Posts Tagged ‘James Comey’

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 4

June 26, 2019

The President’s Efforts to Remove the Special Counsel

Of all the consequences of firing Director Comey, the worst from Trump’s perspective was the appointment of a Special Counsel to lead the investigation into Russian subversion of our electoral process. This was, of course, inevitable, given the gravity of the question of the integrity of our elections, the lack of trust most Americans had that the President would address the problem in an honest and impartial manner, the deep concerns of most of the nation’s law enforcement and counterintelligence agencies, and the fact that almost everyone else was either a potential suspect or a witness at this point. This was totally predictable and unavoidable in the view of anyone with any political sense or understanding of how American government works, but it caught Mr. Trump completely by surprise. The report states: “According to notes written by Hunt, when Sessions told the President that a Special Counsel had been appointed, the President slumped back in his chair and said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’” Given that Clinton survived a Special Prosecutor with far more sweeping powers and far less neutrality than Mueller had, this seems rather melodramatic. He then became angry at Attorney General Sessions for not protecting him. I have to confess, I have to agree to a point, given that Sessions apparently recommended firing Comey and the appointment of a Special Prosecutor to take over the investigation after that was as predictable as a third Sharknado movie.   Several witnesses report that Trump was in a rage, and he demanded Sessions resign. Sessions agreed, wrote out his resignation letter and handed it to Trump. Trump decided let Sessions stay as AG, but refused to return the letter until other advisors pressured him over several days to do so.

All of this seems understandable given Mr. Trump’s well-known temper and political ignorance, and by itself not very significant. His later efforts to hit back at the Special Counsel before he even began his work, however, were more questionable. Trump began pushing for Special Counsel Mueller to be removed, alleging conflicts of interest. His own advisors told him his claims were, in Bannon’s words, “ridiculous and petty” and Department of Justice ethics officials examined the question and found no cause for concern. Despite this, Trump pressured White House Counsel McGahn to push Deputy AG Rosenstein to fire Mueller over these alleged conflicts. McGahn pushed back, telling Trump that firing Comey wasn’t even his “biggest exposure” compared to his “other contacts” and his efforts to end the Flynn investigation. The report goes on to describe increased pressure from Trump to fire Mueller, and apparent efforts by various advisors and staff to derail these efforts by leaking them to the press, refusing to cooperate and so on. McGahn even prepared to resign rather than participate in firing Mueller, though ultimately he was talked out of resigning by Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus. In the end McGahn did not resign, and Trump did not ask him the next day whether he had instructed Rosenstein to fire Mueller as Trump had wanted.

The Special Counsel considered these facts to be relevant to determining whether this behavior constitutes obstruction of justice:

  1. Obstructive Act: The report considers whether firing Mueller would have naturally delayed, chilled or otherwise impeded any further investigation. After all, firing Mueller would probably have meant he was replaced, but even so the investigation could have been crippled. Therefore, the proposed firing could have obstructed the investigation. It is also crucial to consider whether Trump actually ordered Mueller fired, or merely suggested the DOJ investigate these alleged conflicts of interest. Ultimately, the report rejects Trump’s denials that he ordered McGahn to order Rosenstein to fire Mueller; not only did it find McGahn a more credible witness than Trump with no motive to lie, but his other actions supported his story, other witnesses corroborate parts of it, and DOJ was already well aware of the allegations Trump was making and had concluded they were baseless. So Mueller’s office found Trump’s claim that he was merely making a suggestion that they look at these supposed conflicts to be unbelievable, while McGahn’s claim that Trump told him “Mueller has to go” likely true.[1] Thus we have an attempt to perform an act that would be likely to impede further investigation; this attempt was not carried out only because McGahn refused to do as ordered, and Mr. Trump was either persuaded to drop the matter or otherwise lost interest in it, as he lost interest in firing Sessions.
  2. Nexus to an official proceeding: By this time Mr. Trump knew he was under investigation; he had been warned by McGahn of his legal exposure, the Special Counsel’s office had informed the White House that they’d be interviewing witnesses to Trump’s interference in Comey’s investigation, and Trump himself tweeted that he was under investigation. Therefore, he knew there was an official investigation which could be crippled or completely derailed by firing the Special Counsel, yet he sought to do so anyway.
  3. Intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President’s attempts to remove the Special Counsel were linked… to reports that the President was being investigated for potential obstruction of justice.” From his immediate “I’m fucked” to his pushing previously refuted allegations against Mueller and finally to his ordering Mueller be fired, it is clear that he was primarily concerned with protecting himself; and his later denials of having ordered McGahn to fire the Special Counsel suggest he knew the order could be seen as improper.

Once again, the report cites the existence of all three essential ingredients of an obstruction of justice: the act itself, the investigation to be obstructed, and the intent to do so. Mr. Trump had the desire to end the investigation and discussed “knocking out Mueller” by alleging conflicts of interest which his own people described as “silly” and “not real.” The only reason he did not “knock out Mueller” was that his own staff and advisors, realizing the enormity of his proposed actions (McGahn described it as “crazy shit”) refused to cooperate. Attempted obstruction of justice, like attempted murder, is still prosecutable; whether this act does indeed rise to the level of criminality is something that can only be determined, says Mueller, by an impeachment hearing before Congress, where all evidence can be presented and the President can offer his defense against the charges.

[1] Of course too, McGahn answered questions under oath and in person; Trump has refused to do so.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 3(c)

June 23, 2019

How does all of this relate to the three constitutive elements of an obstruction of justice?

  1. Obstructive Act: It is true that Mr. Trump was aware that James Comey was not only investigating Trump’s friend Michael Flynn but was also looking into other aspects of Russian efforts to help elect Trump, including whether any other American citizens had committed crimes. On the other hand, he was advised repeatedly that firing Comey would not end the investigations; as Steve Bannon told him, “You can’t fire the FBI.” Trump even acknowledged as much during his interview with Lester Holt, saying it was likely firing Comey would actually prolong the investigation. What seems to have most troubled Mueller and seems most likely to be part of an illegal obstruction of justice is the way Trump handled it. The vengefulness, the petty cruelty, and the public attacks on the investigation and cries of “Witch hunt!” afterwards seem, according to the report, intended to affect and obstruct whatever future investigators might take over after Comey’s departure. True, there might be other, legally innocent motives, such as paranoia, sadism, or stupidity. That question falls under “intent.” What we can say is that there were in fact official investigations that could be disrupted by this behavior, that Mr. Trump was aware of these investigations and continued in this behavior anyway, despite the fact that his office requires him to support upholding the laws of the nation without undue personal prejudice.
  2. Nexus to a proceeding: You can’t obstruct justice unless there’s an official proceeding to obstruct. In this case, while there was no official grand jury at that time investigating the Trump campaign, there was a criminal investigation of Flynn that Trump had tried to shut down, and public knowledge that the FBI was looking into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including the crime of hacking the DNC’s computers. Thus there was a nexus to at least one official proceeding.
  3. Intent: As the report states: “Substantial evidence indicates that the catalyst for the President’s decision to fire Comey was Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation, despite the President’s repeated requests that Comey make such an announcement….the President’s over stated rationales for why he fired Comey are not similarly supported by the evidence.” In other words, the report says that Comey was fired for not publicly clearing Trump, and that Trump and others working on his behalf lied about the true reasons for the firing. As stated earlier, intention to deceive is tacit acknowledgment of wrongdoing; if it doesn’t prove impure motives, it at least implies such. But why, the report asks, what this so important? Was it merely for political reasons, because “this Russia business” was making it difficult for Trump to carry out his agenda for the nation? Was it because, as has been stated outside the Mueller but in multiple press reports and books, that Mr. Trump gets angry when anyone mentions that Russia helped elect him because it takes away from his own sense of accomplishment? Or are there other, criminal reasons for Trump’s repeated demands for Comey to publicly announce his innocence? There are the demands that Comey pledge his “loyalty” to Trump personally, and his claim that he thought the Attorney General was not doing enough to protect him personally. He also said he wanted to be able to tell his Attorney General “who to investigate.” Comey was interfering with these goals by the fact that he’d taken over the investigations after Sessions recused himself, and by the independent way he was handling the investigations. Also, when Trump was railing against Sessions for recusing himself and for not doing more to protect Trump and punish Trump’s foes, Sessions had suggested firing Comey, either because he was suggesting to Mr. Trump that this would solve his problems or perhaps merely to redirect Trump’s anger onto someone else. In addition, as the Muller report states, “…the evidence does indicate that a thorough FBI investigation would uncover facts about the campaign and the President personally that the President could have understood to be crimes or that would give rise to personal and political concerns.” Thus there is a strong prima facie case that Trump was motivated by personal goals rather than national interests in firing Comey, the definition of “corrupt intent.”

As Mr. Mueller stated, we need to have some sort of a hearing to allow the accused party the chance to clear his name. Legally, there is no law against being stupid, sadistic, deceitful, vain, vindictive, paranoid or obstinate. These may be reasons to say someone is unfit for an important office, but they are not crimes. Perhaps Mr. Trump was not trying to shut down or intimidate other investigations, and anyone or everyone around him who might think about challenging his orders. Perhaps he was just running the White House the way he’d run his businesses: as his wife says, if he feels you’ve hit him he’ll hit back ten times harder.[1] Perhaps, as many who have or do work for him are reported to have said, he’s very insecure about his election victory, and his desire to have Comey and others come out and publicly say he had nothing to do with Russia is his way of insisting that he won on his own, without Putin’s help, despite what Putin said at Helsinki and what every U.S. intelligence agency has said. But as Mueller said, the only way to bring these facts out, and show whether or not Trump had corrupt motives or simply acted foolishly in ways that appear corrupt, is to have an impeachment investigation, where all the facts can be presented and the President can take the opportunity to personally defend himself under oath. As it stands, the report states, there is evidence that the President* knowingly and intentionally obstructed justice, seeking to impede and influence official investigations of crimes as well as undermining counterintelligence operations, for corrupt personal reasons.

[1] Ali Vitali, “Melania Stumps for Donald Trump: ‘He Will Punch Back 10 Times Harder;” NBC News.com April 4, 2016 (https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2016-election/melania-stumps-donald-trump-he-will-punch-back-10-times-n550641). Or as Mr. Trump says on Twitter: “When someone attacks me, I always attack back…except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!” @realDonaldTrump Twitter 11 Nov. 2012. These claims, I believe, fit the dictionary definitions of “vindictive” and “vengeful.”

 

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 3(b)

June 21, 2019

As we’ve seen before, Donald Trump was intensely concerned, if not absolutely fixated on getting James Comey and everyone else to proclaim publicly that he was not under investigation, even if government ethics and legal advisors said no such statement should be made before the investigation concluded. He also repeatedly stated that the job of the Attorney General is to protect him from investigation and scandal, to investigate whomever he wants investigated and to not investigate anyone he doesn’t wish investigated. As the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn unfolded, Trump became increasingly concerned that he might be publicly implicated and increasingly active to try to control the investigation and the public perception of it. The investigation into Flynn not only led to probable obstruction of justice (I say “probable” because there has been no impeachment inquiry to determine one way or the other) but also to further possible crimes by the Trump election and transition teams, aimed at suppressing investigation of improper assistance from Russia and improper promises made to Russia. Eventually even the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee decided they had to see what Comey had to say about these matters. Trump told his advisors this was Comey’s “last chance” to publicly clear him. However, Comey refused to say who was or wasn’t under investigation, citing FBI policy not to comment on ongoing investigations. This infuriated Trump, initially at Sessions for not protecting him more. Sessions then seems to have suggested firing Comey as a way to deflect Mr. Trump’s ire. Trump then decided to get rid of Comey, despite being advised by Steve Bannon that this was a bad idea and that it would not end the investigations.

Trump initially drafted a letter firing Comey, mentioning that Comey had privately told him he was not under investigation but still saying he was a failure. His advisors urged him to let Comey resign, but Trump was determined to fire and humiliate him. They then decided that the reasons Trump gave for wanting to fire Comey in the draft letter he’d prepared were not good enough and might look suspicious, so they decided to have Rod Rosenstein write a “recommendation” that Comey be fired for other reasons, including his handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. They decided to use Rosenstein’s draft as the justification for firing Comey even though everyone knew those weren’t the real reasons, to give Trump cover. The only major contribution Trump made to the second letter was to insist it say something about Comey having told him he wasn’t under investigation.

Despite the pretext provided by Rosenstein, the firing of Comey was received badly by the press. After all, Trump had himself endorsed Comey despite knowing previously about his treatment of Clinton and even praising him for it. The other major claim, that Comey had lost the faith of his people at the FBI, was demonstrably false, as quickly seen in the negative reactions to news of Comey’s firing. Furthermore, there was something curiously vindictive about Trump’s actions. Normally, someone in Comey’s position would be allowed to resign; instead, he was fired with no warning, finding out while giving a public speech. Furthermore, Trump was furious that he was allowed to fly back to DC instead of being stranded in California where he had been speaking to new FBI recruits, and further sought to prevent Comey from entering the FBI building even to remove his own personal possessions. This is not how normal people treat employees who haven’t worked out on the job. This is how you treat people you personally hate, The only reasonable explanation is that Trump was trying to make things as humiliating and painful as possible for Comey, either out of vengefulness or to send a message to all other present and future government officials that he would do the same to them if he wished.

The White House story regarding the firing of James Comey quickly fell apart. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was one of a platoon of Republican voices claiming that Comey was distrusted by his colleagues and that most were glad to see him gone; however, these claims were, to put it politely, “without foundation” by her own admission under oath. The claim that Comey was fired for treating Clinton unfairly was laughable, given that Trump had benefited from this, that he had supported Comey in the job for several months while knowing all about this, and furthermore that Comey had been fired not as soon as Trump had the right and power to do so but only after he began investigating Republican actions. When the decision was made to shove Rod Rosenstein out in front of the cameras to tell the world that it was he, and not Mr. Trump who had initially thought Comey should be fired, Rosenstein refused, since it was a lie and he knew it, and furthermore he did not want to be the one seen to be responsible. White House Counsel Don McGahn and the White House Counsel’s office agreed that the White House was creating a false narrative by claiming Rosenstein had initiated the firing, and that it was necessary to set the record straight. The fact that the cover story wasn’t working, coupled with this legal advice, seems to be why Mr. Trump gave the now-famous interview with Lester Holt, wherein he affirmed that he had decided to fire Comey regardless of what was recommended “because of this Russia thing” which was “made-up.”

To be continued….

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 3(a)

June 18, 2019
  1. The Firing of FBI Director James Comey

Often in stories there’s a point where things go from maybe bad to major crisis in an instant. If we read the Mueller Report as a political novel, the turning point is the firing of James Comey. Prior to this, many of the characters seemed to think that while the President of the United States was breaking the law, maybe he was just such a novice, so insecure and so used to instant gratification that he just didn’t understand the significance of his actions. He seems to have approached the Flynn investigation like the town millionaire in an old TV show saying to the local sheriff, “I know my boy shouldn’t have been driving so fast and maybe he’d had a few beers, but how about I pay the hospital costs for the old lady and you let it slide. After all, he’s basically a good boy. Say, how’s your reelection campaign coming?” Yes, it’s sleazy; but it’s the sort of corruption of and by the rich that we all always sort of knew went on anyway. The boss wanted to get his favorite Yes Man out of trouble. Is that the end of the world? The White House efforts to get the FBI, CIA or anyone to say publicly that Mr. Trump was definitely totally not being investigated also seem like heavy-handed elitism in action, like someone who is getting carried away with his image and an army of sycophants and fixers trying to satisfy him; but again, while the report indicates they likely broke the law, it’s not like they broke the legal system itself. In fact, if the Flynn incident reminds me of the bullying millionaire in Perry Mason episode trying to bend the town to his will, the reaction to the public confirmation of the existence of an FBI investigation seems more like an old-timey Hollywood diva in some drama, or maybe real life, who’s terrified of being linked to scandal rightly or wrongly, and goes so far to try to squelch the story that she or he ends up actually making things worse. Again, not good, but nothing we haven’t survived before.

The Comey firing changed everything. It is impossible to overstate this, from a political or literary perspective. Politically, we need only look at the reaction at the time. People with decades of experience in national security and law enforcement, who had served both Republican and Democratic administrations with dedication and distinction, were so shocked by the unprecedented audacity and destructive nature of Trump’s actions that they seriously believed, and still do believe that the president of the United States might be an agent of a foreign government, or at least a complete dupe and puppet. It has been credibly reported that there was serious examination of the Constitutional options for removing him from power before he could do irreparable harm to the nation or possibly end it.[1] People who know more than you do, more than I do, who have spent their lives looking at these sorts of matters and who have the training and personality to be far less partisan than you or I, looked at President Donald Trump and how he acted in his firing of the director of the FBI and thought it more likely than not that he is either a mole or a dupe, a willing or unwitting Russian intelligence asset, and considered whether it would be possible to legally and Constitutionally remove him and replace him with Vice President Pence, lest he should betray the nation to its enemies and possibly destroy it. People who compare Trump to Nixon are unfair to Nixon; even in the midst of the Watergate investigation, no one really thought Nixon was working for the Russians. Nixon could go to China because even people who thought he was neurotic, paranoid, racist and a lawbreaker conceded that he was an American who truly put “America first” in the good sense, in the sense that he would not knowingly weaken the nation for his own profit or put another nation’s interests over our own. People who know more than we do about what’s going on in our government today do wonder, seriously worry that the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is either being bribed, blackmailed, or simply so disloyal to the nation that he is willing to sacrifice us at the behest of Russia, and possibly other authoritarian governments. If this were a horror movie, this is the point where the hillbillies go from vaguely threatening talk to firing up the chainsaws. This is the point in the story where we go from “The president broke the law” to “the president is breaking America.”

 

To be continued….

[1] Maureen Groppe, “What to Know about the 25th Amendment: It

s never been used, but ex-FBI head says officials thought about it;USA Today updated Feb 14, 2019 (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/09/05/could-25th-amendment-used-remove-trump-office/1012979001/

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 2(c)

May 29, 2019
  1. The President’s Reaction to Public Confirmation of the FBI’s Russia Investigation

The second area of concern for the Mueller Report is Trump’s reaction to the FBI investigation of Russia’s efforts to disrupt and control the U.S. elections, including connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian intelligence. As discussed in Volume One of the report, there were extensive connections between the Kremlin and Trump Tower, but ultimately the Special Counsel decided he could not establish that there was a conspiracy. There was extensive indirect coordination, and both sides definitely acted in ways that benefitted the other and expected to benefit from the other; but given the apparent lack of concrete payoff for Russia, Mueller decided that there was not a full-blown conspiracy, at least not one he could prove with the evidence he had. But even if there is no “crime,” there can still be an obstruction of attempts to investigate. Mueller discusses efforts by Donald Trump to take control of the investigation, and the reasons he sought to do so. In early March, Trump learned that Sessions was intending to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Sessions considered this a no-brainer; he was part of the Trump campaign and thus a potential subject of investigation, so for the investigation to have a shred of credibility he had to step away. Furthermore, there were those two meetings he had with the Russian ambassador which he had not disclosed to Congress. Again, Mueller did not find anything nefarious in those meetings, but they had to be investigated and so Sessions had to recuse. This was also the advice he received from the ethics officers at DOJ. Trump by contrast expressed his concern that if Sessions recused himself he’d be unable to protect Trump from investigation, which Trump considered more important than whether the investigation would have any credibility. After the recusal, White House ethics officers stated that the White House should have no further contact with Sessions about this topic; nevertheless, Trump personally continued to press Sessions to unrecuse himself.

By March 20th, FBI Director Comey was authorized to publicly confirm that there was an active investigation of Russia’s interference in our election, but to refuse to comment about any particular persons who might or might not be under investigation. Comey followed these instructions, refusing to tell Congress whether or not Mr. Trump was being investigated. This is said by the report to have made the President’s frustration “worse,” and that’s after previous testimony had described the White House as “in chaos.” Trump is described as being “beside himself,” and began considering by the 21st whether he could fire Comey without a specific cause. The evidence presented is that White House and DOJ officials advised that firing Comey would make things worse, not better, as it would not shorten the investigation and would look suspicious.

Mr. Trump also repeatedly asked other intelligence community officials, such as then CIA Director Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats if they could make public statements that he, Donald Trump, was not under investigation. Both of these men gave testimony that differed substantially from that given by their staff and other witnesses. In particular, the report says that Pompeo was asked to stay behind after a meeting to talk privately with Trump, but he said he had no such recollection. This is significant because, as Mueller stated earlier, a desire to discuss things privately suggests that Trump may have realized that he was suggesting something irregular that had to be concealed from other aides and officials. More significant are the discrepancies in Dan Coats’ testimony; his staff confirmed that he said he’d been asked to contact Comey about the FBI investigation and felt it was an improper order, while he testified Mr. Trump never asked him to speak to Comey. As well as repeatedly complaining to Coats about the investigation, Trump also contacted the NSA Director, Admiral Michael Rogers, and asked him if he could publicly refute the notion that Trump himself was under investigation. This request, witnessed by the Deputy Director as well, was said to be “the most unusual thing” the Deputy Director had experienced in 40 years of government service, and struck both of them as so strange and improper that they immediately drew up a memorandum, signed it together, and put it in a safe. However, Director Rogers said he did not interpret it as an “order” so he did not do anything about it.

On March 30 the President directly contacted Comey and asked him to “lift the cloud” over him concerning the Russia investigation. Comey contacted his immediate supervisor at DOJ, Mr. Boente, about the conversation, asked for guidance, and said he was uncomfortable with the fact that the President was directly contacting him about this. At this time, Trump was not in fact under direct investigation, and his concern was to get that word out. Trump said it was fine to investigate his “satellites” but he wanted the world to know that he himself was not being investigated. So he was not asking anyone to lie, but he was interfering with the investigation by pushing to have information publicly released before the investigation was concluded. Also, a public statement that he was not being investigated could have hindered a future investigation if one became necessary.

  1. Obstructive Act: There is some question in the report whether there was an obstructive act at all. The principle persons involved, Pompeo, Coats, Rogers and apparently even Comey, did not feel that Mr. Trump’s repeated pleas for public statements of his innocence were “directives to improperly interfere with the investigation,” and in fact they often did not carry out those requests because they saw them as foolish or improper requests but not direct orders. But other witnesses testified that at the time Coats at least did feel that he had received just such a directive to improperly interfere, i.e. obstruct the investigation.
  2. Nexus: Since all these actions by the President came as a result of the investigation of Russian interference in our elections, there is a nexus to an official proceeding even though it had not reached the grand jury at that time.
  3. Intent: At this time Trump was not trying to shut down the investigation; he agreed that if “some satellite” of his had been working with Russia “it would be good to find that out.” But it is clear that he had personal reasons for involving himself in the investigation; it was interfering with his desire to develop closer ties to Russia, and he felt that the implication that Russia had helped elect him undermined the greatness of his electoral victory.

Overall, then, this is less clearly a case of obstruction of justice than the Flynn episode seems to be. The nexus to an investigation is clearly established. The intent to intervene for personal and political reasons, rather than simply for the good of the nation and the integrity of the investigation, is a bit less clear but Mueller seems to feel this too is established. In fact, Trump’s repeated efforts to clear his name troubled those he contacted as possibly improper and definitely irregular, and in fact he was advised against these repeated outreaches to Comey and Sessions by his own advisors and legal counsel partly because it would tend to undermine the integrity and credibility of the investigation. The real question is whether there was in fact a real obstructive act. Was Mr. Trump ordering people to interfere in the investigation, or was he merely venting? Was he trying to clear his name because he knew or believed he had done nothing wrong, or was he trying to drag others into a cover-up? Mueller gives more weight to the testimony of Coats and the other officials than to other witnesses, partly because only they were at these private meetings with the President while other witnesses mostly recalled what their bosses said or did immediately afterwards. This might have been ruled mere hearsay in court, though an impeachment hearing might give this testimony a different weight. While a later investigation, either an impeachment or a criminal trial after Mr. Trump leaves office, might wish to look harder at this evidence and try to resolve the discrepancies, the Mueller Report simply presents the sometimes conflicting testimony and leaves it there for the reader’s consideration.

The Mueller Report: I read it for you, but you should read it yourself. pt. 2(b)

May 23, 2019

In Volume II of the Special Counsel’s report, Mueller describes ten areas that could represent obstruction of justice. In each case, he presents all the evidence he was able to gather, including facts as testified by eyewitnesses or by intelligence sources, as well as areas where he was not able to ascertain the facts because witnesses, including the President* lied, refused to answer or claimed not to remember.   After presenting the history of the events and all the evidence he had available, he offers an analysis as to whether each of the three essential elements for an obstruction of justice case were present: the obstructive act, the nexus to an official investigative proceeding, and the intent. Some of these, on close consideration, he does not seem to consider obstruction. In no case does he come out and say that any is obstruction; as we’ve seen, he had already ruled out any possibility of making that determination himself, since he sees this as the job of Congress. But in some cases, he states that the three essential elements definitely appear to be present, thus leaving the reader with the only logical conclusion that the White House was in fact obstructing justice and continues to do so.

  1. The President’s Conduct Related to the Flynn Investigation

Before Michael Flynn began his work as Trump’s National Security Advisor, he had two phone conferences with the Russian ambassador. Since there is only one President at a time and until January 20th that was Obama, it was improper for him to discuss foreign policy matters. Nevertheless, Flynn discussed the sanctions Obama had imposed on Russia in retaliation for its interference in our election. While lying to the press is not a crime, Flynn lied under oath to the FBI about these calls, which is a crime. These lies occurred while Mr. Trump was President. And because he had committed a crime and Russia knew about it, he was vulnerable to being blackmailed by Russia. This was a serious matter. The President had a private dinner with James Comey, the director of the FBI, and asked for him to swear loyalty to Mr. Trump personally, and shortly thereafter asked him to go easy on Flynn. He also fired Sally Yates, then Acting Attorney General, who initially brought concerns about these lies to White House attention. Despite having been briefed before becoming President about the Russian efforts to subvert our nation’s electoral process, and advice from his own advisors that Flynn had possibly violated U.S. law, it was not until Feb. 13 that Flynn was finally forced to resign, and even then White House efforts continued to cover for him.

  1. Obstructive Act: Comey claimed that Trump privately asked him to “let Flynn go.” Trump disputed Comey’s account, but Mueller points out that there is good evidence that Mr. Trump lied; not only did Comey testify under oath (something Trump has refused to do) but there were independent witnesses that Trump did indeed hustle everyone else out of the room so he could talk privately, which he denied. Was this really an “obstructive act,” or merely Trump expressing the wish that Flynn be spared further humiliation? Mueller argues that it was obstruction. First, Trump arranged to make the statement privately, suggesting that it was intended as a request that he did not want others to overhear. Second, he was Comey’s boss, and when your boss says “I hope you’ll do this,” that is generally a request. His thrice-repeated “let this go” reinforces the view that this was an order.
  2. Nexus to a proceeding: At the time of this clandestine meeting, there were no grand jury subpoenas out as part of the FBI investigation. However, everyone in the White House knew that Flynn had lied, that this was a violation of U.S. law, and that the FBI at least might prosecute. Thus there was a nexus to a possible proceeding, and attempting to head off such a possibility qualifies as obstruction of justice.
  3. Intent: While there was an attempt to get McFarland to falsely claim that she knew President Trump had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions, there is no evidence that at that moment he actually had directed Flynn to do so. There is therefore no evidence that Trump was trying to cover up any criminal activity of his own. That is significant, since it goes to the question of intent: did Trump intend a cover-up? Did he have a personal stake in Flynn’s fate?

What Mueller did find is that while Trump may not have had a personal legal stake in the Flynn investigation, he did have a personal emotional stake. He considered and still considers any mention of Russian interference to be a challenge to his legitimacy and to the greatness of his achievement. There is evidence that Flynn was fired to try to end the Russia inquiries, that Trump reacted with “annoyance and anger” when the Flynn story broke because he thought it made him look bad, and that when told that firing Flynn would not end things he tried to pressure Comey to wrap things up. Also, while Trump has been publicly supportive of Flynn, privately he has been disappointed and angry and has mostly been motivated to keep Flynn from saying negative things about him. Overall, Mueller shows that Trump’s concerns were personal, rather than motivated by sympathy for Flynn or concern for justice: he didn’t want to look bad and thought that Flynn’s actions cast doubt on Trump himself.

Thus, the Special Counsel finds that all three elements of an obstruction of justice seem to be present:  the obstructive act itself, the official investigation which is being obstructed, and the motive to do so.  To confirm whether this is in fact obstruction of justice, and to punish the violation of law if it is, requires that Congress investigate and hold impeachment hearings; no other remedy is permitted under DOJ guidelines, while impeachment and possible removal is.  After removal from office, the DOJ guidelines forbidding prosecution of a sitting POTUS would no longer apply, and a criminal investigation could proceed.

To be continued….

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

April 25, 2018

Of Gospel and Heresies: This Holy Nation

 

 

            The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.”

            For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.           

 

—–Jeremiah 7:1-15

 

Does God need us? From the perspective of traditional Christian theology, the question seems almost silly. God is omnipotent and omniscient and perfectly good: how could God need anything from humanity? God offers Israel a covenant, but there’s no indication in the Torah that God would be the worse if Israel refused; rather, it was Israel, not God, who was told “I have set before you life and death; choose life, and live.”

Israel is God’s chosen people, and they have always understood that this is a privilege and a gift. Sometimes, however, they seem to have thought it was an advantage, a perk rather than a responsibility. That was certainly the case in Jeremiah’s day. He preached to the nation of Judah in its final days, when it was really reduced to just its capital, with the superpowers of Egypt on one side and Babylon to the other. Despite their precarious situation, many were confident, and their priests and prophets told them not to worry. After all, the Temple was in Jerusalem, and God would not allow the last and greatest center of worship to be destroyed. After all, if the Temple were destroyed, who would recite the psalms glorifying the LORD? Who would teach Torah to the people, and where would they go to learn it? How would God receive sacrifices and vows? God needed the Temple, so God needed to protect the nation; without it, worship of the LORD would vanish from the Earth.

Jeremiah was called to go preach condemnation and warning to God’s people. This was dangerous work; people got killed for preaching what the king didn’t want to hear. But Jeremiah obeyed and said to the people: God doesn’t need this temple. God doesn’t need you. God loves you, God cares, God wants to teach you. But if you will not treat your fellow human beings with respect and justice, if you will not love your neighbor as yourself, if you will not care for the alien, the widow and the orphan, the immigrant and the aged and the poor, then God will cast you and this temple away. God doesn’t need the smug, the self-righteous, the entitled. God wants the humble, the caring, the grateful.

This attitude towards God, and this message, existed long before Jeremiah and long after. In the days of Amos, during the reigns of King Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam II of Israel, two of the most successful rulers of their nations, he warned God’s people that they were being judged based on how they treated the poor among them; “they who trample on the head of the poor and thrust the afflicted out of the way” would be punished just as surely as any of those “wicked, pagan” nations around them.

Amos 9:7—Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,
O people of Israel? says the Lord.
Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?

Yes, God says, I take care of your nation; it is the apple of my eye. And I also care about all nations, and establish them; and I judge them, and will judge you. If you are arrogant, taking God’s love as a possession and a magic charm, as if the covenant binds God and not you, then you will be the one who loses. You need God; God doesn’t need you.

In the days of the Messiah, the prophet John the Baptizer spoke against the religiously complacent, the arrogant who thought being God’s chosen meant a free pass. “Repent! And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘I have Abraham for my father.’ I tell you that God is able to make children for Abraham out of these rocks here! Do what God tells you to do; love your neighbor as yourself, be honest with each other, and love God with all your heart and mind and strength.” God doesn’t need the people. God doesn’t send John, or Jesus, because God is desperate for love or for help. God sends prophets and priests and finally the Son because God loves us, and God knows that while God doesn’t need us, we need God.

Despite the many Scriptural criticisms of nationalism, it has become the cornerstone of the Religious Right. In the 20th Century, probably the most important Christian Nationalist was Jerry Falwell Sr. In books such as Listen Up, America! as well as in sermons and other public statements, Falwell argued that without the United States to serve as a base for world evangelism, Christianity itself might be endangered and could even vanish from the earth.[1] The world is caught up in a death struggle against the godless Communist Russia and the Christian United States; if the United States did not survive as a launching point for missionary activities, godlessness would win. It is thus essential to the Kingdom of God, Falwell says, not only that the United States remain morally pure (this defined primarily in terms of sexual discipline and general asceticism) but also militarily and economically dominant. Thus, Falwell ignores the Torah, Prophets and even Gospel passages that seem to contradict laissez-faire capitalism or militarism, since he believes God needs a strong army and a strong business community to preserve his earthly outpost. Without strong men, whether generals, tycoons or potentates, to support God’s Kingdom and to keep all the bad people in line, God’s kingdom will fail.

This is not the theology of the Bible, however, but only the edited version preached by Christian Dominionists like Rousas Rushdoony and Jerry Falwell. How can I dare say this? How can I, a mere insignificant dust mote in the winds of history, dare challenge the leaders of one of the most powerful political movements in the most powerful nation known to humanity? Only because it has happened before. The theology that said that God needed an earthly Temple and earthly political protection motivated the false prophets who challenged Jeremiah, who spoke lying words of comfort, and who supported the rich and the powerful in Jerusalem by saying that no matter how terribly they treated their poor neighbors and rejected God’s calls for justice, God would never allow the nation to fall because God needed the Temple and the priests and the kingly line. That theology failed. It was proven false when God did, in fact, allow Jerusalem to fall, the Temple to be destroyed, and the rich and powerful, the political and religious leaders, to be killed, enslaved or exiled. But that was not the end for God’s reign; it was only the beginning. The end of the Temple meant the beginning of the synagogue, which brought teaching of the Torah to all the nations where the Jews had settled. And in time, God raised up a new ruler, as is written in Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped
to subdue nations before him
and strip kings of their robes,
to open doors before him—
and the gates shall not be closed:
2 I will go before you
and level the mountains,*
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness

and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.  (Isaiah 44:45-45:4)

 

God calls Cyrus, King of Kings of the Persians, an anointed one, or in Hebrew, “Messiah,” even “though you do not know me.”   God uses whomever and whatever God needs, whether or not that person consents or even knows it. God used Cyrus and Cyrus’s ambitions for God’s own purposes. God allowed Judah, the self-righteous nation, to fall, and used Persia, who did not know God, to rebuild Jerusalem and to fulfill a far greater mission than Israel and Judah had ever conceived.

The Biblical foundation underneath today’s so-called Christian Dominionism, or Christian Reconstructionism, or Christian Nationalism, is that which was announced in the book of Deuteronomy: obey the covenant with God and be blessed, rebel and be punished. It structures much of the Bible’s understanding of Israelite history. Scholars have noted too that Jesus quotes Deuteronomy more often than any other book in the Hebrew Scriptures. But even in those same Scriptures, the Prophets criticized that same theology, and in particular how humans, with our inclinations towards selfishness, self-aggrandizement and short-term thinking, have often twisted that theology to suit our own pride. The prophet Jeremiah even announced that the old Deuteronomic covenant was being replaced because humans had broken it so thoroughly. In its place would be a new covenant, not written on stone but on the hearts of believers. That is the covenant that was proclaimed by Jesus: the covenant that everyone would love the Lord their God, and their neighbor as themselves, and would be loved in turn by God directly. It does indeed call for the redemption of the nation, but it does so not by establishing an empire of rulership over other peoples but by loving and redeeming each individual.

 

[1] As discussed by James Comey, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics,” honors thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982 (https://publish.wm.edu/honorstheses/1116/) p. 57

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 7)

March 13, 2018

So Falwell’s faulty exegesis points towards a deeper problem that, in Niebuhr’s eyes, undermines Falwell’s entire project and makes him a “false prophet:” pride. His inability to imagine that America might have faults, might have mixed motives in its foreign aid policies for example, or that racism, segregation and apartheid might be as abhorrent to God as is Stalinism are all examples of this. Really, though, his pride runs deeper than this, to the very foundation of his entire theological enterprise. Falwell’s crusade is based on the claim that America is essential to Christ; without the United States to use as a launching pad for missions, the Gospel could not spread or survive in the world. Falwell’s entire argument rests on this belief. It justifies and motivates his argument that America must stay militarily strong, so that it can cow other, godless nations. It justifies denying help to the poor and vulnerable, since the sole purpose of the State is to be an army guarding the Church, and any penny spent on Social Security or education takes away from the military budget. Those poor people demanding help from their government are dangerous parasites, weakening the State when it has to be strong. Quite simply, the State doesn’t exist to serve the poor; it exists only to serve the Church by physically protecting it from foreign armies and local criminals, and then by getting out of its way. But that “Church” it serves is not, again, just any old religious establishment, and not even any and every Christian institution; it is only the Evangelical churches that spread the properly conservative, economically laissez-faire capitalist message that will empower the business world and the military to do their jobs of making the USA the most kick-ass power on the planet whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom. Other religions, even other Christian denominations, risk God’s wrath and thus weaken the nation, undermining its sole purpose of spreading Christian fundamentalism.

Why does God, who is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones here (Matthew 3:9), need the United States? Why does the Church, which spread under the persecution of pagan Rome as well as the God-fearing religious leaders of its day, need an army so desperately that God must accept a state whose economic policies impoverish other peoples as well as many of its own citizens? It seems incredibly arrogant to claim that the United States is the essential nation, or even an essential nation in God’s plan. This pride prevents any meaningful, prophetic voice from being raised; if the United States is the essential nation in God’s plan, it must be a “godly” nation by definition, and anyone who says it is falling short is challenging God’s judgment in having chosen it and made it the cornerstone of the Kingdom.

And in particular, the purpose of the State seems to be nothing more than to perpetuate and strengthen the State, and otherwise to leave the Church free to send missionaries wherever it wants. Insofar as it does anything else besides strengthen and enrich itself, it imposes controls on individual lives, restricting religious expression that doesn’t conform to Fundamentalist Protestantism, restricting sexual expression, restricting freedom of speech if that should entail criticizing Fundamentalism or capitalism, or in short, the State is to use force to impose Falwell’s theology. Anything else risks God’s wrath, which is the only thing that could weaken the nation. This reasoning was in full evidence on September 13, 2001, when Jerry Falwell Sr. and Pat Robertson agreed on national television that the reason terrorists had been able to attack the United States was because of feminists and other people who disagree with their beliefs.[1] Their pride cannot accept that perhaps bad things happen for no morally good reason, and even less can they allow that maybe they themselves are the ones who are morally judged, despite repeated warnings in the Prophets, Gospels, and Epistles that God will judge nations based at least partly on how they treat the poor. The one sin they recognize is Not Being Like Us; that is what God punishes, because God needs the United States and needs it to be conformed to the theological vision of Jerry Falwell.

In the final days of Judah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel argued against false prophets who preached that God would never allow Jerusalem to fall, no matter how corrupt its government nor how decadent and oppressive its wealthy class, because God needed the Temple. 2500 years later, the pride of the 20th Century gave rise to similar false prophecy. And that pride bore fruit in the Prosperity Gospel: the belief that God rewards good people and good nations with wealth, health and power, so anyone you see who is strong and rich must also be godly and good; and contrariwise, anyone who is suffering, or poor, or a nation that is weak, must be wicked and deserves whatever it gets and even whatever the “godly” people do them. This thinking starts from a sound Biblical starting point: the book of Deuteronomy, the one Christ is said to have quoted from the most. In that book, Moses warns the people that if the nation strays from its covenant with God, the nation will be cursed. From this idea, it was deduced that whenever we see sickness, that person must have done something wrong; and when we see national disaster like famine, the nation must have done something wrong. And likewise, if we see a rich, healthy person or a strong nation, it must be because God has blessed that person or nation for being so good. However, this goes beyond the actual message of the Bible. The entire book of Job aims to refute this simple equation of suffering with wickedness; Job is a righteous man, yet he suffers. His friends insist that he must in fact be wicked, and urge him to repent. He refuses, insisting on his innocence. Finally God rebukes the friends, and says that Job is the one who spoke truly (Job 42:7-9). Jesus, too, criticizes the easy equation of virtue and wealth, or sin and suffering (Luke 13:1-5; Luke 16:19-31; John 9:1-3). Anyone following the logic of the Prosperity Gospel, or even the simplistic, prideful interpretation of Deuteronomy, would confidently claim that the blind beggar or the poor Lazarus were certainly sinners, or at least that their parents sinned and their sins were being visited upon the children. Or, today we might say that Lazarus must be lazy and the blind beggar’s parents were foolish not to have bought health insurance or to have worked hard enough to be able to provide for their son. The idea that perhaps the only “purpose” of suffering people is as a call to the rest of us to do God’s work by caring for them and caring about them—that idea simply does not fit human pride. It would mean admitting that evil and destruction are beyond our control, even when we are doing everything we can to conform to our understanding of righteousness and to force others to do so as well. It would mean admitting that we need to repent, just as much as “they” do. And it would mean that we can be judged even if we have good things that we got lawfully and honestly, simply because we were callous and self-indulgent.[2]

[1] Marc Ambinder, “Falwell Suggests Gays to Blame for Attacks,” ABC News, Sept. 14, 2001 (http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=121322&page=1) The 700 Club, Sept. 12. 2001 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMkBgA9_oQ4)

[2] Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is no word that the rich man did anything “wrong;” he wasn’t a thief, and he didn’t fail to go to Temple. He was a good, laissez-faire capitalist, as far as the story depicts; and since it is a story, we can’t just say “well, he must have been a bad man, Jesus just didn’t mention that he was an embezzler.” That’s our pride talking, rewriting the Bible to fit our own standards. The only facts that exist about the Rich Man are that he had a good life, and anyone looking at him would have thought him blessed by God; but he ignored the poor man, and for that lack of love for his fellow human being, he wound up in Hades.

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” Review (pt. 6)

March 13, 2018

“Falwell… stands labeled by Niebuhr as ‘false prophet.’”[1] And despite praising Falwell’s contention that the Christian must be involved in politics, and despite having misgivings about some aspects of Niebuhr’s theology, the analysis in this thesis largely agrees. Understanding why and in what ways Falwell is a false prophet not only shows us the heart of this thesis, but offers hints into Comey’s own motivations.   These hints are more for the reader’s exercise, since mindreading is an inexact science; so I will try to summarize Comey’s critique of Falwell and let you entertain yourself by speculating what part all this might have played in Comey’s controversial decisions of 2016 and 2017.

Falwell claims that his theological pronouncements are the clear word of God, supported by direct warrant from Scripture. He does not mean by this that there is no room for interpretation; he is not a strict literalist in the sense that if the Bible says to let the word of God be inscribed on your right hand, that you must literally write or tie Scriptures there (Deut 11:18). Or as Comey points out, the mere fact that the Bible reports similar events differently does not mean that Jesus at one time fed 5000 people with no commentary, then did it again with extensive commentary, despite the differences between Mark’s and John’s accounts; rather, we must interpret the Scriptures to make them harmonize. But Falwell does claim that, correctly interpreted, the Bible provides the Christian with direct instruction, and that this instruction is largely identical with the political and moral proclamations of Falwell himself. And upon close examination, this notion does not hold up. Many of Falwell’s claims seem to have, at best, indirect warrant from Scripture, requiring some degree of analogical or imaginative thinking. This is true not just of peripheral issues, but of claims that make up the heart of Falwell’s message. Falwell’s claim that God endorses capitalism and that capitalism is in fact the only economic system that God approves is highly dubious. As Comey points out, Falwell relies on Proverbs for his claim, but the proverb he cites is not particularly direct; it only reflects the idea that hard work should be rewarded and laziness leads to poverty. Falwell simply ignores large portions of Scripture, particularly the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets, where the Bible makes its most sustained ethical teachings, and which seriously question the unlimited right to property and profit. Instead, Falwell, like other fundamentalists influenced by Rousas Rushdooney, relies primarily on selective reading of the Torah and Wisdom literature. But even in the Torah, the right to property is severely limited. For example, in the Year of Jubilee all debts are to be cancelled, all slaves set free, and most radically, all land sold by anyone is to be returned to that person’s family (Lev 25:8-17). Leaving aside questions like the ownership of Manhattan and assuming that this law only applies to “godly” nations like Israel and (according to Falwell) the United States, imagine what this would do to the real estate sector alone! While houses in “walled cities” may be sold permanently, no one in America lives in a walled city; and in any case, even if you stretch the definition of “walled city” to include any metropolis, this would still exclude suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Every fifty years, all this land would be returned to the original seller’s family. That’s a pretty serious restriction on capitalism! What this points to is that while the Bible allows for people to profit from their own work, or to make a reasonable and fair profit from business, the true source of capital in biblical times, the land itself, belonged to YHWH, which God Himself had distributed to particular tribes and families to manage. It was therefore a mixed economy, neither wholly socialist or wholly capitalist; the ultimate means of production, the land itself, belonged to God and by extension to the nation and people as a whole, while all profits from the land belonged to the individual. Even here there were restrictions, such as the prohibition against going back over your own fields to gather up anything the harvesters missed the first time (Lev. 23:22). Instead, even when dealing with what was unarguably “private property,” the landowner was required to provide for the poor. Again, the treatment of landowners in the Torah is not like the unlimited property rights asserted by Ayn Rand or even John Locke, who claim that private property is an essential right based on one’s right to one’s own body and thus to the “fruits of your labors.” It is not even like a franchise, where a largely absentee owner gives out a license in perpetuity for the franchisee to run the local gas station or McDonald’s as if he or she owned it outright provided certain minimum standards are met. Instead, the Torah treats landowners much more like managers, whose books are subject to evaluation on a regular basis by the true boss, which is God. And in a theocracy like Israel is described and like Falwell seems to want America to be, to say property is owned by God is to say that it is owned by the State as God’s agent. The socialists have a strong case if they wish to claim direct warrant from Scripture, at least as strong as the capitalists do.

The point is not to say that the Bible provides direct warrant for socialism, communism, capitalism or any other sort of “–ism;” the point is that the Bible does not provide direct warrant for our human “–isms” and that we commit idolatry when we claim it does. It is another example of our pride, leading us to exalt our particular preference or heritage to divine status.

[1] Comey, p. 89

Comey, James. “Reinhold Niebuhr and Jerry Falwell: the Christian in politics.” (Review, pt. 5)

January 9, 2018

Just as God’s love establishes equality between individuals as the ideal, so too, Niebuhr says, does God demand equality and peace between nations. Falwell, Niebuhr would say, idolizes his own particular nation.[1] Patriotism, in and of itself, is fine, and a natural expression for the morally praiseworthy virtue of altruism. However, when patriotism and nationalism are distorted by pride, love of nation becomes a worship of one’s own nation and a desire to dominate others.[2] Niebuhr argues that the only defense against this idolatry is prophetic religion, that criticizes even the best nation by holding up the standard of perfect love. This is a recurring and important theme in Niebuhr’s thought, beyond the limited area Comey discusses: that Christian ethics is God’s perfect, unattainably high standard held up for us to strive towards, not a goal we can expect to fulfill. In An Interpetation of Christian Ethics, Niebuhr describes this in terms of the individual. I may feel pretty good about myself, if I only look at myself and what I’ve done. If I look at others, I may feel worse or better, depending on whom I look at. I feel pretty good about giving my spare change to a homeless person.   If I look around me, and see how many others only offer contempt, I may even feel pretty smug about my moral superiority. But if I look to the Gospel, and see what perfect neighbor-love would look like, I am humbled if not ashamed to realize how far I am from fulfilling God’s law of love. I do not give my sweater to the one who asks for my coat (Matt: 5:40); I don’t even give the coat. I don’t even give away my T-shirt collection (Luke 3:11). I allow practicalities and even fear to hold me back from fully loving others who need all the help they can get. And honestly, I’m going to keep doing so. But I can at least begin to grow morally when I stop measuring myself in comparison to any relative standard, and instead use God’s standard. This can lead me to repent, and to admit that my moral pride was undeserved; and knowing I still have some growing to do, I can strive to be better rather than bask in my self-satisfaction.

The same principle applies to nations. The “prophetic religion” which Niebuhr advocates holds up the ideal of the law of love. The Christian in politics should not judge his or her nation by looking at the others and feeling superior; rather, the Christian should look at the description of the Kingdom of God, where all are equal and love, not power, rules. No human nation, not even the best, will ever measure up to God’s perfect standard. This does not mean that all nations are equal or that one cannot judge between them; Niebuhr clearly and forcefully argued that the U.S. had a moral and religious duty to oppose Hitler with force, for example. But it does mean that the patriotic Christian must still admit that his or her nation needs to improve, and must call out the nation when it fails to uphold justice and protect the weak. Otherwise, the patriot will fall into idolatry, worshipping the State as if it were divine and attributing perfection to it as if it were God.

Falwell, too, would say that Christianity is a prophetic religion, and that the true Christian patriot must be a prophet. But “Falwell’s identification of America as Christian civilization and his belief in America as a new Christian Israel makes him a false prophet.”[3] Jerry Falwell claims that America is the best, most godly nation that has ever been. His evidence for this seems to be twofold. First, he would say, just look at us: founded by Christians as a shining city on a hill, preserving the Christian heritage better than any other, doing good for other nations, sharing our food, offering the protection of our military, establishing peace, promoting free trade and protecting trade routes so everyone can get richer as God intended, defending capitalism, which is the most godly economic system, and so on. Second, America’s wealth and power proves its righteousness: as “righteousness exalts a nation,” and the promise of the Bible is that God will bless the faithful nation, and God has clearly blessed America above all other nations, this must be the most faithful nation. * As Comey points out, this claim is subject to multiple objections. First, the biblical basis for this claim is not nearly as strong as Falwell asserts. There is no “direct warrant,” simply because the “United States of America” is never mentioned in the Bible. The indirect warrant from Scripture is also questionable, since it is not clear what “blessed” means or whether only faithful nations will ever be powerful. After all, at the time Falwell was writing, the “godless” USSR was considered an existential threat to the US, having quickly risen from the most backward of European nations to become a vast, powerful empire with worldwide trade and diplomatic influence; to any impartial judge, it would seem to be at least nearly as blessed as America. Falwell simply ignores apparent counterexamples to his argument, however, even asserting that part of the great righteousness of America is its opposition to the materialist, socialist totalitarianism of the Soviet Union; far from showing their blessedness, the Soviet strength only makes their evil worse. Falwell also ignores national sins of the U.S. such as segregation and racism. And more insidiously, Falwell fails to understand that spiritual pride can undermine even national virtues and turn them into vices, a process Niebuhr describes as “irony.”[4] Without a healthy skepticism born from a religious awareness of pride, American power easily becomes imperialism and oppression of other nations, American wealth and success can lead to the impoverishment of other nations, and American democracy is rejected by other nations as mere cover for the exploitation of the poor by rich capitalists and landowners. Falwell’s shock at the ingratitude of other nations towards America seems to incarnate the irony Niebuhr described years earlier. Here we are offering food, education, financial and military support to all these other nations, and they won’t even say “thank you”? But what Falwell never asks, and Niebuhr says the Christian must ask, is “Are we doing this for ourselves?” When we allow ourselves to become convinced that our nation has a unique divine mission, we all too easily cease to consider either the shortfalls and self-serving nature of many of our virtues, or the possible harm our nation and even our virtues may cause others. Furthermore, our pride can allow us to see our national actions as neither self-serving nor even simply good, but so superior that we deserve credit for going above and beyond the call of morality.

[1] Comey, pp. 75-89

[2] Comey, pp. 75-56

[3] Comey, p. 86

* Today we might say this is a sort of nationalized version of the Prosperity Gospel.

[4] Comey, p. 80