Trump Firing of FBI Director a Threat to U.S. Rule of Law
Interview with Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, conducted by Scott Harris
Almost daily, the Trump administration provokes a new scandal, makes official statements which later turn out to be false or incites government chaos. The latest episode began on May 15, when the Washington Post reported that President Trump revealed highly classified information during a White House meeting with Russia’s U.S. ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Moscow’s foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to current and former U.S. officials, Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State, an assertion that the White House denies.
This serious allegation comes just one week after Trump was widely criticized for his firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading an investigation into charges of collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia’s effort to influence the outcome of last year’s presidential election. While White House officials stated the reasons for Comey’s termination were related to his handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s misuse of a private email server, the president himself admitted in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt that his decision was driven by “this Russia thing,” seen by critics as an attempt to obstruct justice.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, who assesses the prospects for a credible investigation into the charges of Russia-Trump election collusion after the Comey firing, and the larger threat posed by Trump to the rule of law and the U.S. Constitution.
[Producer’s note: This interview was conducted prior to reports that fired FBI Director James Comey had created a paper trail documenting how Donald Trump had asked him to end the FBI investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Rush transcript follows.]
CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: Apparently, Jim Comey had dinner with Donald Trump in January in the White House, and according to him, he was asked to give his loyalty to Donald Trump, and he said, “I’ll give you my honesty, but loyalty is something I give to the Constitution” – which is appropriate for a law enforcement officer and anybody who works for the U.S. government, including the president. You take an oath to uphold the Constitution. So then we get to this week, where apparently Donald Trump is really angry about stories continuing about Russia, about the investigation that the FBI was leading and decided that he was going to fire Jim Comey. His staff announced a whole slew of different reasons, including from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, that said – and this is what was most ludicrous – Jim Comey was fired because he inappropriately handled Hillary Clinton’s email investigation and caused harm to Hillary Clinton. So that doesn’t pass the laugh test because none of the Trump people had a lot of compassion to spare for Hillary Clinton on whether the investigation was fair or not. I don’t think that had anything to do with it.
Then Trump was on the news with Lester Holt and said, “I fired Jim Comey because of this Russian investigation. There’s nothing there.” And so there’s sort of the big story, and then subsequently, news stories came out that Jim Comey had told a different version – “alternative facts” maybe, about what happened during that dinner. And then Trump tweeted, which is a dangerous tool for him, I think, basically that he had tapes and if the tapes contradicted Comey he’d be in trouble. Basically, threatening Jim Comey with releasing some tape and that of course, stirred up all sorts of things, where members of Congress had been saying, “Well, if there are tapes, then you need to turn them over.”
So, this is a whole set of different issues that are raised clearly, that raise questions about the president’s understanding of the role of the FBI, of the Justice Department as having an independent role to investigate crimes of his role as the president in intimidating perhaps, intimidating a witness; perhaps trying to change somebody’s story; perhaps concealing evidence. I mean, there are so many possible causative actions that have been raised now. But I think for all us in the world, the legal world, whether you’re Republican, a Democratic, an independent, it’s so dismaying to see a president behaving in this way and to think that the FBI director would be swearing an oath of fealty to him – the FBI director needs to follow the law and follow it where it leads and not be ready to put down an investigation because the president would like it to.
So, for the moment, which is unique certainly in my lifetime and for most of us, trying to think through what’s going to happen – our government seems, the basic system seems to be threatened. The rule of law is threatened. Where’s the oversight? Where’s the investigation going to be? Can Congress actually sort of shed its partisanship and take on this important job? I certainly hope so. There are other avenues people have suggested. A special counsel. Did the Russians in fact influence our election? There’s just so many questions that we really need an independent investigator with no agenda, no allegiance to either the president or the Congress, any allegiance that is above his or her allegiance and duty to the Constitution.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Caroline, the fact that Republicans have almost total control of the federal government at this point, the question arises – how do citizens put pressure on Washington, to more toward a special counsel or an independent commission to credibly investigate the Russia-Trump campaign connections and allegations of collusion? What’s the role of a citizen right now in this moment in history? And I’ll just parenthetically mention that there’s a lot of comparisons being made to what occurred during Watergate. But there were checks and balances in place, as the Congress was under the control of the Democrats – the opposition party – and there was a bit of conflict and checks and balances. Here, we have a completely different situation.
CAROLINE FREDRICKSON: It’s a really good question and it’s one of the reasons why I think many people are concerned. But look, there’s no better than now for people to raise their voices. And it’s actually having an impact already. You’ve already started to hear some Republicans raise concerns. I mean, it’s unfortunate that there haven’t been more of them. But they’re responding to pressure. They’re responding to pressure from people contacting their offices. They’re responding to pressure from people going to town hall meetings. They are responding to pressure from their local papers and their local radio stations. Radio stations like this one that broadcast news and opinion have a really profound impact on what members of Congress do. Democrats need to work as hard as they can make sure that their concerns are raised and Republicans need to take the concerns of their voters and their constituents seriously. And it’s all in the hands of the constituents.
And I’d say, we’re a nonpartisan organization, but I can tell you without being partisan, that there’s an election coming up in 2018. It’s a time when members of Congress are very much paying attention and so I’d say, seize the opportunity. Everyone who’s listening, seize the opportunity. Raise your voice. We are approaching a constitutional crisis and we need Congress to pay attention.
For more information on the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, visit ACSLAW.org
New Trump Election Integrity Commission a “Sham”
Interview with Jenny Flanagan, vice president for state operations with Common Cause, conducted by Scott Harris
Not long after the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump declared that he would have won the national popular vote and not merely by the Electoral College, if it hadn’t been for millions of illegal votes cast by non-citizens in several states. In fact, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by some 3 million votes and the repeated charge that there is widespread voter fraud across the U.S. has been debunked by numerous investigations and academic research.
Now in the wake of the controversy generated by Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, the president has signed an executive order establishing a presidential commission to examine “election integrity,” based on his bogus assertions of voter fraud. The commission will be chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach will serve as vice chair. Both these Republican politicians have a long history of supporting voter suppression measures that make it more difficult for specific groups of voters to cast ballots, groups that generally support Democratic candidates.
Since 2010, nearly two dozen Republican-controlled state governments have enacted an assortment of new voter suppression laws, many of which have been struck down by federal courts deeming them to be designed to gain partisan political advantage. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jenny Flanagan, vice president for state operations with Common Cause. Here, she examines Trump’s false premise for creating the “election integrity” commission, and the danger of the panel being used as a “Trojan Horse” to justify new voter suppression measures. [Rush transcript]
JENNY FLANAGAN: There’s been a lot of research and I think, notably, to stand up to what Trump and other Republicans are saying, the investigation that took place under the Bush administration – George W. Bush – also led an investigation searching. This commission seeks, too, for that needle in the haystack of some indication of non-citizens voting in our elections. And they didn’t find it. The Brennan Center also conducted years-long surveys of election challenges where voters may have been subject to claims of voter fraud or wrongful voting. It is more likely to be struck by lightning than it is for someone to have committed voter fraud in this country. It’s just not happening.
But it is rhetoric that moves people. Most Americans find that it is easy to vote. They make their registration when they go to the motor vehicle office; they know where their polling place is. And for most Americans that’s a wonderful thing. But for many Americans, particularly those who are disenfranchised historically, in all aspects of our society – who may not drive and have that driver’s license who are in and out of homes and moving locations frequently – for those individuals, it’s more difficult to track down the rules and requirements in order to access your vote. And they’re capitalizing on those challenges instead of making it easier.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Jenny, given the fact that Republican-controlled state governments across the country have invoked these voter suppression tactics deemed as such by federal courts, highly partisan laws that try to gain political advantage for Republican candidates – given that fact, what is the ultimate objective of this commission in your view? Is the fact that Donald Trump invoked this panel to look at voter fraud mean that the objective possibly could be to justify more repressive voter measures – make it increasingly more difficult for particular groups of voters to cast ballots in future elections?
JENNY FLANAGAN: Absolutely. All signs are pointing in that direction. And that’s why we call it a sham. To put these two individuals, Mike Pence and Kris Kobach, who are both known to support these voter suppression laws in charge of a commission aimed at “voting integrity”? I think the American public need to look much more closely at what integrity means to them. To us, voter integrity means that every eligible voter can cast their ballot and have it counted accurately with confidence. And with Russian interference in our elections, there were a lot of doubts going into the 2016 election, as there continue to be doubts in terms of what kind of interference took place, whether or not on our voting equipment or trying to influence our elections in other ways. And we deserve better than that as citizens of this country. We deserve voting systems that are modern and up to date. And that’s why we’re working with election officials all across the country.
BETWEEN THE LINES: One last question for you, Jenny. There are efforts across the country to push back in another direction. There’s automatic registration as many countries across Europe have – when you’re born or get a driver’s license, or become of majority age, you are automatically registered to vote. Here, there’s a lot of games involved in political partisanship that goes into a lot of the regulations around registering to vote. But maybe you can conclude here by telling us how people can push back against these voter suppression laws, and certainly resist what recommendations are likely to come out of this presidential election integrity commission.
JENNY FLANAGAN: Automatic voter registration is moving in dozens of states across the country with bipartisanship support because there are more convenient, more cost-effective ways to register voters with integrity. I’m not afraid of that word. We should have integrity in our voting system. And we can do it with Democrats and Republicans alike. People who really do care about our democracy. Reforms are moving likewise, reforms like combining vote by mail with in-person voting. There are real solutions out there that election officials and civic engagement leaders and elected officials in state legislatures are advancing to make reforms.
I think the most important thing that people can do is just keep the pressure on contacting your lawmaker whether they’re a Democrat or a Republican, everybody’s got a role to play to stand up for our democracy. And if we lose our right to vote, that is a right through which all other rights flow. This is a civil rights issue, it is a social justice issue, it is really the fundamental core of being American – to be able participate in our democracy through voting. So it is really critical that we continue to speak up on behalf of all Americans.
Learn more about Common Cause by visiting CommonCause.org.
Children’s Climate Change Lawsuit Moves Forward in Court
Interview with Kelsey Juliana, Our Children’s Trust lawsuit lead plaintiff, conducted by Scott Harris
On April 27, 14 of the 21 youth plaintiffs in a historic lawsuit against the U.S. government held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Their case, filed by Our Children’s Trust, aims to hold the federal government accountable for the failure to protect their right to a stable climate.
A federal district judge in Oregon last April denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, an attempt brought by the federal government and the fossil fuel industry, which had joined the Obama administration to oppose the youth plaintiffs’ filing. That judge’s opinion was confirmed by a second judge in November, setting the case on its way to be adjudicated. The young people announced at the press event that the name of the lead defendant in their suit has now been changed from Barack Obama to Donald Trump.
Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus was at the event just two days before the People’s Climate March in the Capitol and spoke with 21-year-old Kelsey Juliana, a young woman from Oregon who is the lead plaintiff in the case. Here, she explains the evolution of the lawsuit and what the young people who are involved, ages 9 to 21, hope to accomplish.
For more information on Our Children’s Trust’s climate change lawsuit, see www.ourchildrenstrust.org/us/federal-lawsuit/ at ourchildrenstrust.org
This week’s summary of under-reported news
Compiled by Bob Nixon
The United Nations is in the midst of raising $4 billion from donor nations to prevent a full-scale famine that would impact over 20 million people in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen and northeast Nigeria. (“A global famine aid comes up short, Somalis abroad step up,” Christian Science Monitor, April 18, 2017; “UN chief seeks $900 million for crisis in Somalia,” Reuters, May 11, 2017)
Single-payer health care advocates introduced the “Healthy California Act” in the California Legislature in February, a one-page bill to establish a comprehensive single-payer health insurance system to cover every resident in the state. (“Can California go single-payer,” American Prospect, May 10, 2017)
Hundreds of workers were evacuated from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in early May after the collapse of a tunnel where toxic nuclear waste was stored. “Tunnel containing nuke waste collapses at Hanford,” KING-TV, May 9, 2017; “Tunnel Collapse latest safety issue at Washington nuclear site,” The Associated Press, May 10, 2017)