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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Comey Over

May 10, 2017

Comey Over

Let's look back to January 24, 2017:

When Mr. Comey and the president-elect met at Trump Tower for the first time this month for an intelligence briefing, Mr. Trump told the F.B.I. director that he hoped he would remain in his position, according to people briefed on the matter. And Mr. Trump's aides have made it clear to Mr. Comey that the president does not plan to ask him to leave, these people said.

If President Trump was really bothered by how FBI director James Comey handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails — and recall he praised the director's decisions on the campaign trail last autumn — then the normal, sensible thing would have been to let Comey know there was an intention to make a change during the transition.

Even if Trump found himself disappointed with Comey's performance once he was in the Oval Office, a normal administration gets their ducks in a row before making a big, dramatic step like this. The arguments and justification for the move are put in place and on paper. Talking points are distributed. Rumors often leak. Replacement names start to surface. A figure on his way out, like Comey, starts to read the handwriting on the wall. By the time the announcement is made, it's almost old news; everyone's had time to acclimate to the change.

Not in this administration. In the Trump administration, even the White House staff gets blindsided:

The news stunned Comey, who saw his dismissal on TV while speaking inside the FBI office in Los Angeles. It startled all but the uppermost ring of White House advisers, who said grumbling about Comey hadn't dominated their own morning senior staff meetings. Other top officials learned just before it happened and were unaware he was considering firing Comey. "Nobody really knew," one senior White House official said. "Our phones all buzzed and people said, What?"…

By Tuesday evening, the president was watching the coverage of his decision and frustrated no one was on TV defending him, a White House official said. He wanted surrogates out there beating the drum.

Instead, advisers were attacking each other for not realizing the gravity of the situation as events blew up. "How are you not defending your position for three solid hours on TV?" the White House aide said.

Even if you're a diehard fan of Trump, you have to concede he's being poorly served by his staff, if they're allowing presidential decisions to be enacted this quickly and haphazardly. (According to the New York Times, chief of staff Reince Priebus disagreed with the decision and managed to briefly delay it.)

How could anyone at the White House possibly not grasp that firing an FBI director will be a supremely controversial decision? The only other time a president asked an FBI director to step down was in William Sessions in 1993, and that was after a report by Attorney General William P. Barr that found…

Sessions falsely claimed a tax exemption on the home-to-work use of his official limousine, billed the Government for personal trips on Federal Bureau of Investigation aircraft, built a security fence for his home at Government expense and did not cooperate with investigators looking into accusations that he received special treatment from a bank on his mortgage loan for his house in Washington.

It's much easier to justify a firing when you've got a list of ethics problems!

Last night, we learned that the administration was so sloppy that Trump's decision leaked to the media before the letter firing Comey was delivered to the FBI; the director learned by watching television and initially thought it was a prank.

What's more, it seems clear that the Trump administration doesn't have any particular replacement candidates in line. The administration looks amateurish, erratic, and disorganized.

You can throw "FBI director" atop the long list of law enforcement leadership positions that are still waiting for a nominee from the White House. President Trump hasn't yet named a nominee for the director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or the chief administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the director of the U.S. Marshals Service. Elsewhere in the Department of Justice, Trump hasn't nominated anyone to be the assistant attorney general for the national security division, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, or a DHS assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

We're approaching mid May.

Hooray! We Have Some FERC Nominees!

One bit of good news on the Trump appointment front: The White House has finally – finally! –named some official nominees to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Trump plans to nominate Neil Chatterjee, a senior energy adviser to McConnell who previously worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, for terms expiring in 2021 and 2020, respectively, an emailed statement from the White House late Monday shows. Kevin McIntyre, co-head of Jones Day's global energy practice, was said to be Trump's pick to lead the agency.

Bloomberg was able to get additional cost estimates for more of those proposed energy infrastructure projects, and concluded that $50 billion in proposed projects are waiting for approval from FERC, which legally can't approve anything until they get at least one more commissioner. They need three for a quorum, and have had only two since February; usually they have five. This is the first time in the agency's history that it hasn't had a quorum.

As I've written repeatedly, this is an embarrassment. These are big, privately funded infrastructure projects — mostly new pipelines, pressure-management stations and liquid-natural-gas terminals – that will create thousands of construction and operating jobs, both union and non-union, in places like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. These are exactly the sort of good-paying blue-collar construction and heavy-industry jobs that President Trump promised he would bring back to these places, that cost U.S. taxpayers nothing, and all of them were left collecting dust for a few months because the White House couldn't get its act together and nominate new commissioners.

Once FERC has a quorum, the agency may not approve all of these projects. They may look at the plans and require revisions for environmental impact, safety, to minimize the use of eminent domain, etc. FERC could conclude the projects are duplicative of existing infrastructure, or have questions about the financing. But at least these projects can now move forward and the companies itching to spend all that money to build them can get some answers.

Christopher Guith, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Energy Institute, is elated.

"Given the complexity and importance of the issues before the Commission, President Trump made phenomenal picks in Commissioner Powelson and Neil Chatterjee," Guith said. "From strained competitive markets to crucial energy infrastructure, these nominations are a great step toward securing America's energy future."

Questions Spurred by Recent Events…

What do you do when someone you know commits suicide?

What do you do when no one seems to know why he committed suicide?

How do you grieve when you're angry at the person for making that decision?

There are circumstances where suicide is… if it's never right, there are situations you can at least understand why. A dire health diagnosis, with pain and suffering ahead. An imminent arrest and imprisonment, or some impending revelation and disgrace or humiliation. Something where the road ahead looks so unbearable, so hopeless, that the quick self-imposed ending appears perversely easier. If any of these thoughts are going through your head, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be found here.

What do you do when that explanation isn't there? What do you do when someone seemed fine and normal on the outside one day and then the next… that person chooses to do the unthinkable, with no warning?

How could this person leave so many friends and family wondering why, and why he never told them, and what they could have or should have done? How could he leave everyone in this situation, and think that this was better than whatever problem would have existed with him continuing his life?

How does everybody move on, not even knowing if this was a long-brewing thought in his mind, or something that gathered momentum quickly?

When something like this can come along and shock you without warning… what else don't we know about the world?

ADDENDA: Thanks to everyone who's been listening to the pop culture podcast; for some reason, the most recent episode has been particularly popular.

Meanwhile, the Die Hard references on the Three Martini Lunch podcast are growing more common and more subtle. Someday when we don't have a real sponsor, we'll throw in one for Nakatomi Corporation.

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