Email #271: “allegations from the President himself”?

On March 8th, you and the other Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee wrote to former FBI Director Comey regarding “allegations from the President himself that he and his associates were placed under surveillance during the 2016 campaign.” These so-called allegations had appeared in a set of early morning tweets just four days earlier:

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

“Is it legal for a sitting President to be “wire tapping” a race for president prior to an election? Turned down by court earlier. A NEW LOW!”

“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Though you have since expressed in private meetings with constituents that you wish the President would stop using his Twitter account, it was impressive how quickly you responded to the President’s tweets. You also reminded Director Comey that the Judiciary Committee is the primary House committee of jurisdiction over the Wiretap Act and so requested a briefing “on the very serious allegations that the President and/or his associates were or are under surveillance.”

You never reported whether that briefing occurred, but on Friday, roughly six months after you made your request, the Justice Department filed a court brief stating that both its National Security Division and the FBI “confirm that they have no records related to wiretaps as described by the March 4, 2017 tweets.” When asked about this, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answered: “This is not news.”

Since you said your request to Director Comey was evidence that you and your fellow Republican Judiciary Committee members “will not waver in our commitment to ensuring that our nation’s most powerful intelligence tools and agencies operate with the trust and confidence of the American people,” are you satisfied in the “not news” confirmation that the President’s “very serious allegations” were fabrications?

If your concern is the trust and confidence of the American People in our nation’s most powerful agencies, do you acknowledge that your quick and credulous response to the President’s baseless tweets undermines that very trust and confidence?

Since you emphasized to Director Comey the importance of your Constitutional role to engage in “oversight of the functions of the Executive Branch,” will you now investigate the President’s role in making and disseminating these false allegations?

You told Director Comey that “Our fellow citizens must have confidence in the thoroughness and evenhandedness of our investigatory and prosecutorial agencies.” Looking back at your March 8th letter now, do you believe that it promotes or undermines thorough evenhandedness?

After the next six months have passed, do you imagine your current behavior will be evaluated as unwaveringly evenhanded by impartial judges?

When the Trump administration is a brief but astonishing chapter in our grandchildren’s history books, what supporting role do you think you and your fellow GOP Representatives will play? Principled watchmen? Savvy party loyalists? Credulous victims? Or just comic relief jesters?

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Email #260: “messed up”?

Speaker Ryan criticized President Trump during a town hall meeting this week: “I do believe that he messed up in his comments on Tuesday when it sounded like a moral equivocation or at the very least moral ambiguity when we need extreme moral clarity. You’re not a good person if you’re there, it’s so very clear.”

Ryan repeated the criticism, but also indicated that he thought the President had already corrected his statements about Charlottesville: “It was not only morally ambiguous, it was equivocating. And that was wrong. That’s why I think it was very, very important that he has since then cleared that up. I think it was important that he did that tonight.” He repeated the claim when asked if he would ask the President to apologize: “I think just he needs to do better and I think he just did.”

I assume Speaker Ryan was referring to the address the President made about Afghanistan just prior to the town hall, but looking at the transcript I see nothing about Charlottesville or Neo-Nazis or the so-called alt-left. The only statement the President made that could be interpreted as addressing Charlottesville was at best indirect and generic: “Let us make a simple promise to the men and women we ask to fight in our name, that when they return home from battle, they will find a country that has renewed the sacred bonds of love and loyalty that unite us together as one.”

Ryan said before the President’s speech: “we all need to make clear there is no moral relativism when it comes to neo-Nazis. We cannot allow the slightest ambiguity on such a fundamental question.” In what sense did the President’s ambiguous remark provide any new clarity?

Still, I applaud Speaker Ryan’s ability to at least acknowledge that President Trump“messed up”—though his phrase would suit something significantly less important than how Ryan himself described the magnitude of the issue. I also applaud him for holding a town hall. It is his first since October 2015. Of course it was a highly constrained one. It was hosted by CNN and held in a small venue with CNN selecting participants from Ryan’s district and screening questions. But that is a significant improvement over the even more controlled interactions that he has used for the past two years, which are usually private and allow Ryan’s staff to screen questions directly.

One of Ryan’s fellow Wisconsin Representatives, Democrat Mark Pocan, said afterwards: “Hopefully the media event that occurred tonight will convince Paul Ryan that talking to his constituents is a good idea. In the remaining weeks when Paul is home, he might want to schedule a real town hall or two and explain his health care bill that drops tens of millions of people’s coverage, as well as discuss his tax preferences that would give the top 1 percent more tax breaks while working Americans continue to struggle.”

You have not held a real town hall since August 2013, twice as long as Ryan. While a traditional format is preferable, would you be willing to meet with your constituents in a town hall of the kind hosted by CNN for the Speaker? It would be a small venue and include only 6th district residents with a third party selecting pre-submitted questions and hosting the interactions on stage with you. There would be no shouting, no signs, no protests of any kind, just you answering reasonable questions posed directly by people you represent. It worked for Speaker Ryan, and his was televised live nationally while yours would not be. The format is conducive to conversation and so answers your objection to traditional town halls that allow large, angry crowds.

If you reject even this format, could you please explain on what grounds you find it unacceptable? And is there any format of any kind that you would find acceptable? What will it take to get you in a room with more than a dozen polite constituents?

Email #257: “come together again”?

The President tweeted on Saturday: “Our great country has been divided for decade, but it will come together again.Sometimes protest is needed in order to heel,and heel we will!”

In Boston on the same day, 40,000 counter-protestors overwhelmed the few dozen members of an alt-right “free speech” rally. But in Berlin on Saturday, 500 neo-Nazis marched to commemorate the death of Hitler’s deputy Rudolph Hess. One of the members told reporters that he was watching the events in Charlottesville with “delight” because Nazis in the U.S. are “finally standing up.” A counter-protestor said she came because of President Trump’s disturbing remarks about Charlottesville: “Donald Trump brought me here today.”

Donald Trump also brought 359 of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s Yale classmates together to write Mnunchin a letter on Friday: “President Trump has declared himself a sympathizer with groups whose values are antithetical to those values we consider fundamental to our sacred honor as Americans, as men and women of Yale, and as decent human beings. President Trump made those declarations loudly, clearly, and unequivocally, and he said them as you stood next to him… We believe it is your moral obligation to resign your post as Secretary of the Treasury, effective immediately.”

Though Mnunchin has not resigned, Carl Icahn, the President’s billionaire advisor on deregulation, did resign on Friday, reportedly because of a forthcoming New Yorker article detailing his conflicts of interests. This comes a day after the President fired his chief strategist Steve Bannon reportedly for accidentally telling The American Prospect: “Ethno-nationalism—it’s losers. It’s a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we gotta help crush it, you know, uh, help crush it more. These guys are a collection of clowns.” Bannon is returning to the alt-right Brietbart website, where he says he will “go to war” on behalf of the Trump agenda. Despite firing him, the President tweeted: “Steve Bannon will be a tough and smart new voice at @BreitbartNews…maybe even better than ever before. Fake News needs the competition!”

Fox News is one of the few news sources the President doesn’t call “fake,” but James Murdoch, 21st Century Fox CEO and son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch, still condemned the President in an email to friends: “what we watched this last week in Charlottesville and the reaction to it by the president of the United States concern all of us as Americans and free people… The presence of hate in our society was appallingly laid bare as we watched swastikas brandished on the streets of Charlottesville and acts of brutal terrorism and violence perpetrated by a racist mob. I can’t even believe I have to write this: Standing up to Nazis is essential; there are no good Nazis. Or Klansmen, or terrorists. Democrats, Republicans and others must all agree on this, and it compromises nothing for them to do so.”

Equally conservative Liberty University alumni are returning their diplomas to protest their university’s president Jerry Falwell Jr.’s support of President Trump after his remarks about Charlottesville. Former Student Government Association president and 2006 graduate Chris Gaumer said: “I’m sending my diploma back because the president of the United States is defending Nazis and white supremacists.  And in defending the president’s comments, Jerry Falwell Jr. is making himself and, it seems to me, the university he represents, complicit.”

Due to such protests, the President cancelled his scheduled attendance at the Kennedy Center Honors on Saturday: “The president and first lady have decided not to participate in this year’s activities to allow the honorees to celebrate without any political distraction.” Though this is only the fourth time in the event’s forty years that a president has not attended, the Center was thankful: “In choosing not to participate in this year’s Honors activities, the administration has graciously signaled its respect for the Kennedy Center and ensures the Honors gala remains a deservingly special moment for the honorees.” The President also cancelled his reception afterwards, because at least one honoree, Carmen de Lavallade, was already boycotting it: “In light of the socially divisive and morally caustic narrative that our current leadership is choosing to engage in, and in keeping with the principles that I and so many others have fought for, I will be declining the invitation to attend the reception at the White House.”

Susan Bro, the mother of the Heather Heyer who was murdered in Charlottesville, is also refusing to meet with President Trump: “I’m not talking to the president now. I’m sorry. After what he said about my child, and – it’s not that I saw somebody else’s tweets about him, I saw an actual clip of him at a press conference equating the protesters like Ms. Heyer with the KKK and the white supremacists. You can’t wash this one away by shaking my hand and saying I’m sorry. I’m not forgiving for that.” The President attempted to phone Ms. Bro four days after the murder, but she refused to take the call. When a police officer was shot and killed in San Antonio in November, he called the next day.

Other conservative news sources continue to condemn the President. The Economist called him “politically inept, morally barren and temperamentally unfit for the office.” The UK’s conservative The Spectator said: “Yet again, Trump has demonstrated the extent to which he is unsuited to be president. But yet again we can also see the forces at work that led him to power.”

Those forces include you and other members of the Republican party who continue to support him despite his actions. Former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and Homeland Security secretary in the Bush administration Tom Ridge asked: “At what point does a principled party stand up for its principles? You can’t be afraid of losing an election because you stood up for what was right.”

Is your silence about the President based solely on your fear of losing reelection in 2018? I saw last week that you have a new Democratic challenger. Does them mean you will pander even more now to racist Trump supporters instead of standing up for American principles? President Trump is bringing the country together in moral opposition to him. How long will you remain on the wrong side?

Email #255: “his true intent”?

Condemnations of President Trump continue daily.

Five more charities cancelled fundraising events at the President’s Mar-a-Lago yesterday: Susan G. Komen, the International Red Cross, the Salvation Army; the Autism Association of Palm Beach County, and Big Dog Ranch Rescue. That brings the total to eight.

The President’s 16-member Committee on the Arts and Humanities all resigned on Friday too. They told the President: “Reproach and censure in the strongest possible terms are necessary following your support of the hate groups and terrorists who killed and injured fellow Americans in Charlottesville. The false equivalencies you push cannot stand… Supremacy, discrimination, and vitriol are not American values. Your values are not American values. We must be better than this. We are better than this. If this is not clear to you, then we call on you to resign your office, too.”

The President’s Joint Chiefs of Staff also responded to his Tuesday press conference by issuing statements on Twitter and Facebook that openly contradict their Commander-in-Chief.

Army Chief, General Mark Milley: “The Army doesn’t tolerate racism, extremism, or hatred in our ranks. It’s against our Values and everything we’ve stood for since 1775.”

Air Force Chief, General David Goldfein: “I stand with my fellow service chiefs in saying we’re always stronger together-it’s who we are as Airmen.”

Naval Operations Chief, Admiral John Richardson: “The shameful events in Charlottesville are unacceptable and must not be tolerated… The Navy will forever stand against intolerance and hatred. For those on our team, we want our Navy to be the safest possible place–a team as strong and tough as we can be, saving violence only for our enemies.”

Marine Corps Commandant, General Robert Neller: “No place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC. Our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment frame the way Marines live and act”

National Guard Chief, General Joseph Lengyel: “I stand with my fellow Joint Chiefs in condemning racism, extremism & hatred. Our diversity is our strength.”

Republican politicians continue to condemn the President too. Former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger said yesterday: “The only way to beat the loud, angry voice of hate is to meet them with louder, more reasonable voices. That includes you, President Trump. In fact, as president of this great country, you have a moral responsibility to send an unequivocal message that you won’t stand for hate and racism.”

Mitt Romney expanded his earlier criticism of the President yesterday too: “Whether he intended to or not, what he communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn… His apologists strain to explain that he didn’t mean what we heard. But what we heard is now the reality, and unless it is addressed by the president as such, with unprecedented candor and strength, there may commence an unraveling of our national fabric… He should address the American people, acknowledge that he was wrong, apologize. State forcefully and unequivocally that racists are 100% to blame for the murder and violence in Charlottesville.”

In fact, Romney’s statement about Donald Trump from June 2016 now appears disturbingly prescient: “I think his comments time and again appeal to the racist tendency that exists in some people, and I think that’s very dangerous… I don’t want to see a president of the United States saying things which change the character of the generations of Americans that are following. Presidents have an impact on the nature of our nation. And trickle-down racism, trickle-down bigotry, trickle-down misogyny — all of these things are extraordinarily dangerous to the heart and character of America.”

Instead of responding to any of this criticism, the President is planning his own rally next week in Phoenix. Mayor Greg Stanton responded: “I am disappointed that President Trump has chosen to hold a campaign rally as our nation is still healing from the tragic events in Charlottesville. It is my hope that more sound judgment prevails and that he delays his visit…. If President Trump is coming to Phoenix to announce a pardon for former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, then it will be clear that his true intent is to enflame emotions and further divide our nation.”

I think the entire country now fully understands the President’s “true intent.” I believe you do too.  I don’t know if your refusal to condemn him is based on political calculation or cowardice or both, but the longer you remain silent, the greater your culpability for the damage President Trump is causing our country.

Email #250: “asked to condemn”?

My family is flying home to Virginia today. I had thought that with you and the rest of Congress on vacation, and with the President on a working vacation in New Jersey, that little would have happened while we were away. Instead we return amid the President’s threats of nuclear war with North Korea and to a Virginia that is not only on the front page of U.S. newspapers but a top story in international papers too.

Since I rarely receive even form letters from you anymore, I have to assume that your staff disregards most of my messages. I did not, for example, receive a response to my June 19 email. I wrote:

“The KKK left a flier on my lawn last August—the same month that Donald Trump received the Republican nomination. They’re not the only white supremacists who voted for him because they think he represents their opinions. Because of that identification, false or not, the GOP has an enormous obligation to counter it.

“KKK voters right here in the 6th district voted for you because you’re a Republican. That’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility. You consistently win by huge margins, so your job doesn’t depend on the racist vote. Though if it did, it would still be your moral responsibility to reject it. The KKK and other white supremacist hate groups are rising in our front yards. What are you doing to stop them? What steps are you taking to address hate crimes and the role our President and your party has played in their increase?”

You of course have taken no steps. You have done nothing to stop the rise of white nationalism in Virginia. You haven’t even bothered to create a form letter because you do not respond to topics that do not interest you. The KKK and its support of the President and other GOP members wasn’t important enough in June. Two months later the rise of the KKK in Virginia is an international headline. Instead of responding to the growing crisis that I and I’m sure many others identified, you squandered that time doing nothing. I also wrote to you about the President and white supremacists on April 5:

Donald Trump is being sued for inciting violence. Three protestors were shoved and punched by his supporters at a Kentucky campaign rally last March. The assaults were recorded on video. One of the supporters later apologized, admitting that he “physically pushed a young woman down the aisle toward the exit” after “Trump kept saying ‘get them out, get them out.” Another supporter has attempted to hide the fact that he belongs to a white nationalist group and was at the rally because he believes Trump shares his views.

Trump’s lawyers say he didn’t mean for them to use force, but the judge saw more than enough evidence that the assaults were a direct result of Trump’s violence-inciting words: “It was an order, an instruction, a command.” Trump’s lawyers also tried to hide the fact that the crowd shouted racist and sexist slurs at one of the protesters. The judge said: “While the words themselves are repulsive, they are relevant to show the atmosphere in which the alleged events occurred.”

You did not respond to this letter either. Have enough of your constituents written to you now about the President and white supremacists for you to create a new form letter yet? Alternatively, you could stop pretending that your personal political agenda justifies your blind support of a bigoted President. The neo-Nazi publication The Daily Stormer was pleased by President Trump’s response to the rally and terror attack: “When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

You are being asked to condemn the President, and you are walking out of the room too. But no one is blessing you for it. You should instead consider President Kennedy’s paraphrase of Dante: “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

Email #245: “a very different kind of truth”?

I couldn’t help but enjoy the feature The Roanoker magazine did on you in 2014: “The U.S. Congress’ Clark Kent Wears the Cape in D.C.” I write a lot about superheroes and so appreciated the allusion. When I met the chair of the Rockbridge Republicans at one of your Open Door meeting earlier this summer, he told me Delegate Ben Cline nicknamed me “Professor Comic Book.” Since I’m a professor and I teach comics, I can’t really complain. I’m even presenting a conference paper about comics for the Modernist Studies Association while I’m here in Amsterdam. Though the topic of an early 20th century Belgian artist’s style seems about as far removed from current U.S. politics as I could get it, I was startled to find how much my paper relates to Donald Trump.

Comics scholar Joseph Witek identifies two major modes in comics: naturalism and cartoons. In the first, figures “remain stable as familiar entities, with any changes in shape and size accounted for by the familiar conventions of visual distance and perspective” because “the world depicted within the panels is presumed to be stable.” In contrast, the cartoon mode “disavows any attempt to render the surface appearance of the physical world and makes a very different claim to a very different kind of truth” because stories “assume a fundamentally unstable and infinitely mutable physical reality, where characters and even objects can move and be transformed according to an associative or emotive logic.”

While we could say past Presidents have aligned roughly with political naturalism, President Trump works in the cartoon mode. His reality is fundamentally mutable and unstable. Where contradictory statements by other politicians can produce damaging and often career-ending appearances of incompetence, deception or hypocrisy, for President Trump they are merely what his ghostwriter called “truthful hyperbole.” As Time magazine’s Michael Scherer put it: “Reality, for the reality-show mogul, is something to be invented episode by episode.”

Thus when a poll or statistic that the President declared false in the past produces something favorable to him now, he redraws reality: “They may have been phony in the past, but it’s very real now.” Although the FBI and Special Counsel have stated unequivocally that he is under investigation, the President draws his own picture: “I don’t think we’re under investigation. I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Looking at just a few examples from July alone, the President claimed that he had signed more bills than any other President; that CNN’s ratings were way down; that the GOP won all five special elections; that because of his insistence NATO nations have begun pouring billions of dollars into their defense requirements; that the FBI reports directly to him, that the director of the Boy Scouts called him, and that Lebanon is on the front lines fighting Hezbollah. In fact, several other Presidents signed more bills at this point in their terms; CNN rating were way up; the GOP won four of the five elections; NATO nations agreed to increase spending in 2014; the FBI reports directly to the Attorney General; the director of the Boy Scouts did not call him; and Lebanon is allied with Hezbollah.

Regarding Hezbollah, the Washington Post reported: “It was not clear whether Trump was confused about that, or simply misspoke.” James Comey calls the President’s statements “lies, plain and simple.” The New York Times concludes similarly: “Not every falsehood is deliberate on Trump’s part. But it would be the height of naïveté to imagine he is merely making honest mistakes. He is lying.”

I say he is cartooning. And his sketchbook is our increasingly unstable country.

Email #238: “The president wasn’t involved”?

President Bush’s chief ethics lawyer Richard Painter told The Guardian yesterday that President Trump committed obstruction of justice when he dictated Donald Trump Jr.’s statement claiming his meeting with the Russian lawyer was about adoption policy and not Hillary Clinton. Painter said:

“You’re boxing in a witness into a false story. That puts them under enormous pressure to turn around and lie under oath to be consistent with their story. I think it’s obstruction of justice.”

Before Monday, we were told that the President had no involvement in the statement. His lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said on July 12:

“The president didn’t sign off on anything. He was coming back from the G-20, the statement that was released on Saturday, was released by Donald Trump Jr. and, I’m sure, in consultation with his lawyers. The president wasn’t involved in that.”

Sukelow repeated the claim four days later:

“I do want to be clear — that the president was not involved in the drafting of the statement and did not issue the statement.”

But on Monday, the Washington Post reported oppositely:

“The strategy, the advisers agreed, should be for Donald Trump Jr. to release a statement to get ahead of the story. They wanted to be truthful, so their account couldn’t be repudiated later if the full details emerged. But within hours, at the president’s direction, the plan changed. Flying home from Germany on July 8 aboard Air Force One, Trump personally dictated a statement in which Trump Jr. said that he and the Russian lawyer had ‘primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children’ when they met in June 2016, according to multiple people with knowledge of the deliberations.”

And now, according to new Press Secretary Sanders, the President admits that he was involved:

“The president weighed in as any father would.”

According to the Washington Post, other advisers had warned the President against the statement he constructed:

“Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”

This appears to be exactly the case–made worse by overt lies committed by the President’s lawyer on his behalf.

I would think that as Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, this would be of concern to you. But you have already demonstrated your complete disinterest in overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into the Trump administration even though oversight of the Justice Department and its investigations is your primary responsibility. Still, forgive me if I ask yet again: how will you respond to this latest allegation?