One of my favorite law professors once said, after returning from a conference in Las Vegas, that the place made him wonder not just whether America will survive, but whether it should. America survived the Las Vegas of the early 1970s, and I believe we will survive the Washington of the mid 2010s. But I wonder.
Consider the last weeks of the Obama administration. The New York Times has reported on the White House’s efforts to weaken the incoming president by “spread[ing] information about Russian efforts to undermine the presidential election — and about possible contacts between associates of President-elect Trump and [the] Russians — across the government.” According to the Times, this involved “a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the government.” And, of course, to ensure leaks.
There is good reason to believe that the Obama administration’s efforts involved the improper “unmasking” of Trump campaign and/or transition team members whose communications were captured as the result of surveillance of foreigners. It seems clear that, in at least one case, the communications were unlawfully leaked to the press.
Now consider President Trump. He tweeted: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”
Neither Trump nor his team has been able to point to any evidence the president had at the time of the tweet that this accusation was true. Either he hoped that evidence might turn up later or he just wanted to go on the attack and didn’t care. To date, there is no evidence that Obama had Trump’s wires tapped in Trump Tower.
Now consider the congressional Democrats. On Monday, Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee spent hours arguing that there is reason to believe the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election. All they were lacking was any good evidence of collusion. Like President Trump, they are hoping that evidence will turn up to support accusations of the gravest sort of misconduct by their adversaries, and content to smear them in the meantime.
The Democrats hope to blow enough smoke to bring about the creation of a select congressional committee to investigate their collusion speculation. In reality, an investigation by the respected House Intelligence Committee should be more than sufficient.
But, consider the Republican chairman of that Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes. Yesterday, saying that he had obtained major information from a secret source, Nunes rushed to the White House to share the news with President Trump and then talked to the press.
By doing so, he ingratiated himself with Trump and aggrandized himself. However, by not first sharing the information with Democratic members of his committee, as proper investigatory protocol and process called for, he behaved like a partisan, not like a fair chairman. Therefore, if his report contains information favorable to Trump and/or adverse to the Obama administration, it can plausibly be attacked as politically motivated.
I found Chairman Nunes’ comments to the press confusing at times. It isn’t clear to me that he fully understood that which he breathlessly reported, and I have heard this criticism from others. It looks like he ran to the press and to senior leaders with information he did not fully comprehend and with little regard for the consequences or for the confusion he fomented.
Let’s take a final example, this one having nothing to do with spying or alleged collusion.
Consider Speaker Paul Ryan. Republicans have spent the last seven years complaining about how the Democrats radically reformed one-sixth of our economy by enacting health care insurance before Congress had time to read, much less comprehend, what it was passing. The Democrats paid a heavy political price for doing this.
Now, Speaker Ryan wants to do something similar. His team drafted a health insurance bill with little discussion within the caucus and declared that it presented a binary choice — this bill, perhaps with minor changes or no replacement of Obamacare. When Ryan ran into strong resistance, which he should have anticipated, he made last minute concessions on the fly. Consequently, if the bill is voted on this week, members won’t have a clear idea of what they are voting on. Nor will they have the benefit of analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, or any other such evaluator, of the legislation’s impact.
We’re not a Banana Republic, but neither are we a well-functioning democracy.