The World This Week: Is the Comey Affair Trump’s Watergate?
The American social contract has withered gravely, making Trump far less accountable than Nixon for his many misdeeds.
This has been a momentous week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected with 57% of the vote. As per Al Jazeera, many saw the Iranian election as a referendum on Rouhani’s policy of opening up Iran to the world and his efforts to stimulate a stagnant economy. His opponent positioned himself as a defender of the poor and called for a tougher line against the West. The president presented the election as a choice between greater civil liberties and increased “extremism.” Even after US President Donald Trump called Iran “the world’s number one terrorist state” and continues to saber-rattle, Iranian voters have demonstrated rather cooler heads and opted for a moderate over a populist.
Good news in Iran was accompanied by bad news elsewhere. About 140 people died in an attack on a Libyan airbase. Apparently, government troops killed unarmed rebels returning from a military parade. Many civilians died too. The newly negotiated tricky truce between the government and the rebels might now be in peril.
While the attack in Libya was unexpected, the same cannot be said about Brazil’s corruption scandal that has plumbed new depths. The May 15, 2016, edition of The World This Week predicted a bleak future for Brazil when Dilma Rousseff was impeached. That warning is turning out to be true. Michel Temer, Rousseff’s successor, might have taken millions of dollars in bribes since 2010. It seems that, like “moonlight and love songs,” corruption in Brazil is “never out of date.”
Nor it seems are the melting poles. Parts of Antarctica are warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. National Geographic reports that fast-growing moss is turning the continent green thanks to rising temperatures. Al Jazeera journalists joined an international team of scientists from December 2016 to March 2017 to chronicle this phenomenon that many god-fearing Republicans in the United States damn as a conspiracy of evil globalists conspiring against their pickup trucks.
Speaking of the US, this grand and glorious country takes center stage this week. US Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special prosecutor to lead a federal investigation into Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Robert Mueller, the former chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will investigate if Russia and Trump have been up to hanky-panky of any sort.
JAMES COMEY TOWERS OVER TRUMP
Trump likes to brand things after his name. One of the skyscrapers the president owns is the 68-storey Trump Tower. Sadly for “The Donald,” his name is all over the firing of James Comey, the former FBI director. The circumstances surrounding Comey’s dismissal are a bit murky and might have the makings of a sordid scandal.
The last edition of The World This Week briefly described how the White House had tied itself in knots over Comey’s dismissal. It has changed its story about the chain of events faster than a champion chameleon. Many Democrats and some Republicans suspect that Trump was out to scuttle the FBI investigation into links between Russia and members of his campaign team. Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor who had to resign ignominiously, is the prize suspect. The media is awash with news that Trump asked Comey to drop the inquiry against Flynn.
To add fuel to the fire, Trump reportedly told Russian officials that firing Comey eased “great pressure” on him and described the former FBI boss as a “real nut job.” Many Americans have been outraged by the thought that Russia might have interfered with their presidential election. On October 7, 2016, Barack Obama’s White House accused Russia of meddling in the election after WikiLeaks revealed compromising confidential emails by senior Democrats.
Even more than WikiLeaks, journalists credit Trump’s victory to Comey’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. On May 2, Clinton blamed Russian hackers, Comey and misogyny as key factors for her defeat. That Comey is a Republican made many doubt his impartiality in a profoundly polarized society. Yet it is clear that things have not gone swimmingly well between Trump and Comey. The New York Times reports that Trump demanded “loyalty,” but Comey merely promised him “honesty.” Soon, Trump gave the “showboat” the ax.
Comey’s father has stirred the pot by declaring that Trump was “scared to death” of the former FBI boss. The senior citizen claimed his son was fired because he “tells the truth [while] Trump runs around lying all day.” The Republican who voted neither for Clinton nor for Trump described the president as incompetent, deserving impeachment and “crazy as a hoot.”
Such was the drumbeat of the scandal that the recently appointed Rosenstein selected Comey’s predecessor at the FBI as a special prosecutor, even as the president was interviewing candidates for the FBI’s top job. Trump lashed out against Rosenstein’s decision, calling it a “single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” In a twist Hollywood screenwriters could not dream of, the Republican whose investigation helped Trump win is now poisoning his presidency.
IS COMEYGATE THE NEW WATERGATE?
Trump is not the first president who has been sucked into a scandal. In 1974, the Watergate scandal forced Richard Nixon to resign. The poor chap got into hot water for lying about his team sending burglars to the offices of the Democrats. Trump’s original sin is purportedly far worse. Does this make Comeygate the new Watergate?
In a tour de force, the veteran James Fallows of The Atlantic argues that the Comey affair is worse than Watergate. It reflects poorly on the president, the national interest and the democratic system of the United States. For Fallows, five reasons make Comeygate more sinister than Watergate.
First, authoritarian Russia might have manipulated the US election. By revealing confidential information in a Machiavellian fashion, the apparatchiks of President Vladimir Putin might have swung the election against Clinton and in favor of Trump. Furthermore, this might have been part of Putin’s design not only to interfere in elections, but also to destroy trust in democracy. Glenn Carle, a retired intelligence operative, has long been shouting from the rooftops that this sinister Russian interference in US domestic politics marks the greatest risk to the democracy that gave the world George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Second, Nixon might have been a crook but he wanted to appear a gentleman. He constantly paid lip service to due process, professing fealty to checks and balances. By contrast, Trump is a thug. Trump supporters call the October 9, 2016, edition of The World This Week a ruthless hatchet job on the president because this author argued at length that the real estate tycoon and reality TV star was “the ultimate ugly American” who was unfit to rule. Unlike Nixon, Trump has cast aside all pretenses and is entirely Hobbesian in his pursuit of power.
Third, in Fallows’ words, Nixon was “paranoid, resentful, bigoted and a crook” while also being “deeply knowledgeable, strategically prescient, publicly disciplined” and even progressive by today’s standards. After all, it is the much maligned Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and reached out to China. Nixon was an intelligent crook while Trump is an oafish conman. The Donald’s interview with The Economist beggars belief. It betrays woolly thinking, horrendous reasoning, stupefying ignorance and delusional confidence that could prove to be deadly disastrous.
Fourth, American institutions are no longer as resilient as they once were. Fallows rightly points out that three senior officials chose to fall on their sword instead of follow orders they believed to be illegal. They chose principle over position, and democracy in the US recovered. Rosenstein may have appointed a special prosecutor as Fallows demanded, but Carle points out that institutions have weakened dramatically of late. Under George W. Bush, it took a total of six people to bring back torture. Americans started indulging in activities like waterboarding, for which they had once sentenced the Japanese to death.
Finally, Republicans during the Nixon era still had some sense of honor. Today, the members of the Grand Old Party (GOP) act as if their spines have been surgically removed from their bodies. In fact, Peter Isackson, the Paris-based American sage, makes an astute observation in line with Fallows. Isackson sees Trump as an insurgent who succeeded in a hostile takeover of the GOP. Consequently, members of the Republican Party are terrified of breaking ranks with Trump and being seen as Brutus or Judas. In a toxic partisan political culture, loyalty trumps honesty and rhetoric beats reason.
COMEYGATE MAY BE WORSE BUT WHO CARES?
In Silicon Valley, this author ran into a rather successful venture capitalist who declared that politics was irrelevant. Technology drives society forward and what happens in Washington, DC is a mere distraction. It seems that booming stock markets agree with this venture capitalist.
According to this worldview, politics is a sideshow. In the age of internet, social media and smartphones, people have other things to do than to worry about Trump fooling around with Putin. In this era, capital and information flow seamlessly across borders. Most Indians are on Facebook and use WhatsApp. Therefore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi turned up to pay tribute to Mark Zuckerberg. By this logic, even if Russia released emails before the election, it does not matter that much.
Besides, a former Indian intelligence chief notes that influencing the domestic politics of other countries is standard practice. For years, the US not only interfered in elections, but also backed coups against elected governments. In Iran and Chile, the US jumped into bed with military dictators quite eagerly and infamously. Russia is only repaying the US in kind after its repeated interference in states that comprised the Soviet Union, including Russia itself. From Putin’s point of view, Clinton acted in Ukraine with utmost arrogance, and the former intelligence operative used her emails for comeuppance.
In particular, many Republicans argue that the media is treating Trump unfairly. They suspect Clinton of flirting if not sleeping with foreign powers for decades. The September 18, 2016, edition of The World This Week chronicled the many scandals that have plagued the Clintons, including a Russian uranium deal that led to cash for their rather well-known foundation. As a result, many have found it hard to forgive and forget the Clintons. These scandals also give them a reason to rationalize Trump’s actions.
As this author pointed out in an August 2016 talk at Google, the global rise of the far right is a powerful phenomenon. The multiple failures of elites, increasing inequality allied with decreasing social mobility, and the loss of collective identity have led to a loss of trust in institutions and splintered social contracts. This is true for many countries. The multiracial and multicultural US is no exception. After all, as Alexander Dumer, the former managing editor of Fair Observer, pointedly asks, “Who is a real American?”
A hedge fund manager in New York who invests in Indian equities or Indonesian bonds often has more in common with his colleagues in Singapore than his relatives in Syracuse. Therefore, he incorporates his fund in offshore tax havens such as Bermuda or Cayman Islands and wants the carried interest loophole to remain. This loophole allows him to pay tax at a rate of 20% less than a firefighter or a teacher. This hedge fund manager does not feel enough kinship with those in Syracuse to cough up more tax, and he donates to political campaigns to ensure that his tax rates do not rise.
In the Watergate era, the social contract in the US was a lot stronger. The memory of World War II was still vivid. Nixon was born a Quaker and could have claimed exemption from the draft, the compulsory military service for able-bodied American males. Instead, he served as a naval officer with distinction. During the Watergate era, many Americans were drafted for military service in Vietnam. The people were divided along ideological lines, but retained a strong sense of collective identity born from the draft, struggles against segregation and the campaign against the war.
Today, the US may have waged wars in distant Iraq and Afghanistan, but these conflicts are fought by professional soldiers. In a most insightful paper, Amy Lutz of Syracuse University concludes that “those with lower family income are more likely to join the military than those with higher family income.” American elites such as New York’s hedge fund boys or Silicon Valley’s geeks no longer pay for the price of their passports in blood and treasure. After all, stock prices are rising, arugula salads abound, god is in his heaven and all’s right with the world. A tax-avoiding and draft-dodging president potentially up to hanky-panky with Putin may not quite be the norm, but it seems no longer beyond the pale.
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Iranian Election: A Choice Between Bad or Worse
Even if he wins the Iranian election, the realities of today will make it difficult for President Rouhani to achieve social and political reform.
The Iranian presidential election on May 19 has been shaped by sociopolitical changes, the need for a successor to the supreme leader, the rise of nationalism and the nuclear deal. There are six candidates who have managed to get the green light from the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In Iran, obtaining the approval of the Guardian Council, which is under the supreme leader’s control, is an arduous task. According to the constitution, any male Shia — but only the Twelver branch of Shiism — can run for the presidency but, in practice, only those of Fars origin are considered for the post. It is, therefore, impossible for a woman or a Kurd, Azeri, Arab or Balochi to stand. However, in reality, the selection process becomes even narrower because the only ones who can pass the… Read more
WannaCry: The Role of Government in Cyber-Intrusions
What role should governments play when it comes to cybersecurity?
The WannaCry cyber-incident of May 12, which involved the British National Health Service (NHS), has received a good deal of coverage. Comments focused on whether the attack was preventable and if it presents increased vulnerability for public sector organizations, with substantive focus on the use of the outdated Windows XP. Such analysis does, however, gloss over an essential question: What do we want the role of the government to be and, indeed, what could it or what should it be?
The role of the government in cybersecurity has two essential debates. First, the dividing line between corporate — including the public sector — and government responsibility. Second, if some role for the government is accepted, then which branch of government should have primacy or be involved at all? The 2016 National Cyber Security Strategy attempts to delineate the responsibility of the individual, corporate and government. The strategy established that the… Read more
The Tragedy of Journalism in Mexico
Journalism is facing a crisis in Mexico, leading to protests calling for an end to violence.
“A murdered journalist means one less voice in favor of the people.” These words, written in Spanish, were placed on a blanket outside a memorial for Javier Valdéz, a reporter for La Jornada who was murdered on May 15. He is the fourth journalist to be killed in Mexico this year and the second assaulted that day.
On May 16, hundreds of journalists gathered outside the attorney general’s office in three cities calling for justice. In the capital Mexico City, protesters held photos of the victims along with placards reading, “They are killing us.” Since President Enrique Peña Nieto entered office in 2012, 36 journalists have been killed and 23 are still missing. Journalism is a risky profession as it can involve investigating and telling stories that many do not want to be told. As per the United Nations, more than 700… Read more
Why Am I Famous?
Today, celebrity describes a culture and a set of attitudes and behavior that absorbs as well as surrounds us.
Ten years ago, Paris Hilton was the victim of a sort of hacking. Hundreds of her albums (she was a recording artist, in addition her several other roles) were remixed by the guerrilla artist Banksy, who retitled them Why am I Famous? What Have I Done? and What Am I For? and then left the CDs (this was 2006, remember) in record stores across the United Kingdom.
It was one of those cruel pranks to which the then ubiquitous all-purpose socialite-cum-celebrity had become accustomed. Some people had grown cynical and started asking questions about the likes of Hilton and so-called It Girls, such as the recently deceased Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, whose lives seemed chronicled in almost every detail by an increasingly intrusive and pervasive media. What were they for? Puzzled cynics wondered why we, the public, were so captivated by… Read more
It’s Always Sunny in Saudi Arabia
How the biggest exporter of crude oil could become a leader in solar energy.
Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, countries are beginning to reap the benefits of cheaper solar power technology and are investing in mega projects to sustainably power electricity grids. Morocco is currently developing one of the largest solar power plants in the world. The United Arab Emirates is building Masdar City, a hub for research and development of renewable energy technologies. Jordan has so few natural resources that it is beginning to invest heavily in solar energy.
All of these countries have launched the region’s move toward adopting large-scale solar power. As this trend develops and solar technologies continue to advance, there is one Middle Eastern country that truly has the ability — with its massive oil reserves, expansive sun-drenched territory and economic willpower — to transform the solar industry and with it the global economy: Saudi Arabia. In February, the Saudi government released a… Read more
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: White House