Because he’s a beastly minotaur and no chains can bind him

Benjamin Wittes on the Comey hearing as a matter of honor and dishonor:

It is a clarifying moment whenever an honorable person speaks plainly in public about a person he or she evidently regards as dishonorable on a matter of public moment. And today, a nation not normally riveted by congressional hearings got a chance to see what I was talking about. In three hours of testimony characterized by well-controlled but palpable anger, Comey attacked what he described as “lies” about the FBI and “defam[ation]” about himself; he accused the President of the United States of implicitly directing him to drop a major criminal investigation of a former senior official; he described a pattern of disrespect for the independence of the law enforcement function of the FBI; he alleged that the President made repeated misstatements of fact in his public accounts of their interactions; and he stated flatly that he believed that the President had fired him because of something related to the Russia investigation—an investigation that directly involves the President’s business, his campaign, his subordinates in the White House, and his family.

Throughout it all, the sense that he had spent four months dealing with people who were not honorable was, once again, written on every line of his face and evident in the tone he took when describing the President.

So what do we do with this, Wittes asks.

Remember that Comey was not just speaking publicly. He was speaking under oath. Remember also that he was speaking about matters in which he was a first-hand participant. Remember also that the only person who can meaningfully contest his allegations is Donald Trump.

Which is exactly why I find it surprising and absurd that Trump’s lawyer doesn’t hesitate to contest his allegations by flat-out saying Trump never did. He can’t meaningfully say that because he wasn’t there. Unless there are indeed tapes and they are untampered with and they show that Trump never did. That’s a very big unless.

Marc Kasowitz, President Trump’s lawyer in the Russia matter, has already declared that Comey “admitted that he unilaterally and surreptitiously made unauthorized disclosures to the press of privileged communications with the President”—as though the President has a reasonable expectation that he can fire someone and lie about the reasons and expect that person’s confidence in the exercise.

And as though the President has a reasonable expectation that he can trap Comey into an unwanted and inappropriate one-on-one meeting and then demand respect for the privacy of the meeting.

Talking about Comey and his choices won’t change the fundamental problem, which is about the Trump presidency, not about the former FBI director. And infantilizing the President won’t help either, because the office is no place for infants.

At the end of the day, the problem we face is stark. It is not okay to have a president who—as Jack Goldsmith put it last night—”does not remotely understand his role, status, and duties as President and Chief Executive” and for whom “this failure infects or undermines just about everything he does.” It is not okay to have a President who has so little regard for his oath of office that he cannot appreciate his deficiencies, has no desire to remedy them, and is thus prone consistently to behave in fashions repugnant to the very nature of the presidency. Comey said in his testimony today that he began taking notes immediately after meeting privately with Trump for the first time because of the “nature of the person” he was speaking to. It is not okay to have a president whose FBI director so mistrusts his “nature” on first meeting him that he feels compelled immediately to begin writing memos to file to have a permanent record of his interactions with the man.

Indeed it is not.

The greatest Onion news video ever made parodies the debate over interrogation in the Bush administration. It depicts a panel discussion of whether housing detainees in a labyrinth with a violent minotaur constitutes torture. At one point, the spoof former Bush administration official delivers the immortal line: “Even if the Minotaur did act inappropriately, and I’m not saying it did, the United States cannot be held responsible for its actions, because it is a beastly minotaur and no chains can bind it.”

This is the Trump presidency. There is no evidence that any chains can bind this president: not lawyers, not norms, not procedures, not repeated screw-ups of the sort that educate other leaders, and certainly not the mere expectations of decent public servants. But the problem is that the United States is responsible for his actions—and we are paying daily the price for them, particularly in our international relations but also in our domestic governance. It simply will not do any more for politicians to shield their eyes and say the equivalent of, “even if Trump did act inappropriately, and I’m not saying he did, it’s not my problem because he’s a beastly minotaur and no chains can bind him.”

It’s time to engineer the chains that can indeed bind him.

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