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Friday, February 08, 2019

Let the games begin

by digby

My Salon column this morning:

Apparently President Trump woke up on the wrong side of the bed on Thursday and accidentally turned on MSNBC or CNN instead of Fox News. That was a mistake. Those two cable networks were covering the latest news about the House Intelligence Committee's probe into the Russia scandal and it ruined his whole morning:

Trump was 28 years old during the Watergate hearings. He was in his 30s when the Iran-Contra investigation began, an investigation that went on for 2,978 days. Seven years of Whitewater and the myriad Clinton investigations began when was 46 and the 9/11 hearings into the Iraq war intelligence failures happened in his late 50s. He was in his 60s throughout the interminable Benghazi hearings in the Obama administration. In other words, there have been congressional investigations into presidential administrations his entire adult life. We know he watches the news so he must have heard of them. They all got big ratings.

Some of those probes were about personal behavior and alleged pre-presidential financial corruption. Others concerned major intelligence matters and policy failures. And in one case, it was about gross abuse of presidential power. But Trump's petulant lamentations are true in one sense. No previous president has ever been suspected of all of that. And none were ever investigated for conspiring with a foreign government to sabotage his opponent's campaign for money. He's the first.

It's interesting to see him wail about it at this late date. Perhaps he wasn't paying attention when people pointed out to him that the loss of the House majority last November would inevitably lead to this. Or maybe he's whining for the benefit of his audience, priming them to believe that a primal scream of "Presidential Harassment!" is the new "Witch Hunt!"

But he'd better get used to it. Today's testimony by Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is the first day of the rest of his presidency. It's only going to get worse for him.

The House Judiciary Committee has a right to call the Attorney General up to the Hill and ask him questions. It's perfectly normal. But Matt Whitaker isn't a normal Acting Attorney General. The circumstances of his hiring to the Justice Department and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions Chief of Staff and his ascension into a position for which he is totally unqualified have never been fully aired in congressional hearings. The fact that he had been auditioning for a job in the administration by being a pro-Trump pundit on Fox News and CNN is hardly unprecedented. Trump has hired many people that way. But it is unusual for someone who was on record vociferously defending a president from a criminal inquiry to be hired into the job that oversees it. It's even more unusual that he refused to recuse himself. All of that is of interest to the committee and the public has a right to hear Whitaker explain himself.

And there are other issues they'd certainly like to hear about from the Department of Justice. They'd like to be briefed on the legality of the child separation program and voting rights and the government's position on defending the Affordable Care Act among other things. They may ask him about those issues but it's unlikely they really care what Whitaker says. He's on his way out the door and his influence on DOJ policy has almost certainly been nil in any case.

What they want to know from Whitaker in his last days in office is whether there has been any interference of the Special Counsel or the cases in the Southern District of New York by the White House. And it's been pretty obvious that the administration doesn't trust him to handle those kinds of questions very deftly. His performance in a recent sweaty appearance in the White House briefing room where he nervously answered a question inappropriately about the Mueller probe coming to an end certainly wouldn't have set their minds at ease. So, there has been a tug of war between the committee and the Department of Justice over his testimony for good reason.

Whitaker had dodged the appearance by evoking the shutdown, clearly hoping to be out of office before the day of reckoning. But they finally settled on today's date and the committee even sent over some of the questions  in advance so that Whitaker could anticipate whether to ask the president to evoke executive privilege. The committee asked to be notified 48 hours before the hearing if he planned to do so and told him that if he would otherwise be expected to answer. They did this because Trump's minions  --- including his former Attorney General --- adopted a novel claim that they wouldn't answer questions because the president might want to evoke executive privilege in the future. That's not how this works.

Naturally, Whitaker ignored the deadline which is what prompted the committee to vote to subpoena him if he just blew off the committee altogether, which certainly seemed to be possible. The administration certainly doesn't seem to be burdened by respect for decorum or the constitutional requirements of congressional oversight. The subpoena threat was a signal that the Judiciary Committee isn't playing.

As for the questions themselves, they are actually very simple and shouldn't be difficult to answer. Among other things, they want to know if Whitaker has briefed the president on the Mueller investigation and they want to know if the president has attempted to interfere with the investigations in the Southern District of New York, as has been reported. They also want to know if the US Attorney in Utah's "review" of all the investigations of Hillary Clinton has been communicated to the White House and if Whitaker was in communication with the White House about the Buzzfeed article that said Trump directed former Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen to lie to Congress.

These are important questions that only Matt Whitaker can answer.  But it's fair to guess that an Attorney General William Barr will also be up on the Hill in a couple of months and he'll be asked similar questions by this committee. Trump still thinks the Attorney General is his personal fixer and he'll almost certainly put Barr into the same bind he's put Whitaker.  Barr is much more sophisticated and experienced but when the boss wants you to be his Roy Cohn you have a choice to make.

So far this morning, it looks as though Whitaker has made his.