who, it seemed, had met with almost every senior official of Trump’s campaign. As if these two sophisticated operatives had spent the last 24 hours in a cave, Trump told his guests, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

He followed that up with an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt. Donald Trump – Donald Trump – first called Comey a “showboat” and a “grandstander.” Then he added, “I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact 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.” 

In June, Comey told his side of the story in testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It all started over dinner in the White House Green Room seven days after Trump took office, the former FBI Director began. Comey was a reluctant diner, especially when the president told him the dinner would only include the two of them. “My instincts told me that the one-on-one setting, and the pretense that this was our first discussion about my position, meant the dinner was, at least in part, an effort to have me ask for my job and create some sort of patronage relationship. That concerned me greatly…”

His reservations were justified. Trump laid it on the line: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”

On Valentine’s Day, the President again drew Comey into a private conversation, this time to discuss the fate of his recently fired National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn. “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," Trump said, according to Comey. The FBI Director provided no assurances.

Yet by the time Comey described these overtures, Trump’ s impulsive firing of Comey had only put him deeper in the hole. At least when he was appointed Special Counsel after Comey’s firing, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was universally hailed as the perfect person to lead the probe into “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and any matters that…may arise…directly from the investigation.”

But Mueller’s selection did not temper the President’s inclination to view the Justice Department as his personal fiefdom. It only ratcheted up his anger that the rule of law was not bending to his will.

In July, Trump went on a stunning three-day tantrum against his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who long before Comey was fired, recused himself from Russia-related matters. Sessions’ correct decision not to control the Russia investigation, which, in part, led to Mueller’s appointment, infuriated Trump. ”Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else,” Trump told the New York Times.

A day later, he chastised him in a tweet: “Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are E-mails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!” Trump’s orders to the Justice Department were clear: investigate my defeated political opponent. Sessions obligingly threw his boss a bone when he announced that he had ordered prosecutors to look into Clinton’s potential crimes.

Yet, Trump remains incapable or unwilling to comprehend that the Justice Department is not his personal bludgeon. “The saddest thing is that because I’m the President of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump lamented in a November radio interview. "I am not supposed to be involved with the FBI.”

Trump’s statement could be taken as relatively benign were it not for the fact that he soon revealed his motive “to be involved” with law enforcement. “[W]hy aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her, the dossier?," Trump asked, referring to a dossier about Trump and Russia paid for by a law firm on behalf Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee. “I’m very unhappy with it that the Justice Department isn’t going … I am not supposed to be doing the kind of things that I would love to be doing. And I am very frustrated by it.”

At year’s end, there were a flurry of reports that Trump was preparing to fire Mueller, But Trump himself, as well as his White House lawyers, flatly denied a dismissal was in the offing.

As is so often in the case with Trump, what may be true in late December, may no longer be true six weeks or six months from now. For Trump, the fair administration justice is a matter of his personal needs. He is willing to use every bit of presidential power – soft and hard – to twist it his way.

President Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s adage: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Today’s president is attempting to create new rules of geometry: “The arc of justice bends for Trump.”

Enter the Russians Part I

In 2017, the colorful characters got the attention. The voting machines got short shrift.

By mid-2016, state election officials knew there had been efforts to penetrate voting systems. Evidence was mounting that Russian actors were attempting to access voter registration systems in several states. But voters were confidently assured that all was well. The vote counting machines were almost all air-gapped, meaning they were not connected to any network from which they could manipulated. Hacking the vote count was virtually impossible, we were told.

In early January, the nation’s intelligence agencies bluntly reported: “Russian intelligence accessed elements of multiple state or local electoral boards. Since early 2014, Russian intelligence has researched US electoral processes and related technology and equipment.” However, the agencies asserted that the efforts did not affect systems involved in vote tallying.

In May, the plot thickened. That month the National Security Agency (NSA) completed a classified report on the extent of the effort to interfere with the vote. The report was leaked to the Intercept in June. It demonstrated that Russian efforts to infiltrate voting systems had homed in on voter registration systems.  

One company, VR Systems, which provides voter registration look-up tools, enabling people to vote on Election Day, was penetrated by Russian operatives in 2016. VR Systems had contracts in eight states: California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.

In September, The New York Times sent reporters to Durham, North Carolina, a swing state that used VR Systems, and found lingering questions about the 2016 election. Ballots may have been counted accurately, but voters were deterred: some were turned away from the polls due to registration problems, others were sent to the wrong polling stations, or told they had already voted. “It felt like tampering, or some kind of cyberattack,” Susan Greenhalgh, a troubleshooter at a non-partisan election monitoring group, recalled about the calls she received from Durham on Election Day.  

The Times found that VR Systems was not the only vendor hit by Russian hackers. They found two more, raising the total to 39 states.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security announced in June  that it had evidence 21 states had been targeted by the Russians. Yet, it took DHS until September to call the 21 states to inform them of Russia’s efforts. As the year drew to a close, barely anything had been done to deal with the problem. In December, Homeland Security announced the creation of an information sharing council. And a bipartisan group of Senators announced a plan to introduce legislation to help states enhance security against cyberattacks.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported: “One former senior U.S. official expressed concern that the Russians now have three years to build on their knowledge of U.S. voting systems before the next presidential election, and there is every reason to believe they will use what they have learned in future attacks.”

And where was presidential leaderhip on this issue? Nowhere to be found. Trump essentially ignored the unanimous concern of the intelligence community about Russian hacking. Instead, in May, he unveiled the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The panel was the fulfillment of both a cherished fetish and fantasy by some conservatives: that there is widespread in-person voting fraud. Trump himself has fallen for this myth, claiming variously that he would have won the popular vote were it not for voter fraud, and that he would have won New Hampshire had not “thousands” of people been “brought in on buses” from Massachusetts to vote illegally in the Granite State.

Enter the Russians Part II

Machines may be necessary to run election systems, but our brains make the decisions. And those decisions are based on what information our brains receive. And in 2016, Russia attempted to further pollute a political discourse that was already polarized and fetid.

2016 was the year of email hacks and leaks. That was the year candidate Trump declared “I love Wikileaks,” and he called upon Russia to hack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

To a great extent, 2017 was the year the press and social media began to grapple with the fallout from the mistakes of the previous year. For instance, Thomas Patterson, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy’s School, did an extensive content analysis of 2016 prediential election coverage. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump?” he asked. “It’s a question that political reporters made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign.”

For the press, which eagerly gobbled up every Wikileak and hacked email from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) or John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign manager, the reckoning has been scattershot. Protected by the First Amendment, there is virtually no way to hold newspaper editors to public account in either a congressional hearing or in court. Whatever thinking has been done on the press’s role has occurred behind closed doors or in occasional opinion pieces.

But in July, one former DNC staffer and two Democratic donors sued Trump adviser Roger Stone and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for conspiring in the DNC leaks imbroglio and violating the trio’s privacy rights. As the case proceeds, we may get a rare peek into just how Russian hacking shaped democracy.

In October, months of congressional and media pressure on the social media companies finally began to yield some information. Facebook disclosed that a Russian troll farm had spent $100,000 to place election ads. It was a drop in the bucket of the world of political advertising, but the messages still reached more than 10 million. But Russia’s social media efforts went far beyond just buying ads.

In appearances before Congressional committees, the general counsels of Facebook, Twitter, and Google tried to explain how they fell prey to Russian interference. Before the hearing, Facebook disclosed that multiple Russian-backed accounts sowed dissension and anger on the platform – reaching 126 million Americans. Twitter found more than 2,700 Russian-linked accounts regularly Tweeting about American politics. And it found more than 36,000 bot accounts that generated more than 288 million views. Google’s YouTube hosted 1,000 videos linked to Russian provocateurs.

Yet, even with these disclosures, the companies offered no assurance that their toll was complete. “Do you believe that any of your companies have identified the full scope of Russian active measures?” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) asked. “I have to say no,” Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch answered.

Reminded they were American companies trying to withstand concerted manipulation by a hostile foreign power, the company representatives at first seemed startled and then retreated to promises to take the matter seriously.

Meanwhile, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), John McCain (R-AZ), and Warner introduced legislation that would require social media political ads have the same sort of disclosure about who their financial backing as is the case for television spots now.

OK, OK. It’s Not “Collusion.” But It Sure Was Something

On December 15, as he prepared to board a helicopter, Trump managed to assert that there was no collusion between him and Russia five times in one minute:

There is absolutely no collusion. That has been proven. When you look at the committees, whether it’s the Senate or the House, everybody — my worst enemies, they walk out, they say, “There is no collusion but we’ll continue to look.”  They’re spending millions and millions of dollars.

There is absolutely no collusion.  I didn’t make a phone call to Russia.  I have nothing to do with Russia.  Everybody knows it.  That was a Democrat hoax.  It was an excuse for losing the election, and it should have never been this way, where they spent all these millions of dollars.

So now even the Democrats admit there’s no collusionThere is no collusion — that’s it. (emphasis added)

That word: collusion. Let’s skip it.

Even if Trump and his associates did not “collude” with Russian actors during the 2016 election, one indisputable theme emerges: Russia engaged in a systematic, multi-year, multi-channel effort to cultivate a relationship with Trump world. The effort began long before Trump announced his candidacy and continued after he won the election.

But there’s more. As three former CIA and FBI employees put it in Just Security:

There is no question that Russia made multiple, unprecedented attempts to penetrate a U.S. presidential campaign, that its approaches were not rebuffed, and that its contacts were sensitive enough that everyone, to a person, has concealed them. These facts might never be adjudicated inside a courtroom – they may not even be illegal – but they present a clear and present national security threat that we cannot ignore.

2017 was the year when many of the Russian contacts with the Trump campaign and his associates began to surface. There were so many of them that a Wikipedia page is devoted to keeping track of them.

Less than a week after Trump was sworn in as President, his acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, warned the White House that Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, could be subject to Russian blackmail because he lied to White House officials about his contacts with the Russians..

As the story and details of Flynn’s Russian contacts began dribbling out in February,  pressure mounted. Flynn was fired. But his expulsion did not end the matter.

First, Attorney General Sessions was implicated. In March, he was forced to recuse himself from all matters involving Russia and the election when it was revealed that he had not only failed to disclose several contacts with Russian diplomats on his security clearance form, but he had also given inaccurate answers about those contacts during his Senate confirmation hearing.

Then, the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, came under scrutiny. In March, the first of several interactions between Kushner and Russian operatives was reported in the press. This time it was a meeting between Kushner and the head of Russia’s state owned development bank. 

And in May, multiple newspapers reported that Kushner had suggested a harebrained scheme to create a “secret” communications channel between the Trump transition and the Russian government from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C..

In July, it was Donald Trump, Jr.’s  turn. He confirmed that in June 2016 he had a meeting with , Natalia Veselnitskaya, a lawyer with ties to the Russian government, in his Trump Tower office. Among those present were Kushner and Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort. According to Trump Jr. he had been promised that Veselnitskaya,would come bearing gifts: dirt on Hillary Clinton.

The meeting yielded nothing of value to either side. But according to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, who spent 26 years working as an intelligence officer, the meeting “bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected.”

The drip-drip of Trump campaign/Russia contacts continued. When the Special Counsel brought its first set of indictments in October, a whole new set of interactions were revealed. New names from the Trump campaign came to the fore: George Papadopoulos and Carter Page. Both men revealed more meetings and engagement with Russian actors.

No one knows yet whether the Trump campaign colluded with a foreign government to alter the course of the presidential election. Does it matter?

And Then There Was One

Special Counsel Mueller has a lot of power, but he can only do one thing: pursue criminal penalties.

He cannot revise the Foreign Agents Registration Act, change campaign laws for online advertising disclosure, hold social media companies to account, fund programs to harden state election systems from attack, revise computer crime and hacking laws, or fund counter-intelligence programs. Only Congress can.

When the year began, at least four congressional committees were conducting some form of investigation into Russian efforts to undermine our democratic institutions. At the year’s end, only one, the Senate Intelligence Committee, seemed to be semi-functional, and even it is grossly under-resourced.

The other three committee investigations devolved into various levels of incapacity.

The first two committees to crack were on the House side. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s work was almost immediately thrown into turmoil when its chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) was forced to step away from the investigation while facing an ethics inquiry for improperly disclosing classified information.

Then Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, resigned his seat and turned the investigation over to a member who decided to close off the committee’s inquiries.

On the Senate side, the Senate Judiciary Committee continued to plow away. It did so without any additional resources or staff, but still conducted interviews, gathered evidence, and held hearings. In late October, though, the bipartisan consensus  between the Committee’s leaders shattered. The Committee’s chairman and ranking member began sending separate letters of inquiry. And in December, the chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), denounced Democrats for being unwilling to investigate alleged misdeeds by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. "If Democrats are unwilling to ask hard questions and force answers from their own political allies, then there simply is no way to move forward together in good faith,” he said.

Now, only one Committee, Senate Intelligence, is still fully engaged in investigating the integrity of the election system. And even so, it is doing so in ways that limit its effectiveness, often holding closed hearings in secrecy and rarely releasing material to the public.

Forecast for 2018

Slow Burn or Clash of the Titans?

As 2017 progressed, it became clearer that there will be an inevitable showdown between Trump and Mueller. Many expect a spectacular blow up: a firing (Mueller’s) or a very high level indictment (Kushner’s or even the President’s).

There is no predicting, but I foresee more of the same, steady, mid-grade warfare. Trump and his allies will continue to try to undermine the credibility of the special counsel. They will seize every opportunity to tar his reputation and work. And they will gut out whatever indictments may or may not be brought. If President Bill Clinton could make it through the Kenneth Starr investigation and impeachment, then Trump likely believes he can do the same.

Mueller, meanwhile, will continue his tantalizing silence. Garbo-esque, we will not hear him utter a word, unless in court or when he wraps up his investigation and issues a final report.

The Russians Can’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

Any way you look at it, Russia’s 2016 election interference worked beyond their wildest dreams. Confidence in democratic institutions – including Presidential approval— is at an all-time low. They have more than met their objective of sowing discord and doubt.

But why stop? There are crucial mid-term elections in November, and some prognosticators believe party control of one – or even both – chambers of Congress could change. And the Russians know the nation has done little to protect against the next attack.  seen that the nation has done very little to prepare for the next round.

With a major congressional election coming up, tensions will run high. Our elected officials have done almost nothing to reassure voters that the election systems are being improved and protected. Indeed, the President’s Election Integrity Commission seems dedicated to ginning up fear of fraud rather than solving problems.

Congress Plays Ostrich

Three out of four congressional investigations are effectively gutted. Indeed, three are now pivoting to revisit old Clinton scandals. The last committee standing, Senate Intelligence, is under enormous pressure to wrap it up. It will, and we won’t miss it that much since so much of its work has been behind closed doors.

Senators and Representatives, panicking about the upcoming election, will return to their states and districts as often as possible. Russia is not a good story. They will be working overtime to find a new narrative. They want to put 2017 behind them. The only drawback to that approach is that major, unsolved problems have a nasty habit of popping up when you least expect them. 

(Photo: AP)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.