Political Animal

One Last Effort to Kill Byron York’s Zombie Lie

On Tuesday, lawyers for former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn filed a Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing with the District Court for the District of Columbia. They hoped to convince Judge Emmet Sullivan to follow the recommendations of the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and restrict Flynn’s punishment to probation and community service when he issues his sentence on December 19th.

There are several interesting things about this document, but I am going to focus on just one of them.  There is a description (self-serving, to be sure) of how Michael Flynn was initially interviewed by the FBI on January 24, 2017, and it conflicts with one of the Republicans’ recurring talking points about Flynn.  I wrote about this most recently on December 5, but also a year earlier on December 4, 2017, three days after it became public knowledge that Flynn had become a cooperating witness.

The short version of this talking point, which has been most enthusiastically promulgated by Washington Examiner reporter Byron York, is that the agents who interviewed Flynn did not detect any signs of deception.  James Comey and his then-deputy Andrew McCabe both testified to this before Congress, which York took to mean that the FBI did not initially believe that Flynn had lied to them.  He used this “fact,” along with a frontal attack on the suggestion that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act (or should have been questioned or punished for it even if he did) to argue that Flynn had been wrongly pursued by Robert Mueller for his conversations about sanctions relief with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.

The Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing offers a better explanation of what actually happened, and it dovetails exactly with I wrote in both of my pieces on York. At 12:35pm on January 24, 2017, then-deputy director of the FBI Andrew McCabe called General Flynn in his West Wing office and told him that he needed to send over two agents to question him about his phone calls with Kislyak. He explained that Flynn could have legal representation present if he wanted, including the White House counsel, but that this would necessitate the FBI getting the Department of Justice involved. Flynn agreed to waive his right to representation in the interest of speeding up the process.

At 2:15pm, the two agents arrived at the White House and spoke to Flynn. Prior to their interview, they had agreed as a matter of strategy not to spook Flynn by reminding him of his rights (which they were not obligated to do). They had also agreed on what to do if Flynn lied to them.

When I was analyzing this meeting, I knew for certain that the FBI had recordings and transcripts of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. What I did not know for certain was whether the agents interviewing Flynn had been told the exact contents of those calls. I assumed they were armed with that information, but York’s whole argument was premised, at least implicitly, on the idea that the agents left the meeting thinking Flynn had been honest with them.

But in Flynn’s own plea for mercy before the court, we have confirmation that the FBI agents knew exactly what Flynn had said and that they chose as a strategy to repeat his own words back to him if he lied, which they presumably did. Their strategy also entailed refraining from confronting Flynn with the transcripts. Basically, if he chose to lie, their worst fears would be confirmed and they would then have to regroup.

Obviously, they could not have repeated Flynn’s own words back to him without producing the written transcript unless they had memorized the key phrases. They knew Flynn was lying the second he opened his mouth, and this was confirmed by James Comey during his December 7, 2018 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee. Below, you can see how Comey responded to Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina when questioned on this point.

According to Comey, far from leaving the meeting with Flynn satisfied, the agents had concluded that he was “obviously lying.” Then, without mentioning Byron York directly, Comey characterized his theory as “the product of a garble[d]” interpretation of his prior testimony.

Now, this may seem like a minor dispute in the greater scheme of things, but York has been a key player in convincing a large percentage of this country that Flynn is a good man who was wrongly persecuted by the Deep State in an effort to wrong-foot the incoming Trump administration and disrupt their legitimate intent to thaw relations with Russia. As recently as December 4, 2018, Mr. York wrote the following in the Washington Examiner:

The FBI did not originally think Flynn lied. In March, 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that the two FBI agents who questioned Flynn “did not detect any deception” during the interview and “saw nothing that indicated to them that [Flynn] knew he lying to them,” according to the committee’s report on the investigation into the Trump-Russia affair. Comey said essentially the same thing to the Senate Judiciary Committee and, in the words of Chairman Chuck Grassley, “led us to believe … that the Justice Department was unlikely to prosecute [Flynn] for false statements made in the interview.”

FBI number two Andrew McCabe told the House the same thing. “The two people who interviewed [Flynn] didn’t think he was lying, [which] was not [a] great beginning of a false statement case,” McCabe told the Intelligence Committee.

Only later, after Comey was fired and Mueller began his investigation, was Flynn accused of lying. He ultimately pleaded guilty.

Just as I had attempted to do a year earlier, I put considerable effort behind trying to debunk the claims York made just last week. It is simply not true that the FBI “did not originally think Flynn lied.” York took a couple of comments out of context to implausibly suggest that the FBI was initially satisfied with Flynn’s responses.  He then argued that the FBI only decided that Flynn had lied months later, after Mueller got involved.

This never made any sense. The FBI gave the Department of Justice a “detailed readout” of what had happened in the interview with Flynn the very next day, on January 25th, 2017, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates called White House Counsel Don McGahn first thing in the morning on the 26th to tell him she had “a very sensitive matter” that could only be discussed face to face.

[Yates] explained to McGahn the reasons why the DOJ was informing the White House of this — Flynn’s conduct was “problematic in and of itself,” they believed [Vice-President Mike] Pence was entitled to know the information about Flynn he was spreading “wasn’t true,” and that the American people had been misled about Flynn’s actions.

Yates stressed that one of the reasons why the DOJ decided to notify McGahn was because the Russians were aware of Flynn’s conduct, including that Flynn had misled Pence and that she had not accused Pence of “knowingly providing false information to the American people.”

“This was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this, but that they likely had proof of this information,” Yates said during her testimony today. “And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”

Yates and the DOJ official presented all the information to McGahn so the White House could take action that they deemed appropriate.

Given that timeline of events, I don’t think Byron York ever truly believed the lies he was spreading, but those lies have been very effective. So, I am trying again to kill this zombie lie. The FBI never thought that Flynn was telling the truth. They always knew that he had lied.

Maybe Judge Emmet Sullivan will conclude that Flynn has compensated for lying to the FBI about a matter of national security and does not deserve any jail time. That is not what I would conclude.

As for York, he’s simply changed his attack to fit the new facts.

He doesn’t apologize or correct the record. He just keeps going, like an evil Energizer Bunny.

Kevin McCarthy: The Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time House Minority Leader

We’ve all seen how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell revels in playing power games. But Joan Walsh half-jokingly suggested that incoming House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy might be happy that Democrats won a majority in that chamber, because “he doesn’t really want to be responsible for trying to pass the GOP’s unpopular political agenda, against the backdrop of nonstop Trump scandals, anyway. Would you?”

Recently, McCarthy complained to Fox News’s Bill Hemmer about what Democrats plan to do with their majority in the House.

“It looks like what they’re going to focus on is more investigations,” McCarthy said on Fox News. “I think America is too great a nation to have such a small agenda.

“I think there’s other problems out there that we really should be focused upon,” he continued. “And my belief is, let’s see where we can work together. Let’s move America forward.”

That came from the same guy who bragged about how the endless Benghazi investigations were so effective back in 2015.

Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the likely successor to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), told Fox News’s Sean Hannity explicitly on Tuesday night that the Clinton investigation was part of a “strategy to fight and win.”

He explained: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.”

On Monday, McCarthy showed up on CNBC to comment on the Russia investigation.

I see nothing. Everything they’ve laid out builds the case that there is nothing there. You’ve had the House, the Senate, Democrats even say there is nothing there. They wanted something to be there but there is nothing there.

You might remember that this is the same guy who got caught on a secret recording back in 2016.

A month before Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination, one of his closest allies in Congress — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — made a politically explosive assertion in a private conversation on Capitol Hill with his fellow GOP leaders: that Trump could be the beneficiary of payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” McCarthy (R-Calif.) said, according to a recording of the June 15, 2016, exchange, which was listened to and verified by The Washington Post. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is a Californian Republican known in Congress as a fervent defender of Putin and Russia.

In other words, McCarthy had reason to believe that Vladimir Putin was paying Donald Trump, but now he wants to pretend like there is “nothing there” when it comes to the investigations.

McCarthy is not only a hypocrite (a description that applies to an awful lot of Republicans these days), he doesn’t seem to know when to keep his mouth shut. Also, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

All of this suggests that the next couple of years could be very interesting.

When It Comes to Divisive Tribalism, Both Sides Don’t Do It

For at least the last 10 years, the most persistent myth in politics has been the one that “both sides do it.” For example, Chuck Todd recently suggested that, when it comes to the kinds of anti-democratic shenanigans Republicans are pulling after the midterms in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, both sides do it. That is not true. Beyond the behavior of Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, nothing has contributed more to the demise of our democracy and its institutions.

If pundits were to actually pay attention, they’d see examples every day that both sides don’t do it. For example, recently I’ve been pointing out that, unlike Republicans during the Obama presidency, Democrats have been willing to negotiate on things like criminal justice reform and the farm bill. Here’s another example of how both sides don’t do it.

I recently noticed another example of how both sides don’t do it. Democrats and Republicans in the House have chosen the representatives who will chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), the groups that will head up their party’s election efforts in 2020.

Democrats chose Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL).

Bustos most recently served as chair of heartland engagement, a new position to which [former chair Rep. Ben Ray] Luján appointed her in the summer of 2017. As one of the co-chairs of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, she’s currently the only elected member of leadership from the Midwest.

Bustos has championed herself as a Democrat who knows how to win in Republican territory, which her supporters think will be valuable to the party when it’s trying to defend its new majority in 2020…“I know how to protect this House. I know how to build this House,” Bustos said Thursday.

Trump narrowly carried Bustos’ 17th District in Illinois, and that was a big part of her pitch to the caucus…Bustos won re-election in 2018 by 24 points — a larger margin than any other Democrat in a Trump-voting district.

In other words, the Democrats chose a chair who can help them extend the blue wave of 2018 by doing a better job of competing in red districts.

On the other hand, Republicans chose Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN). Perhaps the most important thing to know about him is that he succeeded Rep. Michele Bachman, founder of the congressional Tea Party caucus, in Minnesota’s 6th congressional district. But those of us who live in the state also remember that in 2010, he ran for governor. It was Emmer’s embrace of the Tea Party, combined with his extremist views, that led another Republican—Tom Horner—to enter the race as an Independence Party candidate in order to give the more sane voters of his party an alternative. The result was that Emmer and Horner split the Republican vote and allowed Democrat Mark Dayton to be elected with less that 44 percent of the vote.

While Bustos won re-election handily in a district that went for Trump, Emmers now “represents a safe Republican seat in central Minnesota that President Donald Trump carried by 26 points in 2016.” This signals that, while Republicans will continue to focus primarily on their base, Democrats are prepared to reach out to voters in red districts.

That distinction between the two parties explains why, when it comes to governing, Republicans are dismissive of the opposition (casting them as “other” or “the enemy”) and are content to fan the flames of divisive tribalism. Meanwhile, Democrats know that our democratic institutions require a broad coalition that is prepared to listen to the needs of the entire country, not just the party’s base. In other words, bothsiderism is a lie, and anyone who pays attention to objective facts should know that.

Trump’s Catastrophic Meeting with Chuck and Nancy

A full transcript of the acrimonious Oval Office meeting that occurred Tuesday between President Trump, Vice-President Pence, Chuck Schumer, and Nancy Pelosi is available here. It was an extraordinarily humiliating experience for the president, and the fallout is already being felt on Capitol Hill.

Jerry Moran is a Republican senator from Kansas. He’s obviously not pleased with Trump’s performance. And it’s not just that Trump voluntarily offered to take “the mantle” of responsibility for a government shutdown. He had invited the Democratic leaders to the White House because he needs their help and then he proceeded to spew a fire hydrant level of lies about the border wall and related topics that Schumer and Pelosi shot down with mocking contempt.

On several occasions, Pelosi begged Trump to stop forcing them to contradict him in public in front of the press before the negotiations could even begin, but he insisted on pressing on, only to get owned over and over again.

Schumer laughed at him for attempting to say that he had gotten some kind of mandate out of the midterms: “When the president brags that he won North Dakota and Indiana, he’s in real trouble.” He pointed out that he had just repeated the same lies about the border wall that had inspired the new “Bottomless Pinocchio” rating from the Washington Post. He caught Trump in a contradiction, saying that our border security was terrible after opening his remarks by touting its effectiveness. He pointed out that Trump hasn’t even spent the money for border security that he received last year. Then he told Trump that he had called for a government shutdown twenty separate times and got Trump to commit the mother of all blunders:

TRUMP: And I’ll tell you what, I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems, and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.

Meanwhile, Pelosi correctly told the president that he could not even pass his wall spending through the Republican House and refused to back down on that point in the face of repeated assertions to the contrary. She challenged the president to prove her wrong and told him that his wall “is wasteful and doesn’t solve the problem.” When Trump suggested that she was weak and couldn’t negotiate, she used the opportunity to show her strength and solidify her support within her caucus.

PELOSI: Mr. President — Mr. President, please don’t characterize the strength that I bring to this meeting as the leader of the House Democrats, who just won a big victory.

SCHUMER: Elections have consequences, Mr. President.

But probably the most important point Pelosi made was her most succinct statement of the entire meeting, “You will not win.”

Keep in mind that the entire reason that Schumer and Pelosi were invited to this meeting is because Trump needs their help to keep the government open. He cannot rely on only Republican votes in either the House or the Senate. He started out on the right foot by praising bipartisan cooperation on criminal justice reform and the Farm Bill, but then everything quickly fell apart because he decided to repeat lies in front of an audience that was simply not going to countenance his mendacity.

So, not only did Trump ruin any chance he had at getting anywhere in the negotiations, but he also completely lost the battle over who would be blamed if the negotiations broke down. And, in the process, he gave another example to Senate Republicans of why they do not want him in the White House one day longer than is necessary.