Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Book Review: Michael Pollan's 'How To Change Your Mind,' A Psychedelic Odyssey

Timothy Leary ruined it for the rest of us. 
When Richard Nixon declared the washed-up Harvard psychology professor to be "the most dangerous man in America" in 1971 for advocating the use of LSD and other psychedelics, it marked the crashing end of a golden age that began in the early 1950s in places as far flung as Northern California, Baltimore and Saskatchewan where scientists and therapists had begun developing theoretical frameworks and therapeutic protocols to use psychedelics -- primarily LSD and psilocybin -- to help heal people. 
If Leary hadn't spoiled the party someone else surely would have.  This is because as psychedelic use leaped the wall from the laboratory and psychiatrist's couch to the counterculture, Nixon and the ultra-puritanical American establishment saw these drugs as a serious threat to civil order, which at the time included the willingness of young men to get themselves killed in Vietnam. 
Additionally, the news media was in full panic mode with apocryphal stories of college students going blind after taking LSD and staring at the sun and people suffering terrifying and suicide-inducing "acid flashbacks" weeks and months after using LSD. 
But before LSD and other psychedelics were outlawed in the late 1960s and government funding of psychedelic research dried up, hundreds of studies were conducted and scientific papers published confirming that in unlocking the mind with psychedelics, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses could be treated, alcoholics and cigarette smokers cured and the existential distress of terminal cancer patients relieved, among many other seeming medical miracles. 
As scientists and therapists began to better understand the biochemistry of mental and physical illnesses, their deepening curiosity about the power of the psychedelic experience led them to realize that the supervised "trips" taken by psychotics, addicts and disease sufferers were overwhelmingly, if bafflingly, positive despite their often dire straits.  Rather than lurching into madness, they felt the spiritual transcendence that I and other so-called "healthy normals," in clinical parlance, have experienced while tripping. 
There perhaps were not enough skeptics and too many evangelists back in the day.   
Many studies ended up being self-fulfilling exercises for the people who designed them, "rendering their conclusions biased by their own ecstasy," as one critic put it, and not more rigorous placebo-controlled double-blind experiments that were the scientific gold standard.  But the therapeutic and mind-expanding powers of psychedelics had become undeniable, and the eternal puzzle of human consciousness was perhaps becoming a little less so. 
Among the evangelists were Aldous Huxley, who wrote the psychedelic classic Doors of Perception in 1954.  Then there was Al Hubbard, a conservative Catholic who became known as the Johnny Appleseed of LSD and did pioneering work with recovering alcoholics while turning on a Who's Who of future Silicon Valley entrepreneurs in the 1960s, including Steve Jobs of Apple, before the area was even called that.   
Engineers in particular seemed taken with psychedelics during this First Wave, and played key roles in transforming computers from engines of the military-industrial complex to tools for personal liberation and virtual communication.  Myron Stolaroff, who designed the legendary Ampex 200A reel-to-reel tape recorder, went on to establish the International Foundation for Advanced Study, a non-profit medical research organization that conducted clinical studies with LSD and mescaline that eventually involved about 350 participants.       
Michael Pollan covers this little-known history to great and insightful effect in the recently-published How To Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.  But he doesn't stop there and writes how, beginning in the mid-2000s, a new generation of psychedelic researchers began repairing the grave damage Leary had done to psychedelic research.  They dug through the ruins of that first burst of activity and discovered all over again the largely unmapped frontier in our understanding of the mind, the self, and our place in the world.   
Which in turn led Pollan, a self-described square but a most excellent participatory journalist and author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma, among other books, to trip three times -- on LSD, on psilocybin mushrooms and on the potent smoked crystallized venom of the Sonoran Desert toad (honest) -- and assemble and vividly describe his experiences in How to Change Your Mind. 
The book concludes with an examination of the neuroscience of psychedelics (it's not for nothing that the neurotransmitter serotonin has a strong resemblance to psychedelic molecules) and the use of psychedelics in psychotherapy.   
The long, strange trip of Timothy Leary was far from over after he and Harvard parted ways in 1963 with collapse of a freak show of a study, his scandal-drenched Harvard Psilocybin Project. 
(Very) long story short, Leary went on the road with fellow prof Richard Alpert, who would become Ram Das of Be Here Now fame, forever earning them the emnity of freaked-out parents and politicians.  Under the banner of the Federation of Internal Freedom, which morphed into the League for Spiritual Discovery, they landed in Zihuatenejo, Mexico, where the government kicked them out under pressure from U.S. authorities, then the Caribbean island of Dominica, where that government kicked them out, on to Millbrook, a mansion in upstate New York, and then the Human Be-In in San Francisco in January 1967 where Leary, now wearing white robes, love beads (and, of course, flowers in his graying hair), first uttered the immortal words "Turn on, tune in, drop out." 
The U.S. government stepped up its harassment efforts and busted Leary for marijuana in 1966.  He was imprisoned, escaped with the help of the Weatherman revolutionary group, fled to Algeria and into the arms of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver, then to Switzerland, Vienna, Beirut and Kabul, where U.S. agents finally caught up to him and he resumed his odyssey through the extraordinary 29 prisons in which he was incarcerated before California Governor Jerry Brown ordered his release in 1976.  Leary resumed his proselytizing for the use of psychedelics and branched out into advocating the importance of space colonization and extending the human lifespan before his videotaped death in 1996 . 
Writes Pollan:
Leary's post-Harvard "antics" are relevant to the extent they contributed to the moral panic that now engulfed psychedelics and doomed the research.  Leary became a poster boy not just for the drugs but for the idea that a crucial part of the counterculture's DNA could be spelled out in the letters LSD
Would things have turned out differently had the cultural identity of drugs been shaped by someone like Al Hubbard?   
No, and one of the richer ironies of psychedelic history is that the CIA bought and paid for the first LSD trip taken by novelist Ken Kesey.  Kesey's inaugural trip, part of a study at the VA Hospital in Menlo Park, California, was an adjunct of the secret MK-Ultra program, the CIA's decade-long effort to find out whether LSD could be weaponized, which is the subject Wormwood, of Errol Morris's superb, must-see documentary. 
In what Kesey aptly called "the revolt of the guinea pigs," he and his Merry Pranksters organized a series of Acid Tests in which thousands of young people in the Bay Area were given LSD, which did much to shape what Pollan calls "the new zeitgeist."
The term psychedelic was coined in 1956 in an exchange of letters between Aldous Huxley and Humphrey Osmond when the ex-pat English psychiatrist and LSD therapy trailblazer combined two Greek words that together mean "mind manifesting." Pollan writes that his own understanding interpretation of his three trips remains a work in progress, but
I have no problem using the word "spiritual" to describe elements of what I saw and felt, as long as it's not taken in a supernatural sense. . . . Wonders and (and terrors) we're ordinarily defended against flow into our awareness , the far ends of the sensory spectrum, which are normally invisible to us, our senses can suddenly admit.  While the ego sleeps, the mind plays, proposing unexpected patters of thought and new rays of relation.  The gulf between self and world, that no man's land which in ordinary hours the ego so vigilantly patrols, closes down, allowing us to feel less separate and more connected . . . it seems to be in the crucible of that merging that death loses some of its sting.
I first took LSD in 1968 and in one fell swoop radically changed how I looked at life.  As in forever.  
Long story short, psychedelics enabled me to be more humble, more appreciative of the interactions between people and nature, less ego driven and happier.  As well as making me a felon.  But how do I know that my trips were not spiritual events, as they often were, rather than merely a drug experience?  That question, whether you are a researcher, therapist or mere healthy normal, is unanswerable.  All you can do is "Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream," as the Beatles sing in "Tomorrow Never Knows."  
Over the next decade I tripped perhaps 100 times on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, peyote and MDA (a close relative of Ecstasy which technically is not a psychedelic).  I tripped while holding down responsible jobs, although never on the job, made a fair amount of dough, won awards and was a doting son to parents whose attitudes about recreational drugs were . . . um, liberal.  I tripped while snorkeling off Seven Mile Reef in the Florida Keys, atop a 13,000 foot mountain in the Colorado Rockies, at a fair number of Grateful Dead concerts (natch) and in a chaotic hospital emergency room where I took a friend who split open his head while playing in an acid-soaked game of volleyball. 
One trip in particular — my first solo on LSD — remains especially memorable.  "How do you put into words an experience said to be ineffable?" asks Pollan, but I gave it a shot in one of my books:
"I wandered into a field [from the remote farmhouse where I lived] and sat down.  I was overwhelmed by visuals.  It felt as if I were in an airliner flying through pockets of turbulence with no seat belt to hold me down, while my only tie to the temporal world was the sweat running from my armpits and down my sides.  The sweat felt strangely cold although the afternoon was warm. 
"I laid on my back and looked up. The pearlescent clouds raced faster and faster.  I had the sensation of there being a symphonic overture to a great event that was about to unfold, which I later deduced was a snippet from Antonioni's Zabriskie Point 
"Then a massive draft horse tawny gold in color galloped out of the clouds, its muscular sinews, broad back, powerful hindquarters and long mane glistening in the sun as I pressed myself into the ground.  The field became cloaked in shadow as it approached, silently galloped overhead and was gone.  I was terrified.   
"That horse began visiting me in my dreams a few years ago, which begs the question of whether it is possible to have acid flashbacks while sleeping. 
"I thought I only tripped for the heck of it until I recently reread some of my journals from my time at the farm.  They were embarrassing piffle for the most part. . . . But it is obvious from some entries that I sometimes tripped to try to unlock a sort of alembic of creative thought.  Did I succeed?  More or less.  For one thing, I concluded, as greater minds had long before me, you can only dream that which exists.  For another, my life has been deeply informed by my trips and better for them."  
By 2018, the profound hypocrisy that had made nonaddictive LSD a Schedule 1 controlled drug just like heroin, cocaine and even marijuana was obvious to anyone with a brain.    
These people, of course, do not include Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his partners in crime who still are happily destroying lives 46 years after Nixon coined the term "War on Drugs," although marijuana legalization has taken hold in saner climes despite the feds. 
Our relationship with drugs remains fundamentally twisted.  While our leaders piously proclaim that drugs are perdition in a powder, tablet, eye dropper or rolled cigarette, they are constantly looking for ways to get high, be it martinis or prescription mood alterers.   Still, the reins on institutional psychedelic research and therapy programs have been loosened somewhat, while so-called underground therapists assisting people like Pollan on their trips ("journeys" is the preferred term) are being left alone although their work technically remains illegal. 
Meanwhile, way back in February 1979 in the dark ages following the First Wave, virtually all of the important figures in American psychedelic research gathered for a reunion in Los Angeles.  Among those present were Humphrey Osmond, Al Hubbard, Myron Stolaroff and good old Timothy Leary. 
As Pollan relates the encounter based on a blurry videotape recording,
The old men reminisce, a bit stiffly at first.  Some hard feelings hang in the air. But Leary, still charming, is remarkably generous, putting everyone at ease. Their best days are behind them; the great project to which their lives lay in ruins.  But something important was accomplished, they all believe -- else they wouldn't be here at this reunion.  [Psychoanalyst] Sidney Cohen, dressed in a jacket and tie, asks the question on everyone's mind -- "What does it all mean?" -- and ventures an answer: "It stirred people up.  It cracked their frame of reference by the thousands -- millions perhaps.  And anything that does that is pretty good I think." 
It is Leary, of all people, who asks the group, "Does anyone here feel that mistakes we made?"  
Osmond, at age 62 still the unfailingly polite Englishman, declines to use the word "mistake."
"What I would say is . . . you could have seen other ways of doing it. There was a mistake made: nobody gave it to Nixon!" 

Richard Codor's Cartoon du Jour

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Yes, Donald Trump Should Be Impeached. But Be Careful Of What You Wish For.

The toxic fallout from the transformation of the Republican Party into a Donald Trump-worshipping cult controlled by racists, white nationalists, misogynists, gerrymanderers, flat earthers and other extremists will be felt for years to come even as the one-time Party of Lincoln inevitably faces eventual national electoral oblivion.  But nowhere is its evil more immediately and deeply felt than in congressional Republicans' unquestioning support of Trump and their neutering of the most effective tool in the constitutional kit bag to rid America of a bad president -- impeachment. 
This is hammered home in a splendid and vitally important new book -- To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment by constitutional law powerhouse Laurence Tribe and legal scholar Joshua Matz. 
While believing that there are ample grounds for Trump's impeachment (more about that later), the authors offer not the polemic you might expect from flaming liberals but a judicious and deeply cautious study in which they warn that impeachment is a very dangerous thing and its advocates in the Age of Trump are well advised to proceed with extreme caution. 
The reason that the man who already has a lock on being the worst and certainly the most destructive president in history after only 17 months in office is not likely to be impeached without a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives and even then is unlikely to be removed, is the absolute fealty of those congressional Republicans no matter how destructive, outrageous and downright treasonous Trump's actions and the misprisons of their constitutionally-mandated responsibilities are. 
Write Tribe and Matz:
"Well-justified calls to impeach the president can simultaneously empower him, harm his political opponents, and make his removal from office less likely . . . Because removing a truly determined tyrant may unleash havoc, the risks of impeaching a president are apt to be most extreme precisely when ending his tenure is most necessary."
The Founding Fathers, in carefully crafting a means to remove a tyrannical president from office, got it mostly right.  Impeachment is a fraught process, requiring both the House as prosecutor and Senate as judge and jury, and built into the process are numerous checks to prevent impeachment from being used frivolously.   
That is why a mere five presidents faced credible impeachment threats until 1992: Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  By contrast, To End a Presidency notes that every president since that year has faced a real threat of impeachment. 
Bill Clinton, of course, actually was impeached, although less because of impeachable conduct as president than a partisan witch hunt over Whitewater that morphed into prurient outrage over his lies concerning Oval Office blowjobs when allegations over that problematic Arkansas land deal wouldn't stick.  (This hyper-partisan zeal to get Clinton foreshadowed even more intensive Republican efforts to obstruct Barack Obama.)   
What the Founders could not have anticipated in crafting the Impeachment Clauses was a fundamental breakdown in the balance of federal powers they so carefully constructed any more than the Second Amendment's provision for a "well-regulated militia" resulting in a long mature republic where there would be 300 million guns carried concealed in shoulder holsters and belts, stowed in car trunks, arrayed on pickup truck rifle racks, and displayed in cabinets and over fireplaces, the result being a sick subculture that encourages the purchase, possession and carrying of unlimited numbers of those weapons whose sole purpose is to kill and maim.  
That balance-of-power breakdown is, of course, because of a Republican-controlled House so profoundly irresponsible as to abet Trump's methodical destruction of every value we hold dear, and in the case of the Russia scandal, to conjure increasingly wackier, fact-absent deep-state plot conspiracies against the president in demanding an end to Special Counsel Robert Mueller's lawful investigation. 
Driving the House Republicans' hubris is that we live in an era of the permanent campaign -- and the unrelenting background noise of impeachment whether the president be a Bush or Obama -- and that the concept that a president could be a threat to our democratic system has faded because faith in the system has faded. 
Write Tribe and Matz:
"Many Americans who voted for Trump view themselves as belonging to a victimized, disenfranchised class that has finally discovered its champion.  For some of them, Trump's appeal is less what he will accomplish programmatically than whom he will attack personally.  Were Trump removed from office by political elites in Washington, D.C. -- even based on clear evidence that he had grossly abused power -- some of his supporters would surely view the decision as an illegitimate coup. Indeed, some right-wing leaders have already denounced the campaign to remove Trump as a prelude to civil war.  This rhetoric, too, escapes reality and indulges pernicious tendencies toward apocalyptic thinking about the impeachment power."
Although it will explode liberal heads, Tribe and Matz note time and again that impeachment is a political question, not a legal one. 
Consequently, while the Founders' "high Crimes and Misdemeanors" -- their enigmatic catch-all as grounds for impeachment in addition to Treason and Bribery—would appear to fit neatly with Trump's misdeeds, impeachment may still be unwise because it would be so divisive that the price may be higher and the benefits more modest than Democrats and others opposed to Trump would envision. 
Tribe and Matz argue — albeit in the abstract — that a race to impeachment can short-circuit public deliberation and preclude a president admitting error and promising to do better.  Well, there already has been ample public deliberation and Trump as a textbook malignant narcissist will never admit erring, let alone apologize. 
Still, there is the deeply sobering reality that even if Democrats recapture the House, their majority is likely to be gruel thin and possibly insufficient to approve articles of impeachment  -- although that only would require a simple majority — and forward the articles to the Senate for trial, where in the Founders' infinite caution they established the high bar of a super two-thirds majority to convict.   
(The Senate vote to convict Clinton on a single article of impeachment on a perjury charge failed by a 45-55 vote, and in the end the Republican-led impeachment effort was an expensive and time-consuming flop because the public correctly viewed it as an exercise in partisan animus.) 
So what's to be done?   
Tribe and Matz say the answer is politics, because grand visions of putting Trump on trial
"[F]alsely devalue other ways of defending democracy, including popular activism, local and state political engagement, filing lawsuits, donating to civil rights groups, and undertaking private ventures in the public interest."
I share your pain.  Or at least feel it, but the view posited in To End a Presidency is cold, clear and lucid to a fault.  The authors write that:
"Trump will not be removed from power unless a large number of Republicans and independents, along with Democrats, agree that he has to go.  But the truth is that most of those voters don’t believe the sky is falling. Nor are they automatically inclined to view impeachment as an appropriate sanction for Trump -- even when they disagree with him or find him embarrassing.  . . . And they may be especially wary of joining an impeachment crusade led by a party that they otherwise disdain. . . . It is hard enough to persuade the president's supporters under any circumstances that he should be removed for 'high Crimes and Misdemeanors.'  We doubt the wisdom of making it harder still by describing that effort as the first shot of a revolution -- or, even less realistically, as a revolution in itself."
For the record, while Tribe and Matz argue for moderation -- that it may be better to not impeach Trump -- they believe he meets impeachment criteria on three grounds:   
First, that he came into office illicitly through his campaign's collusion with Russia to cybersabotage Hillary Clinton, possibly because the Kremlin has withheld embarrassing or incriminating information about him in return for his cooperation, and that he has obstructed justice in firing FBI Director James Comey and enlisting his Republican sycophancy to threaten and undermine Mueller. 
Second, flagrantly violating the constitutional prohibition against unlawful emoluments through his continuing ownership stake in the Trump Organization and numerous actions as president to benefit his private financial interests in how he has dealt with foreign government officials, as well as elevating his own children to prominent public positions.   
And third, his pardon of Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff, which can be accurately characterized as the presidential endorsement of violent racism because Arpaio had perpetrated a campaign of terror and atrocities against vulnerable Hispanics and was held in contempt by a federal judge for repeatedly ignoring the rights of undocumented migrants.  
The bottom line is that Congress cannot escape final responsibility for checking a president's conduct, especially that of an abusive president like Trump, but the current one has. 
There is a final, irrefutable argument for trying to impeach Trump:
If we don't at least try, what misdeeds might a future president get away with if an effort were not made to impeach based on his multiple betrayals of his oath of office, and in the process squandering what arguably is the most effective weapon against treachery of his sort?  If Trump gets away with it, which would have the effect of normalizing corruption and the abuse of power, as well as dealing a mortal blow to the constitutional order, what would a future president have to do to warrant impeachment?
Trump has in my view, and for all intents and purposes, been a Russian agent because of his determination to do Vladimir Putin’s bidding, but the biggest question remains whether democracy will survive him with or without impeachment.   
In the end, that may not matter.  This is because as awful as Trump may be -- and we are living through the slow-motion death of American democracy -- he still is a symptom of our national malaise and not the cause.

For related reading, I suggest my post on "Tribalism Run Amok:

Monday, June 18, 2018

It's Dark In There: The Big Hole In The Report On The FBI's Clinton Investigation

There is a big hole in the report by the Justice Department's inspector general on his examination of the FBI's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which significantly shaped the contours and outcome of the 2016 election. Despite being told to address the issue, Michael Horowitz ignored substantial evidence of bias against Clinton in the FBI's New York field office and the role Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani may have played in dealing a lethal blow to the Clinton campaign. 
This evidence is significant for several reasons:
* It is a necessary counterbalance to evidence that there was some bias against candidate Trump that has been seized on by the president and his congressional sycophancy in their specious claim there was a secret deep-state cabal of Clinton supporters inside the FBI that conspired to clear her of wrongdoing over her handling of classified information on a private email server while secretary of state and then concocted a phony investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia as a way to undermine his presidency. 
* Giuliani, who has since become the president's lead lawyer, had bragged on October 26, 2016 on the Lars Larson radio show that he was in contact with FBI agents and had "a surprise or two that you're going to hear about in the next few days."  FBI Director James Comey's hand was then forced, and in an effort to get out ahead of a story that was certain to be leaked by Republicans, he informed several congressional committees by letter on October 28 of a development in the Clinton investigation.   
* There was indeed anti-Clinton sentiment in the New York field office and evidence that the fear of leaks out of that office prompted Comey to write a letter a mere 11 days before the election to the effect the Clinton investigation had been reopened because of the discovery of  "new" emails, an action that not only deeply damaged Clinton's campaign but was a blow from which it never recovered despite Comey's November 6 announcement that the FBI had not changed the conclusions it reached in July in exonerating Clinton. 
* Significantly, Comey said nothing about the FBI's ongoing investigation of Russian election interference and possible Trump campaign ties to the Kremlin on both October 28 and November 6, and in fact did not publicly mention its existence until well after the election, a puzzling and dramatic omission that may have been outside of Horowitz's investigative purview but for which the former FBI director has never adequately explained, let alone been called to account for    
Horowitz's 500-page report, released last Thursday, was bound to have something for everyone.  And did. 
Trump and his sycophancy, which had demanded the investigation in the first place, were able to disingenuously claim that the report's extraordinarily harsh criticism of Comey validated their view that he was corrupt and put in the fix to help Clinton, yet more ammunition in their lie-sodden blood quest to short circuit Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, which has nothing to do with the FBI's investigation of Clinton and everything to do with Trump and his allies climbing into bed with Vladimir Putin. 
Meanwhile, the rest of us could briefly revel in a moment of political exoneration -- from Trump's own Justice Department, no less -- and state with even greater conviction that Comey's actions in those dramatic final four months of the 2016 campaign were indeed misguided and ultimately benefitted Trump, grievously wounded Clinton, and along with Russian cyber-meddling, effectively doomed her campaign. 
The straight-shooting Horowitz did conclude that Comey was "insubordinate"  in his handling of the Clinton investigation by injecting the FBI into presidential politics in ways not seen since Watergate and flouting Justice Department practices when he decided only he and not then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had the authority and credibility to make key decisions and speak for the department.   
But significantly, Horowitz did not challenge the decision not to prosecute Clinton or find that political bias influenced that decision.  Nor did he dare speak the unspeakable -- that Clinton's problematic email protocols were, like the Benghazi tragedy and Clinton Foundation, a ginned up Republican-generated scandal in pursuit of a crime.  
Still -- and as Josh Marshall notes at Talking Points Memo -- the IG was troubled by the fact that the FBI appeared to him to be prioritizing the Russia probe in the fall of 2016 over the Clinton email probe:
"The key passage comes on page 329 of the report where the Inspector General writes that in light of Strzok and Page's texts showing hostility to Donald Trump, 'we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias.' "
Strzok and Page are FBI agents who worked on both the Clinton and Russia investigations.  Weiner is Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman and sexter whose wife Huma Abedin was a top Clinton aide who had used her husband's laptop as nothing more than a convenient backup.  
Strzok and Page, who were having an affair at the time, disparaged Trump in text messages.  Many of those text messages had been released, but Horowitz cited a previously undisclosed message in which Strzok wrote that the FBI "will stop" Trump. 
This has sent Trump and his sycophancy to new heights of faux outrage although the IG concluded that while Strzok may have improperly prioritized the Russia investigation over the Clinton investigation during the final weeks of the campaign and FBI officials "brought discredit" to themselves and sowed public doubt about the Clinton investigation, Strzok did not influence its outcome. 
What did influence the outcome in tandem with Russia's cyber meddling was why Comey remained silent on the FBI's investigation into Trump campaign-Russia ties, which had been all but confirmed before the election.   
Had Comey never sent the October 28 letter -- and like many of us was operating under the presumption that Clinton was a shoo-in -- but had gone public with the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia, Clinton almost certainly would be president of the United States. 
Therein lies a huge scandal in and of itself.  
It does not matter that Giuliani soon walked back his claim, as this clownish blowhard routinely does when caught out, that Abedin indeed had used Weiner's computer as a backup, or that Comey was to testify six months later that it made him "mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election" because of his 11th hour disclosure. 
The damage had been done, it was catastrophic and the course of American history was irrevocably changed. 

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Trump Gets Half A Loaf As Report Puts The Lie To His FBI Conspiracy Mongering

The much-anticipated report by the Justice Department's inspector general on the FBI's handling of its investigation into Hillary Clinton was sure to have something for everyone.  And did. 
President Trump and his Vichy Republican sycophancy, which had demanded the investigation in the first place, could disingenuously claim that the report's extraordinarily harsh criticism of former FBI Director James Comey validated their view that he was corrupt and put in the fix to help Clinton, yet more ammunition in their blood quest to short circuit Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
Meanwhile, the rest of us could briefly revel in a moment of political exoneration -- from Trump's own Justice Department, no less -- and state with even greater conviction that Comey's actions in those dramatic final four months of the 2016 campaign were indeed misguided and ultimately benefitted Trump, grievously wounded Clinton, and along with Russian cyber-meddling, effectively doomed her campaign.
The exhaustive 500-page report by Michael E. Horowitz, released on Thursday afternoon,  broke no new ground.  This would seem to be rather amazing except that Comey's actions had been exhaustively documented -- and debated. 
The report found no evidence to validate Trump's claim that a secret deep-state cabal of Clinton supporters inside the FBI conspired to clear her of wrongdoing over her handling of classified information on a private email server while secretary of state and then concocted a phony investigation -- a "witch hunt" in the president's oft-stated view -- into his campaign's ties to Russia as a way to undermine his presidency. 
The straight-shooting Horowitz did conclude that Comey was "insubordinate"  in his handling of the Clinton investigation by injecting the FBI into presidential politics in ways not seen since Watergate and flouting Justice Department practices when he decided only he and not then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had the authority and credibility to make key decisions and speak for the department.  
But significantly, Horowitz did not challenge the decision not to prosecute Clinton nor did he find that political bias influenced that decision. 
"We found no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations," the report said.  "Rather, we concluded that they were based on the prosecutor’s assessment of facts, the law, and past department practice."   
Horowitz sharply criticized other senior bureau officials who showed a "willingness to take official action" to prevent Trump from becoming president.   
He specifically criticizes the conduct of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who worked on both the Clinton and Russia investigations, were having an affair at the time and disparaged Trump in text messages.  Many of those text messages have been released, but the IG cited a previously undisclosed message in which Strzok wrote that the FBI "will stop" Trump.   
Nevertheless, Horowitz concluded that while Strzok may have improperly prioritized the Russia investigation over the Clinton investigation during the final weeks of the campaign and FBI officials "brought discredit" to themselves and sowed public doubt about the Clinton investigation, Strzok did not influence its outcome. 
"Our review did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed," the report said. 
Strzok, who was removed from the Russia investigation by Mueller when some of the text messages were first revealed and faces disciplinary action, told investigators the stop-Trump message "was intended to reassure Page that Trump would not be elected, not to suggest that he would do something to impact the investigation," according to the IG's report.  
Comey had held a news conference on July 5, 2016 to announce he was recommending that no charges be brought against Clinton while chastising her for being "extremely careless" in her email practices.  The public dressing down was highly unusual since it is the Justice Department and not the FBI that makes charging decisions. 
Then on October 28, just 11 days before the election and over the objection of top Justice Department officials, Comey sent a letter to Congress disclosing that agents were scrutinizing "new" emails in the Clinton case.   
Horowitz concluded the letter was a "serious error of judgment" and called it "extraordinary that Comey assessed that it was best" for him not to speak directly with either Lynch or the deputy attorney general about his decision before sending the letter, which congressional Republicans predictably, quickly and gleefully leaked.   
Finally, on November 6, with voting set to begin in less than 48 hours, Comey announced that after an intensive review of the "new" emails, they were found to be either personal or duplicates of those previously examined, and that the FBI had not changed the conclusions it reached in July in exonerating Clinton.  Significantly, he said nothing about the FBI's ongoing investigation of Russian election interference and possible Trump campaign ties to the Kremlin. 
Comey's conspicuous non-mention of the Russia investigation on both October 28 and November 6 arguably was outside of Horowitz's purview, but Comey has never been adequately called to account for that puzzling omission.  And needs to be. 
The FBI director, who was fired by Trump on May 9, 2017, has defended his actions and did so again on Thursday, saying he would have faced criticism for any decision and that he opted to be transparent.  FBI officials have acknowledged that their so-called transparency was based on the assumption that Clinton would win and concerns about not appearing to conceal information to help her, but there is no way around the reality that Comey screwed up over and over again.  
Comey's serious breaches of protocol as cited by Horowitz will be used by Trump to further justify his decision to fire the FBI director, while the president most assuredly will ignore or reject the report's conclusion that Comey was not biased against him. 
Trump told "Fox and Friends" on Friday morning that the report showed "criminal" behavior by Comey although it made no such claim, while other reactions to the report predictably broke down along partisan lines.  
"A fair reading of the report shows that the FBI applied a double standard to the Clinton and Trump investigations that was unfair to Clinton and helped elect Trump," said John Podesta, who was Clinton's campaign chairman.  "That said, he'll use one random Strzok email to spin a deep-state conspiracy which plays to his core." 
Which Trump of course already has, perversely using a report that clearly showed the FBI helped candidate Trump to further tarnish the agency while his sycophancy, led by the vile Rudy Giuliani, call for the Mueller investigation to be shut down. 
"Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions have a chance to redeem themselves and that chance comes about tomorrow," Trump's lead defense lawyer declared on Fox News.  "It doesn’t go beyond tomorrow.  Tomorrow, Mueller should be suspended and honest people should be brought in, impartial people to investigate these people like Peter Strzok.  Strzok should be in jail by the end of next week." 
Giuliani explained that this investigation should be conducted by "honest FBI agents from the New York office who I can trust implicitly," which is rich and then some because of the likelihood that Giuliani himself was a behind-the-scenes player in the New York office being a major source of the anti-Clinton leaks cited by Horowitz.
The short-term takeaway from the report is that Trump's sycophancy once again got more than it bargained for because (guess what?) the legal system he so regularly derides worked, and that was not to his advantage.   
Like previous efforts to shift blame from Trump -- whether specious claims that Barack Obama wiretapped Trump Tower phones or a series of comically inept investigative reports from Devin Nunes and House Intelligence Committee Republicans -- the report from Trump's own Justice Department found no evidence of bias against Trump or that Clinton should have been prosecuted. 
The long-term takeaway is that Mueller will plod on and Trump eventually will be brought down, whether by the special prosecutor, Michael Cohen or Stormy Daniels.   
Or perhaps all three.    

Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal
and related developments.