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James Comey’s firing goes beyond failures of FBI email investigation

Director’s moral code, political independence contributed to downfall

by Peter Elkind, special to ProPublica

On Tuesday, when Donald Trump abruptly dismissed the FBI director, James Comey, his administration insisted that he was merely following the recommendation of his attorney general and deputy attorney general, the two most senior officials in the Justice Department.

In a three-page memorandum attached to Comey’s termination letter, the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, cited concern for the FBI’s “reputation and credibility.” He said that the director had defied Justice Department policies and traditions and overstepped his authority in the way he handled the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

This was a puzzling assertion from the Trump administration, not least because Trump is widely acknowledged to have reaped the benefits of Comey’s actions on Election Day. After the FBI director sent his letter to Congress, on Oct. 28, about the discovery of new Clinton emails and the Bureau’s plans to assess them, Trump praised Comey for his “guts” and called the news “bigger than Watergate.”

In the end, Comey’s conspicuous independence — for so long, his greatest asset — proved his undoing, making him too grave a threat to Trump but also giving the president a plausible excuse to fire him.

In the aftermath of Comey’s firing, Democrats and some Republicans in Congress have proposed a far more credible explanation for Trump’s action, accusing the President of trying to halt the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the election and possible collusion with his campaign. Some of those legislators, as well as many critics in the press, have said that Trump has ignited a constitutional crisis, and they called for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to carry out the Russia investigation.

Comey’s dismissal came just as his Russia probe appeared to be widening. Just last week, the FBI director went to Rosenstein, who had been in his job only for a few days, to ask for significantly more resources in order to accelerate the investigation, according to The New York Times. Tensions between the Trump administration and Comey had been escalating already, and Trump’s fury over the FBI’s Russia probe remained full-throated. On Monday, Trump tweeted that the inquiry was a “taxpayer funded charade.”

It is now clear that the aim of Rosenstein’s memo was simply to provide a pretext for Comey’s firing. White House officials may have thought it would be a persuasive rationale because Comey has come in for criticism from leaders of both political parties. Trump had been harboring a long list of grievances against the FBI director, including his continued pursuit of the Russia probe. On Thursday, Trump confirmed in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt that, even before he received the deputy attorney general’s memo, he had already made up his mind to dismiss Comey. In the end, Comey’s conspicuous independence — for so long, his greatest asset — proved his undoing, making him too grave a threat to Trump but also giving the president a plausible excuse to fire him.

Rosenstein’s memo does reflect genuine frustration inside the Justice Department about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails, and betrays long-standing fissures between the two institutions, which are headquartered across from each other on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rosenstein, a Trump appointee who was previously the U.S. attorney in Maryland, titled his memo “Restoring Public Confidence in the F.B.I.” In the wake of Comey’s ouster, the FBI’s impartiality and competence remains an essential issue, making understanding what actually happened in the Clinton email inquiry urgent as well.

Comey’s announcement about the discovery of the new Clinton emails did break with written and unwritten Justice Department guidelines against interfering with elections. Last week, during testimony before Congress, Comey cast the move as a singularly difficult decision and an act of principled self-sacrifice, driven by events far beyond his control­­. “I knew this would be disastrous for me personally,” he said. “But I thought this is the best way to protect these institutions that we care so much about.”

A close examination, however, of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails reveals a very different narrative, one that was not nearly so clear-cut or inevitable. It is one that places previously undisclosed judgments and misjudgments by the Bureau at the very heart of what unfolded.

“I could see two doors and they were both actions,” Comey recounted in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “One was labelled ‘speak’; the other was labelled ‘conceal.’ … I stared at ‘speak’ and ‘conceal.’ ‘Speak’ would be really bad. There’s an election in eleven days — lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing, in my view, would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI but well beyond. And, honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team, ‘We got to walk into the world of really bad.’ I’ve got to tell Congress that we’re restarting this, not in some frivolous way — in a hugely significant way.”

But by the time Comey elected, on Oct. 28, to speak, rather than conceal, he and his senior aides had actually known for more than three weeks that agents sifting through files on a laptop belonging to the former congressman Anthony Weiner, as part of a sex-crimes investigation, had stumbled across emails sent by Clinton when she was secretary of state. The agents had been unable, legally, to open the emails, because they fell outside the bounds of their investigation of Weiner.

FBI officials kept the discovery to themselves. Without consulting or even informing the Justice Department lawyers who had worked on the email inquiry, FBI officials concluded that they lacked the evidence to seek a search warrant to examine the emails right away. Several legal experts and Justice Department officials I spoke to now say that this conclusion was unnecessarily cautious. FBI officials also ruled out asking Weiner or his wife, Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s closest aides, to allow access to the laptop — permission their lawyers told me they would have granted.

Instead, New York agents working the Weiner investigation, which centered on allegations of an explicit online relationship with a 15-year-old girl, were told to continue their search of his laptop as before but to take note of any additional Clinton emails they came across.

The debate over Comey’s effect on the 2016 election and, now, his historic dismissal, is likely to persist for years.

In the days that followed, investigators slowly sorted through the laptop’s contents, following standard protocols in a case that was anything but standard, and moving with surprisingly little dispatch to assess the significance of the emails.

After weeks of work, the agents concluded that the laptop contained thousands of Clinton messages, a fact they waited at least three more days to share with Comey. Finally, as Comey recounted before Congress last week, the FBI director convened his top aides in his conference room at Bureau headquarters to weigh the political and institutional consequences of what to do next.

At this point, Comey and his deputies were venturing far beyond their typical purview as criminal investigators. Under normal circumstances, department policies discouraged public discussion of developments in ongoing cases of any kind; with the election fast approaching, there was the added sensitivity of avoiding even the perception of interference with the political process. But FBI officials worried that agents in New York who disliked Clinton would leak news of the emails’ existence. Like nearly everyone in Washington, senior FBI officials assumed that Clinton would win the election and were evaluating their options with that in mind. The prospect of oversight hearings, led by restive Republicans investigating an FBI “cover-up,” made everyone uneasy.

One more misjudgment informed Comey’s decision. FBI officials estimated that it would take months to review the emails. Agents wound up completing their work in just a few days. (Most of the emails turned out to be duplicates of messages collected in the previous phase of the Clinton investigation.) Had FBI officials known that the review could be completed before the election, Comey likely wouldn’t have said anything before examining the emails. Instead, he announced that nothing had changed in the Clinton case — on Nov. 6, just two days before the election, and after many millions had already cast their ballots in early voting.

The debate over Comey’s effect on the 2016 election and, now, his historic dismissal, is likely to persist for years. In the months since Donald Trump became the nation’s 45th president, a number of media organizations — most recently, The New York Times — have scrutinized Comey’s handling of the Clinton emails. They have also examined Comey’s accompanying silence about the Bureau’s investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, an inquiry that began in July of 2016.

Clinton traces her loss directly to Comey; she asserted recently that if the election had been held on Oct. 27, “I would be your president.” Trump retorted, in a tweet, that the FBI director was “the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”

This account is based on interviews with dozens of participants in the events leading up to the election. They include current and former officials from the FBI and the Justice Department who were eager to have their actions understood but unwilling to be quoted by name. Comey himself declined my requests for an interview. Back in early January, however, he replied politely to a written interview request, acknowledging that he was aware of my “ongoing work.” He wrote from an email address whose whimsical name, he said, “the Russians may have a harder time guessing.”

Clinton traces her loss directly to Comey; she asserted recently that if the election had been held on Oct. 27, “I would be your president.”

Comey added a note of intrigue, suggesting that there were unappreciated complexities to the story that hadn’t yet become known: “You are right there is a clear story to tell — one that folks willing to actually listen will readily grasp — but I’m not ready to tell it just yet for a variety of reasons.”

During his testimony before Congress last week, Comey said that the possibility that he’d influenced the outcome of the Presidential election made him “mildly nauseous.” Previously, over two decades of public service, Comey had made independence from partisan politics the foundation of his political identity. Comey, who is 56 years old, had been the rarest of creatures in Washington: A Republican even Democrats could love.

A registered Republican for most of his adult life, Comey had made a point of telling a congressional committee last July that he was no longer affiliated with either party. (His distance from partisan politics extends to the voting booth; records show that Comey hasn’t voted in a primary or general election in the past decade.)

Comey rose to prominence through the Justice Department, first as a federal prosecutor in New York and Virginia, and then as the United States attorney in Manhattan, and the deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush. From early on, colleagues say, Comey carefully cultivated a reputation for integrity and nonpartisanship. Until the events of the past year, it had always served him well. “He knew what was the right thing to do,” a former federal prosecutor who worked with Comey told me. “But he figured out how to execute it in a way that, whatever the result, Jim Comey would be protected. I say that respectfully. He has an exceptional gift for that.”

Comey liked to map out the ramifications of major decisions, often in lengthy meetings with deputies. At critical moments in his career, Comey showcased his independence — too eagerly, in the view of some who accuse him of “moral vanity.” “I think he has a bit of a God complex — that he’s the last honest man in Washington,” a former Justice Department official who has worked with him told me. “And I think that’s dangerous.”

Daniel Richman, a Columbia law professor and close friend of Comey who has served as his unofficial media surrogate, acknowledged Comey’s penchant for public righteousness. “He certainly does love the idea of being a protector of the Constitution,” Richman said. “The idea of doing messy stuff and taking your lumps in the press.” But Richman, who worked with Comey as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, insisted that Comey’s motivations were sincere. “More than most people, he thinks that when it comes to making really difficult decisions, transparency and accountability have incredible value,” Richman said.

Comey’s distance from partisan politics extends to the voting booth; records show that Comey hasn’t voted in a primary or general election in the past decade.

Among scores of people I interviewed, not even Comey’s harshest critics believe that he acted out of a desire to elect a Republican president. Comey built his reputation by taking on powerful figures of both parties. Most famously, while serving as acting attorney general under George W. Bush, he’d raced to the hospital bedside of the ailing attorney general, John Ashcroft, to confront administration officials seeking Ashcroft’s reauthorization for a domestic surveillance program that the Justice Department considered illegal. Comey’s congressional testimony, in 2007, about the confrontation raised his public profile, earning him encomiums from both parties. In 2013, after Comey completed a seven-year interlude in the private sector, Barack Obama chose the Republican lawyer as the director of the FBI. “To know Jim Comey is also to know his fierce independence and his deep integrity,” the president declared, in a Rose Garden ceremony. The Senate confirmed him 93 to 1.

The FBI is a division of the United States Department of Justice, and its director reports to the attorney general. But, from the start of his 10-year term at the FBI, Comey asserted a belief in the agency’s right to chart its own course. “The FBI is in the executive branch,” Comey likes to say, “but not of the executive branch.”

The investigation of Clinton’s emails was exactly the sort of challenge Comey seemed to have spent his career preparing for. The FBI formally opened its probe on July 10, 2015, just three months after Clinton announced her candidacy for president. “We all recognized it was a no-win situation,” the former FBI Executive Assistant Director John Giacalone, who helped oversee the investigation’s first seven months, said. At the outset, the goal was to finish the investigation by the end of 2015 — before the first primary votes were cast. It took twice that long, barely ending before the party conventions in July 2016.

The focus of the inquiry, run out of FBI headquarters because of its sensitivity, was whether Clinton’s use of an unclassified email system housed on private servers in the basement of her Chappaqua home violated any laws or allowed hackers and foreign governments to access government secrets. It was staffed by a core team of a dozen FBI agents and analysts, along with two prosecutors from the Justice Department’s National Security Division and two from the Eastern District of Virginia.

Much of their time was taken up trying to find and examine all of the roughly 62,000 messages from Clinton’s four years as secretary of state, which began in January 2009; two of Clinton’s lawyers had deleted about half of the emails, deeming them purely personal. This had sent the FBI on an often frustrating hunt for the missing emails. Agents fanned out to locate, examine and reconstruct scattered hardware and data backup systems from Clinton’s private network, as well as all the BlackBerrys, iPads, computers and storage drives that Clinton, her aides and her lawyers had used. Forensic recovery would eventually help the FBI to find 17,448 deleted emails, including thousands that agents deemed work-related.

Even as thousands of messages remained elusive, the investigators ultimately reached consensus that the evidence didn’t warrant criminal charges, which required proof of intentional misconduct, gross negligence or efforts to obstruct justice. After nearly a year and more than 90 interviews, they had identified 81 message chains deemed to be classified that passed through her private server. Clinton’s practices were sloppy, irresponsible and in defiance of State Department policies, but investigators found no proof of criminal conduct — just a misguided effort by Clinton to maintain control over what the public, and her opponents, could learn about her.

As the inquiry neared its end, Comey, who had closely monitored it from the start, requested summaries of more than 30 government prosecutions involving mishandling of classified information. He waded through the records, seeking to understand the cases’ rationale and how they had been resolved. In the end, he agreed with the investigators’ unanimous conclusion: Clinton should not face criminal charges.

By June 2016, the FBI and the Justice Department were jointly weighing the question of how to reveal their decision in the midst of the presidential campaign. FBI and Justice officials had been discussing for weeks a major departure from the usual handling of a criminal inquiry that ended without charges.

The final interview, with Clinton herself, was scheduled for Saturday, July 2, at FBI headquarters. Agents planned to spend the next week completing a confidential memo detailing their findings, assuming nothing new materialized. Then, in accord with standard Justice Department procedure, the supervising prosecutors and agents, along with top officials from both the Justice Department and the FBI, would privately brief the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, on their recommendation against bringing charges. She would accept, closing the case.

Comey liked to map out the ramifications of major decisions, often in lengthy meetings with deputies. At critical moments in his career, Comey showcased his independence — too eagerly, in the view of some who accuse him of “moral vanity.”

Lynch was a widely respected 17-year Justice Department veteran who had previously served as the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York, under President Bill Clinton and, then, President Obama. In April 2015, a Republican-controlled Senate confirmed her to replace Eric Holder as attorney general. The first African-American woman to serve as attorney general, Lynch was a graduate of Harvard Law School, the daughter of a librarian and a Baptist preacher and the sister of a Navy SEAL. She’d prosecuted corrupt politicians from both parties and was viewed as a career prosecutor, not a political figure. But the Trump campaign and conservative websites called her integrity into question. Any exoneration of Clinton, they said, would be tainted because Lynch was an Obama appointee.

So the Justice Department and the FBI together plotted an unusual strategy. Over weeks of meetings, they discussed a plan in which Comey and Lynch would appear together at a news conference. After announcing the FBI’s recommendation and the attorney general’s acceptance of it, they would affirm their mutual confidence in the thoroughness and integrity of the investigation. Given the public appetite for more information, officials also considered sending a limited summary of their findings to the inspector general for the intelligence community. He had referred the matter for investigation in the first place, and could choose to make the summary public.

“It hadn’t all been sketched out,” a former Justice Department official familiar with the matter told me. “But there were conversations about how it could go. There were these discussions between the buildings, leadership to leadership. Everyone knew how this rolled out was really important.”

Comey had his own ideas. Unbeknownst to his Justice Department colleagues, Comey had resolved to proceed alone with the announcement. Since May, he had been holding a parallel series of meetings with top FBI confidants to thrash through his plan. He would publicly announce — and explain — the Clinton decision without Lynch at his side. “We had discussions for months about what this looked like,” Michael Steinbach, who retired as the FBI’s executive assistant director for national security in February 2017, said. “This, for us, was the best course of action, given the political situation that we were in — for us to do it independently.”

As Comey saw it, according to Steinbach and others familiar with his thinking, the public doubted Lynch’s independence and would be less likely to accept the decision if she were involved in announcing it.

Comey and his aides had another motivation for acting alone. In their view, the American people were entitled to hear the investigators’ views of Clinton’s conduct, something they believed Lynch would not allow. Justice Department policies frown upon officials commenting on investigations, especially if they are making subjective remarks about people whom prosecutors have declined to charge. But with Election Day just four months away, FBI officials felt that it was essential to provide a fuller accounting “that allowed the American people to make an informed decision,” Steinbach said. “Our concern, as we got closer to the election, was to make sure that the American people understood we found no evidence of a crime but we did find evidence of misconduct.”

FBI officials began drafting a lengthy statement that explained their recommendation not to prosecute but was, nevertheless, harshly critical of Clinton. “For the director to get that out, he’s either doing it alone or he’s not doing it,” Steinbach told me. “DOJ’s not going to let it happen.”

Then, on the evening of June 27, former President Bill Clinton and Lynch both happened to be on the tarmac at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and the ex-president strode aboard her government plane. When news of the visit inevitably spilled out, both Lynch and Clinton insisted that they’d merely discussed golf and family matters during a 30-minute conversation.

For those who felt that the Obama administration was doing everything it could to help Hillary Clinton win, the encounter was conclusive proof. “SNAKES ON A PLANE,” the New York Post screamed. “Bill’s shady meeting taints probe.” Lynch declined to recuse herself from the case but said that she fully expected to accept whatever recommendation the FBI agents and career prosecutors made.

The tarmac episode reinforced Comey’s conviction to act on his own. The FBI interviewed Clinton the following Saturday, July 2. Justice Department officials settled in to wait for a draft of the FBI’s report.

Instead, at about 10:30 a.m. on July 5, Justice Department officials received an informal heads-up: In 30 minutes, Comey was going to hold a live televised press briefing at FBI headquarters. Before stepping in front of cameras, Comey sent an email to all FBI employees with a copy of his prepared remarks and an explanation of why he was speaking so freely and on his own. “I am doing that,” Comey wrote, “because I think the confidence of the American people in the FBI is a precious thing, and I want them to understand that we did this investigation in a competent, honest, and independent way.”

Despite Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of “highly classified information,” Comey concluded, there was no evidence of intentional misconduct or efforts to obstruct justice, and “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

Moments later, Comey delivered what he called “an update on the FBI’s investigation.” He told reporters, “This is going to be an unusual statement in at least a couple of ways. First, I’m going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would, because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest. And, second, I have not coordinated this statement or reviewed it in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of the government. They do not know what I’m about to say.”

Comey then described Clinton as “extremely careless” in handling “very sensitive, highly classified information.” As “any reasonable person” in her position “should have known,” Comey declared, a private, unclassified email server “was no place for that conversation.” Despite these statements, Comey concluded that, because there was no evidence of intentional misconduct or efforts to obstruct justice, “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”

Late the following afternoon, Lynch met with the FBI director, agents and prosecutors for their formal briefing. In a two-sentence statement, the Justice Department announced that the attorney general had accepted their “unanimous recommendation.”

Partisan outrage was immediate. Conservative media and Trump surrogates accused Comey of protecting Clinton and preventing rank-and-file FBI agents from pursuing the truth. During nine hours of congressional hearings in which Comey elaborated further on his opinions of Clinton’s conduct, Republicans repeatedly questioned his reasoning for ending the investigation without charges.

Perhaps more worrisome to Comey was the rising discontent within the FBI. The retired assistant director James Kallstrom, a Trump backer who had run the New York field office from 1995 to 1997, became a fixture on Fox News and Fox Business, where he attacked Comey’s “nonsensical conclusion” in the Clinton probe and highlighted the “disgust” of “hundreds” of active and retired agents, including some “involved in this thing” who “feel like they’ve been stabbed in the back.” Kallstrom said, “I think we’re going to see a lot more of the facts come out in the course of the next few months. That’s my prediction.”

For their part, Justice Department officials were incredulous at Comey’s decision to proceed without them. On Tuesday, in his Comey memo, Rosenstein said that the FBI director was “wrong to usurp the Attorney General’s authority” by announcing “his own conclusions about the nation’s most sensitive criminal investigation.” He added, “It is not the function of the Director to make such an announcement,” and “the Director ignored another longstanding principle: we do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation.”

A recent report in The New York Times raised the prospect of another factor in Comey’s calculations. Early last year, another FBI investigative team had found a memo or email hacked by the Russians in which a Democratic operative expressed confidence that Lynch would protect Clinton. According to the Times, Comey worried that if Lynch were involved in the Clinton announcement and the Russians leaked the document, then voters would not trust the inquiry.

But Comey did not confront Lynch, demand that she recuse herself or raise the matter with the deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, former Justice Department officials told me. Instead, he sent an aide to confer with David Margolis, a respected senior Justice Department official, who has since died. Margolis never raised the issue with department leadership. Two former officials who have seen the document told me that it was never a real concern. Comey and his defenders, they insisted to me, are now engaged in “revisionist history.”

Conservative media and Trump surrogates accused Comey of protecting Clinton and preventing rank-and-file FBI agents from pursuing the truth.

In May 2016, just as the FBI’s investigation into the Clinton emails was nearing its final stages, a young woman in Indiana named Sydney Leathers received a Facebook message from someone she did not know.

Three years earlier, Leathers had earned notoriety as Anthony Weiner’s most famous sexting partner. Leathers, then a 23-year-old college student, had come forward, at first anonymously, with details about her online relationship with the disgraced former congressman, who had gone by the screen name Carlos Danger. Leathers’s story inspired countless tabloid headlines and ended Weiner’s political comeback as a candidate for mayor of New York City. Leathers quickly cashed in, selling her story to tabloid media, letting “Inside Edition” record her cosmetic surgery makeover, starring in porn films and charging for phone sex and webcam services.

The messages Leathers received in 2016 were from someone who identified herself as a 15-year-old in North Carolina. The sender said she had been sexting with Weiner, but Leathers was skeptical. “I just thought it was a crazy person,” she told me.

Leathers changed her mind after the girl sent screen shots from months of exchanges with the former congressman. The teenager wanted to go public, but Leathers urged her to call the police instead. “I don’t claim to be a morality queen,” Leathers said. “I don’t care if he was sexting another adult. But, if it’s a child, it’s another story. I felt a little protective of her.”

After it became clear that the teenager was determined to tell her story, Leathers said she shifted to “damage control.”

“How can I at least make you some money?” she said she asked the teenager. “I basically said, ‘The only way you should do this is if they pay you.’ Certain outlets will pay you to talk, and I had made deals with a lot of them.” Leathers’ agent alerted dailymail.com, the online version of a British tabloid with which she’d previously done business. Both Leathers and the girl received a sizable fee; the teen’s father, an attorney, helped negotiate her payment.

On July 30, Leathers took another step. She had not communicated with Weiner for years, but she decided to send him a private Facebook message that amounted to a half-warning, half-scold:

“This is super awkward but you need to know something. There’s a 15-year-old girl named [redacted] messaging me and she’s claiming you guys sext and skyped. And that you know how old she is. For once I’m keeping my mouth shut. I want nothing to do with this. Frankly, I hope it isn’t true. But she showed me a screenshot that looks legit to me. How have you not learned your lesson? This is another level of fucked up. I suggested to her not to talk to the press so you’re welcome but you may want to refrain from messaging anyone under 18 for gods sake. If she is really someone you’ve been talking to, you better cut that off quickly. She’s talking about potentially messing with Hillary’s campaign. I am kind of pissed to be put in this situation to be honest.”

The Daily Mail story appeared on Sept. 21. The 2,200-word article was accompanied by dozens of screen captures, displaying half-clad photos and suggestive texts that Weiner had sent the teenager, a high school sophomore whose name was withheld. She told the Daily Mail that she had contacted Weiner, then 51, in late January 2016. During online video chats, she said, Weiner had invited her to undress and masturbate. She said he’d urged her to engage in “rape fantasies.” The girl’s father said that he’d learned of the relationship in April but did not alert the police because his child believed the relationship was “consensual” and “I didn’t want to exacerbate anything that she has mentally going on.” The article included four pictures of Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, including one of her with Hillary Clinton.

Anthony Wiener, married to Hillary’s deputy chief of staff at the State Department, came under FBI suspicion for sexting a minor.

Abedin was perhaps Clinton’s closest aide, often described as a surrogate daughter. She had met Clinton in 1996, while she was a White House intern, and spent her entire adult life working for her. When Abedin married Weiner, in 2010, Bill Clinton officiated at the ceremony; the couple had a son a year later.

When the FBI began investigating the Clinton emails, in 2015, agents had taken special interest in Abedin because she was one of the four aides who served as conduits for most of Clinton’s State Department messages, screening them, forwarding them and printing them out for her boss. When agents interviewed Abedin on April 5, 2016, she told them that she had used Yahoo and state.gov accounts while working in the State Department, as well as an email address on Clinton’s private basement server, huma@clintonemail.com.

They asked Abedin what devices she used for email, at work and home, and whether she’d kept any archive. According to FBI notes of the interview, Abedin said that she had already turned over everything she had to the State Department. The agents did not ask to inspect any personal computers at her Manhattan apartment, where she lived with Weiner and their son. Her lawyer would later publicly insist that Abedin had no idea that her exchanges with Clinton were on his laptop. The couple has since separated.

The Daily Mail story raised the possibility of serious criminal charges for Weiner. If he had encouraged an underage female to take explicit photos or video of herself, he could be charged with producing child pornography, a felony that carries a minimum prison term of 15 years. FBI agents in New York immediately began investigating.

On Sept. 26, after federal prosecutors in New York obtained a search warrant, and the FBI collected Weiner’s iPhone, iPad and laptop. Agents began examining the computer — a silver, 15.6-inch 2015 Dell Inspiron 7000 — for any pictures, videos or other evidence involving Weiner’s teenage sexting partner. An agent sorting through the contents of the hard drive came across a jolting find: a State Department memo and some emails between Abedin and Hillary Clinton. The documents were not covered by the sex-crimes warrant, which meant that the FBI had no legal right to examine them.

The presidential election was five weeks away.

The agent went to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York for guidance. Prosecutors there wanted no part of the email case, which had been staffed by a special team of agents, FBI analysts, and Justice Department lawyers working out of FBI headquarters, in Washington. The New York prosecutors told the agent to seek advice from that team. They said nothing to their own bosses at Justice Department headquarters.

Officials at FBI headquarters instructed the New York agent examining Weiner’s hard drive for evidence of sex crimes to continue his work as before and to keep a log of any further Clinton emails he came across.

By Oct. 3, senior officials at the FBI — including Comey — had been alerted that the Weiner laptop contained an unknown number of Clinton emails. By this point, the email controversy had receded as an issue in the presidential race. Any news of the discovery would surely have profound consequences for the Clinton campaign, especially as the election drew ever closer. Yet, over the following three weeks, FBI agents proceeded unhurriedly with their investigation, on the premise that what they knew of the discovery was not, as one official put it to me, “investigatively significant.”

FBI officials decided not to share news of the new emails on the laptop with the Justice Department prosecutors who had worked with them on the Clinton case. A former high-ranking Justice Department official, who dealt frequently with the FBI, blamed the failure on institutional distrust. “There is a general tendency, with everything at the Bureau, to keep things inside the Bureau until they figure out what to do,” he told me.

Without the involvement of their Justice Department colleagues, the FBI eschewed options that might have expedited matters. Former Justice Department officials familiar with the case told me that the FBI’s failure to move more quickly in this phase of the investigation represented a serious blunder. “It probably would have helped to have the prosecutors on the investigation involved at the earliest moment,” the former high-ranking official told me.

A crucial question was whether the discovery of the first few emails and a State Department document was sufficient to obtain a new search warrant to locate and examine all the Clinton messages right away. The former federal magistrate judge John Facciola, now an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University, told me that he would have granted such a warrant request, even after the discovery of just a “handful” of Clinton emails. The FBI’s earlier investigation had revealed that some messages from the Clinton server contained improperly stored classified information, Facciola noted. “If the headers show transmittal from Clinton to Abedin, it follows as night to day that others bearing that header may also be classified, and we have a right to search. What more you need than that, I don’t know.”

Former Justice Department officials told me that they also could have sought consent from Weiner and Abedin to examine the emails without a warrant. Lawyers for both told me that they were never asked and would have readily acceded. FBI officials, who were not fond of consent agreements, reportedly did not do this because they worried that Weiner would have sought concessions on any sex-crime charges; lawyers familiar with the matter dismiss the notion that he had any bargaining leverage.

Officials at FBI headquarters instructed the New York agent examining Weiner’s hard drive for evidence of sex crimes to continue his work as before and to keep a log of any further Clinton emails he came across.

By all accounts, this phase of the process went slowly. The software that the Bureau used to inventory the contents of Weiner’s laptop kept crashing. It would take about ten days before agents were able to retrieve a complete record of the messages saved on the laptop, showing dates, senders and recipients. But, even then, the FBI did not immediately seek a warrant.

By mid-October, inside the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, the handful of officials who knew about the discovery of the Clinton emails were openly wondering what was going on. Any effort to obtain a second warrant would have to go through their office, and they had heard nothing.

On Friday, Oct. 21, Joon Kim, the deputy U.S. attorney for the Southern District, called an official in the deputy attorney general’s office at Justice Department headquarters to ask what was being done about the Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop. Recognizing the importance of the call, Kim wrote a memo noting it.

For Justice Department officials, the call was the first they’d heard of the emails. The following Monday, FBI and Justice Department lawyers finally gathered in Washington to discuss what to do. The New York agents had finished tabulating the emails between Abedin and Clinton, and they numbered in the thousands. FBI investigators who had been part of the Clinton inquiry decided that they were eager to examine the new emails.

A primary source of anxiety for Comey was the FBI’s own New York field office, which was handling the Weiner case and harbored deep pockets of anti-Clinton sentiment.

Throughout their yearlong investigation, FBI investigators had been frustrated by their inability to locate all of Clinton’s emails, especially those sent during the first eight weeks of her tenure as secretary of state, a troubling gap in their records. Some of those now appeared to be on Weiner’s laptop, and they might reveal incriminating information about Clinton’s motivation in setting up the private server in the first place. Investigators recognized that, in all likelihood, the new emails would not change the decision to close the case without charges. Most were probably duplicates of what the FBI had already seen. It seemed improbable that agents would find written proof that Clinton intended to violate the law. Still, it seemed foolish not to examine the emails. The Justice Department lawyers readily agreed to seek a court order, leading Comey’s deputies to schedule a meeting with their boss on the morning of Oct. 27.

More than three weeks had passed from the time that Comey and his top deputies had been alerted to the initial discovery of Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop. Yet, in his congressional testimony, Comey described what he heard in his briefing that Thursday morning as a startling new development. “The Anthony Weiner thing landed on me on October 27 and there was a huge — this is what people forget — new step to be taken,” he said. “We may be finding the golden missing emails that would change this case. If I were not to speak about that, it would be a disastrous, catastrophic concealment.”

Comey immediately approved plans to seek a new warrant. Such warrants are typically obtained in secret before a magistrate judge and not made public, but Comey told his deputies that he wanted to send a letter to congressional leaders the next day.

Justice Department policies bar employees from interfering with elections and discourage taking any action that might be perceived as interference in the weeks before votes are cast. Election Day 2016 was less than two weeks off; early voting had already begun in 36 states.

Comey would justify his Oct. 28 disclosure as a matter of moral obligation: He’d told two congressional committees that the investigation was complete, and plans to review the new material meant that that was no longer true. Before Congress last week, he characterized his decision as a choice between “speak” and “conceal.”

In his memo released on Tuesday, Rosenstein scorned this characterization. “‘Conceal’ is a loaded term that misstates the issue,” he wrote. “When federal agents quietly open a criminal investigation, we are not concealing anything; we are simply following the longstanding policy that we refrain from publicizing non-public information. In that context, silence is not concealment.”

There was another motivation for Comey’s decision to “speak”: FBI officials feared that news of the new emails would leak out, damaging the Bureau and its director. The primary source of anxiety was the FBI’s own New York field office, which was handling the Weiner case and harbored deep pockets of anti-Clinton sentiment. New York agents had already been griping to the media about headquarters’ curbs on their investigation of the Clinton Foundation. Two prominent Trump surrogates with close local FBI ties — Kallstrom and Rudy Giuliani, a former U.S. Attorney and New York mayor — had for weeks been warning about agent fury over Comey’s decision in the email case. Lately, Giuliani had been chortling on Fox News about the Trump campaign’s plans for “some pretty big surprises” that “you’re going to hear about in the next few days.” (He would later claim that he had advance knowledge of the new emails.)

Comey and his aides had considered saying nothing about the discovery until agents could assess its significance, but only if their task would be completed by the election. “If we were of the belief we’d get through it before the election, we wouldn’t have said anything,” Steinbach said. But, given the number of Clinton-related messages on Weiner’s laptop (the FBI had identified 49,000 as “potentially relevant”), no one felt confident promising the FBI director that they could be examined in time. “I was thinking, I hope we can get this done in a couple of months,” Steinbach told me.

Mark Pollitt, a Syracuse University information studies professor who ran the FBI’s national computer forensics lab program during his career as a special agent, said that this mistaken judgment was likely born of excessive bureaucratic caution. “If you know this one’s going to go to the director and attorney general and maybe the president of the United States, we’re going to give them the worst-case scenario so we don’t get yelled at for dragging our feet,” he said. “I’m not going to say I can get it done in a particular time frame and then not make that deadline.”

This time, Comey decided to alert the Justice Department of his plans. Officials there tried vigorously to dissuade him from sending the letter. Heated discussions took place between a Comey deputy and an official in the deputy attorney general’s office, acting as surrogates for their bosses. The Justice official retrieved a transcript of Comey’s congressional testimony to point out that the director had never explicitly promised an update of every development in the case. Comey’s deputy acknowledged that this was the case but said the director’s view was that it didn’t matter; he had a “duty” to correct the “impression” he’d left that the FBI’s work was done. According to the former Justice official, Comey’s deputy also made clear that the FBI director was “very concerned” about a leak — that the news “was coming out anyway.”

Democrats, who had praised Comey since July, were outraged. A Clinton spokesman blamed Comey for “unleashing a wildfire of innuendo.”

The Justice official reminded Comey’s deputy about department policy regarding overt investigative steps before an election. Criticism was inevitable, he argued; the best defense was to consistently follow the normal process. The FBI’s response: “This one’s different.”

“This wasn’t a policy-position disagreement,” the former Justice Department official told me. “Comey felt this was his credibility on the line. He was the one who had testified before Congress. Their view is, ‘We get the policy and procedures. But he’s the one who had to personally suffer the fallout if he doesn’t update the Hill. It’s his ass in the sling.'”

Lynch and Yates had the power to order Comey not to send the letter. But Comey’s high-minded characterization of his “obligation” made that option seem perilous to senior Justice Department officials. If they gave Comey such an order, it wasn’t clear that he would comply. And if he did, there was a chance that it could be portrayed as the attorney general ordering the FBI director to hide information from Congress. None of that would play well, especially in the aftermath of the tarmac incident. So the Justice Department officials stuck to pleading through staff.

Comey deliberated with his deputies into Thursday night about exactly what to say, generating multiple drafts of his letter. The first ran just two sentences; later versions offered far more detail, then somewhat less, as Comey and his staff struggled to find the right balance. Steinbach joined a conference call about the language while shopping for Halloween pumpkins in Virginia with his daughter. “The intention was to write a statement that was as politically neutral as possible — that did not allow for incorrect inference,” one person familiar with the situation told me. Predictably, that would prove impossible.

During a conference call the next morning with a half-dozen participants, FBI officials read portions of their draft to their Justice Department counterparts, who argued that the letter was certain to be used to political advantage by Trump. They urged Comey to add language that made clear that the director was making the disclosure because of the obligation he felt from his testimony, not because of the gravity of the discovery — and that the emails had been found on the laptop of an aide’s husband, not in Clinton’s possession.

Comey declined to make any changes. He dispatched his three-paragraph letter to 16 congressional leaders shortly before noon on Friday, Oct. 28. It disclosed the discovery of new Clinton emails “that appear to be pertinent,” as well as plans to “assess their importance,” before noting, “The FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work.”

Comey explained his actions more fully in an email to FBI staff:

“Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood.”

Within hours, “law enforcement officials” disclosed to the press that the “unrelated case” was the Weiner sexting investigation. Trump, who’d previously been bashing Comey, celebrated the news at a New Hampshire rally. Clinton’s “corruption is on a scale we have never seen before,” he declared, amid chants of “Lock her up!” “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Democrats, who had praised Comey since July, were outraged. A Clinton spokesman blamed Comey for “unleashing a wildfire of innuendo.”

The days after Comey’s revelation had been devastating to Clinton’s campaign. “Comey put a hole through the wall, and Trump drove a Mack truck through it.”

Clinton’s campaign set up a war room at its Brooklyn headquarters to respond to the news. The campaign highlighted an open letter signed by 99 former Justice Department officials from both parties who declared that they were “astonished and perplexed” by Comey’s actions. “The strategy was not to debate what Comey had done,” the Clinton pollster Joel Benenson told me. “The strategy was to aggressively discredit his actions with these bipartisan prosecutors.”

As the campaign — and debate over Comey’s actions — churned on, the FBI faced enormous pressure to complete its review of the new emails before Election Day, on Nov. 8. The government obtained its search warrant on Sunday, Oct. 30, two days after Comey’s letter, and agents immediately began scouring a copy of Weiner’s hard drive, which an agent had already carried to Washington from New York.

Exactly how thousands of Clinton emails ended up on Weiner’s laptop remains somewhat mysterious. In his testimony last week, Comey said that Abedin had forwarded “hundreds and thousands” of emails — including some containing classified information — to her husband’s email account, so that Weiner could print out the messages for delivery to Clinton. But two sources familiar with the matter told me that Abedin forwarded only a handful of Clinton emails to her husband for printing. Most of the old Clinton messages found on the laptop trace to backups of Abedin’s BlackBerry, which might have been first stored on a desktop computer at the couple’s home before ending up on Weiner’s laptop inadvertently, as part of a bulk transfer of old files. After Abedin’s lawyer and I pressed the FBI to clarify the matter, and I wrote an article about it, the Bureau released a letter correcting Comey’s testimony.

FBI agents had told their bosses that reviewing the new emails would take them well past Election Day. But, as the 10-member team began working around the clock, the process quickly accelerated. The FBI agents rapidly ruled out huge batches of messages that weren’t work-related, “de-duped” thousands of emails they’d seen before, and isolated the relative few — about 6,000, according to Comey — that required individual scrutiny. Potentially classified emails went to analysts for review.

Midway through a final all-night push, on Saturday, Nov. 5, two agents left FBI headquarters for a pizza-and-soda run. Outside, they found lime-green spray-painted graffiti near the building’s main entrance, some of it covering the FBI seal. It read “ASSHOLE” and “CORRUPT.”

At about 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, the FBI agents finished their work, and the team’s leader dispatched a message to their bosses. They had found new State Department messages but none, after all, from the missing period at the start of Clinton’s term, and nothing that suggested a criminal motive. Twelve email threads contained classified information; none of them were new.

That afternoon, Comey wrote to Congress again, revealing that the FBI had completed its review without finding anything to change the conclusions that he had announced back in July.

The days after Comey’s revelation had been devastating to Clinton’s campaign. “Comey put a hole through the wall, and Trump drove a Mack truck through it,” Benenson told me. The news dominated the home-stretch coverage; even the announcement that the review was over didn’t help. “You are in no good position at that point,” Benenson said. “Any discussion of emails and investigations is going to be a losing proposition.”

Trump’s campaign made the most of the Comey letter. “Decades of lies, coverups, and scandal have finally caught up with Hillary Clinton,” a new Trump TV ad intoned. “Hillary Clinton is under FBI investigation again, after her emails were found on pervert Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Think about that! America’s most sensitive secrets, unlawfully sent, received and exposed by Hillary Clinton, her staff, and Anthony Weiner. Hillary cannot lead a nation while crippled by a criminal investigation!”

“The Trump campaign was using it to the hilt,” Benenson said. “They took Comey’s statement, and they drove it. The most effective thing they did with it is to say, ‘This will never end. If she’s president, it will never end.'”

The “Comey effect” set in quickly. In a uniquely volatile electorate, enamored of neither candidate, weighing Trump’s temperament versus Clinton’s ethics, many of those who had finally been ready to vote for the Democrat fled. Her numbers slipped in key states. “It was enough of a lingering concern that at the end they said, ‘Screw it. I’m not going to vote for her,'” Benenson said. “They went with the third-party candidate or stayed home.”

FBI officials remain bitter at how Clinton and her supporters have blamed them for Trump’s election.

Many analysts concluded that Comey’s actions tilted the presidency to Trump. Nate Silver, the polling guru at the website FiveThirtyEight, said that Comey’s letter produced a swing of about three points in the popular vote in the handful of states that won Trump the presidency. In a post-campaign interview, the Trump pollster Tony Fabrizio put it this way: “When you really drill down on this election, if you change the vote in five counties, four in Florida, one in Michigan, we’d be having a totally opposite conversation right now.”

FBI officials remain bitter at how Clinton and her supporters have blamed them for Trump’s election. “I don’t find it credible,” Steinbach said. “It’s a mess she helped create from start to finish, with start being when she elected to use a private server. Even if you were to assume the investigation influenced the election, her actions created the environment. You can second-guess how it played out. But our guiding principle was to protect the American people and the Constitution of the United States.”

In January, the Justice Department’s inspector general announced that he would review charges that Comey’s public disclosures about the Clinton investigation violated department policies. Comey issued a statement saying that he welcomed “thoughtful evaluation and transparency” on the matter. Some of Comey’s friends and colleagues had weighed making public a letter of support for him, before eventually deciding against it. In conversations with reporters, they began seeking to explain his actions.

Some of the most withering criticism of Comey focused on his refusal, before the election, to disclose the FBI’s investigation into the possibility of collusion between the Russian government and Trump associates — even as he spoke at length about Clinton’s emails. In late March, quoting two anonymous sources, Newsweek reported that Comey had actually wanted to talk about the Russian political meddling, through a personal, bylined newspaper column, but the White House had blocked him from doing so. People familiar with the matter told me that the Obama administration had wanted to respond in a more direct way, through an official finding. That came on Oct. 7, through a statement about Russian hacking from the secretary of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence. Comey declined to be included on the statement, telling administration officials that he believed it was too close to the election.

During conversations I had with Richman, he began to hint at something in the Russian email hack that had influenced Comey’s decision to go it alone with his July 5 announcement on the Clinton inquiry. “It’s not just the stupid tarmac visit,” he told me in late February 2017. “You don’t get to always defend yourself when you’re in his position.” Two months later, the The New York Times disclosed the existence of the document claiming that Lynch would protect Clinton.

Last week, Comey finally got his chance to defend himself. Called before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he offered an emotional account of his handling of the email investigation but then made his misstatement about Abedin forwarding “hundreds and thousands” of emails to Weiner. This week, after FBI officials clarified the issue, I asked the Bureau another question: Why hadn’t agents, who had access to Abedin’s emails and could, presumably, see that she had forwarded two classified messages to her husband, taken the opportunity to examine his laptop much earlier, as part of the original email inquiry? If they had done so, what ensued in October might never have happened. The FBI declined to comment.

On Wednesday, in a farewell letter emailed to Bureau employees, Comey said he was not dwelling on his firing and urged his former colleagues not to, either. “I have long believed that a President can fire an FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all,” Comey wrote. “I have said to you before that, in times of turbulence, the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence.” §

Peter Elkind worked for 20 years at Fortune magazine as an investigative reporter. He is co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room, an examination of the Enron collapse. This article is posted with permission of ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

Trump’s 100-day contract to Make America Great Again—Big Fail

Not one promise has been fulfilled

As his campaign floundered last October, Trump went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to lay out his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.” Now he says that expecting him to accomplish anything within his first 100 days is a “ridiculous” standard. He’s welshing again, as he always does.

“You can’t make this stuff up!” is an all-purpose punch line to point out something in reality that’s so absurd that a punch line would shrivel in comparison. And it’s become a sort of a mantra for observers of the Trump Administration who are having trouble coming up with a punch line as ridiculous as the Secret Service spending $35,000 on golf carts to babysit the 70-year old president in about three months as Trump’s budget would gut federal funding for hungry seniors on Meals on Wheels.

Of course, all of this was not only predictable, it was predicted.

We were told that Trump could be baited, possibly into a nuclear war, with a tweet. We’d been warned that his campaign’s strange ties and allegiances with Russia, already codified with a change to the GOP platform in Putin’s favor, likely indicated something more nefarious. His policies always read like a George W. Bush-redux but with extra strength racism, misogyny and Islamophobia. And Trump’s rank incompetence and ability to dance from failure to failure sucking in gains while ripping off everyone in his wake was obvious in his business record, which included a class action lawsuit he settled for $25 million right before taking office.

But nothing prepared me for Trump’s schtick about his first 100 days.

Yes, a president’s first 100 days is an arbitrary marker we’ve inherited from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who swept into office after years of the Great Depression determined to make his personal optimism manifest in legislation and executive action.

It was “unlike anything known to American history,” historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote.

Lyndon Johnson’s 100 days intentionally summoned FDR’s spirit to similar effect and in his first 100 days, Barack Obama took steps to prevent a Greater Depression, to rescue and renew the American auto industry, and to create a green energy revolution that will pay dividends in Teslas and better solar panels for generations. (Obama, unlike Trump, also played no golf in his first 100 days.)

In that spirit, as his campaign floundered last October, Trump went to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to lay out “Donald Trump’s Contract With The American Voter,” which stated his “100-day action plan to Make America Great Again.”

Anyone who knows Donald Trump’s record expects him to welch on any contract he makes, but—hey—at that point, before James Comey got his closeup, did even Don expect Don to win?

And Trump’s first 100 days have gone even worse, legislatively at least, than anyone expected.

He hasn’t jammed Democrats on any significant issues and his only “victories” are a series of reversals of Obama policies that include enabling oil companies to take money from foreign governments, coal companies to pollute rivers, and Internet service providers to track and sell your browsing history. These bills only required Republican votes in both Houses of Congress and were often signed in private because they would have shown the public that he stands entirely “with the Republican establishment he lampooned during his campaign,” as Politico Magazine‘s Mike Grunwald explains.

Yes, Trump is doing untold damage to our environment and the climate while assailing our tourism industry and terrorizing law-abiding undocumented immigrants who, unlike him, would love to pay taxes. And yes, he’s put together a cabinet that is simultaneously the richest and least qualified for public service in American history.

But there isn’t one promise in his 100-day contract he’s fulfilled.

In fact, his only accomplishments worth boasting about were some good jobs numbers and a Supreme Court appointment. Accomplishments, as the Washington Post‘s Dave Weigel pointed out, he inherited from Barack Obama.

Trump’s only talent, it seems, is inheriting things he doesn’t deserve, which makes him apoplectic when it’s time for his success to be compared against people who actually earned theirs.

Yes, there’s a Trump tweet that contradicts everything Trump says or does. The Daily Show‘s Dan Amira noted that “if Trump randomly, like, tripped on a squirrel or something we’d find an old tweet of his saying only fat losers trip on squirrels.”

But I have to say that Trump’s sudden whining about “the ridiculous standard of the first 100 days” was precious beyond my ability to hold water in my mouth, provoking the first unintentional spit take of my life.

This happened when CNN showed a clip of Trump introducing his 100-day plan in Gettysburg by saying, “It is a contract between myself and the American voter – and begins with restoring honesty, accountability, and change to Washington.”

Talk about a ridiculous standard. And never forget how that very speech began with him promising to sue all the women who had accused him of harassment and/or assault after the emergence of the Access Hollywood tape – another promise he flaked on.

All of this is beyond parody. And it’s beyond parody’s power to stop it.

If pointing out Trump’s rank ridiculousness, contradictory tweets, and the hypocrisy of Bible-theme slot machine had sufficient effect on withering Trump’s core support or compelling Republicans into doing even basic oversight, he would never have gotten past his failed Reform Party run for president in 2000.

Alec Baldwin has called Trump “the first satire-resistant president.” If this is true it’s because Trump is far more effective at bending reality, as With Friends Like These‘s Ana Marie Cox keeps saying, than any American politician that has come before him. This comes from his unrelenting combination of the dog-whistle racist demagoguery combined with the subliminal salesman schtick Trump mastered from decades of learning how to rip off people who should know better

No, satire and parody won’t be enough to stop this guy. Our only option is to take the risks he poses to our democracy seriously, deadly seriously. We overestimated the immune system of our society and suppressed the knowledge that the land of the free only truly began extending its full freedoms to minorities, women, and LGBTQ people in the last few decades.

Only by taking Trump absolutely seriously—by contesting every step of his agenda in marches, in town halls, in our reps offices, on the phones, and everywhere we can—have we kept him somewhat in check. Resisting Trump’s agenda relentlessly must be followed by proposing a better one that frame how division weakens us all and strengthens the ruling class. Still, the powers of the presidency are awesome and he likely has at least a baker’s dozen more 100 days left for him to undo the progress we’ve taken for granted here, and in other democracies.

Only an unrelenting, positive resistance will do, because that’s something you can’t just make up.§

This article is published with permission from The National Memo.

Mark Twain on Donald Trump

What America’s great satirist might say of the president

by 

Thanks to the criticisms they’ve leveled in articlesinterviewstweets and letters to the editor, we know that many contemporary authors, from Philip Roth to J.K. Rowling, have a dim view of Donald J. Trump.

But what would leading writers of the past have made of him?

We can only speculate (well, until someone invents a Rowling-like potion capable of bringing long dead writers back to life). But if I could ask one dead writer what he thinks of Trump, it would be Mark Twain, my favorite American author and someone whose travel articles I’ve written about in the past. While Twain is best-known for his novels, he was also an opinionated, prolific commentator on the personalities and political issues of his day.

I suspect Twain would have found Trump the showman—the pre-2016 version—a fascinating figure. He would have been appalled, however, by much about Trump the president.

A champion of irreverence

I have no doubt about two things that Twain would find objectionable: the way that Trump has lashed out at TV sketches that mock him and his use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” to describe news organizations that criticize him.

Twain felt that no one was too grand to be satirized.

“Irreverence,” he wrote, “is the champion of liberty and its only sure defense.”

In America’s press, he admired its tendency to be “irreverent toward pretty much everything.” Even if this led to the newspapers laughing “one good king to death,” it was a small price to pay if they also “laugh a thousand cruel and infamous shams and superstitions into the grave.”

But pondering what, beyond this, Twain would make of Trump is an apt, tricky and timely exercise.

It’s apt because one of Twain’s novels, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” features a man who travels through time.

It’s tricky because Twain’s views on many issues, including race, changed during his lifetime. Hence there are different Twains—as well as different Trumps—to consider.

Finally, imagining how Twain would view Trump is timely because when some have tried to look to history for an equivalent political moment, they’ll sometimes point to two decades—the 1880s and the 1900s—that happened to also be important in Twain’s life and career.

One of these Trumps is not like the other

The Twain of the 1880s would have probably found the Trump of a decade ago—a brash, self-promoting businessman known for his candid comments and penchant for media attention—fascinating. He may have even befriended him.

But the staunchly anti-imperialist Twain of two decades later would have been as disdainful of Trump now as he was of the man he once called “far and away the worst president we have ever had”—the muscular nationalist Teddy Roosevelt.

My basis for the first claim comes from Twain’s friendship with a flashy, boastful Trump-like showman: Buffalo Bill Cody. Among the most successful entertainment impresarios of his day, Cody founded and starred in a traveling Wild West Show, which drew large crowds in America and Europe and was famous for its reenactments of legendary battles.

In 1884, Twain sent a letter to Cody praising his Wild West Show as a realistic, “distinctly American” form of entertainment. In Cody’s spectacle—as in “The Apprentice”—the emcee was a famous man who played up a version of himself, capitalizing on the audience’s awareness that he had done things in real life that he did in the show: firing guns, in one case; firing people, in the other.

An advertisement for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a circus-like show that toured the nation. NPGpics/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

 During this period, Twain wrote four of his best-known books. It was also a time of intense nativism in the United States. Many white laborers, especially in western states, became convinced that Chinese laborers, who had crossed the Pacific in large numbers during the Gold Rush, were unfairly depriving them of jobs that rightfully belonged to them.

 

This prejudice triggered several violent outbursts—such as the 1871 Los Angeles riot, which cost 18 Chinese men their lives—and led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade the entry of Chinese workers to the United States.

Twain mocked the hypocrisy of the Exclusion Act: Just as the U.S. government was preventing Chinese from coming here, American traders and missionaries in China were denouncing the Chinese government for hindering their pursuit of profits and converts in the Middle Kingdom.

Some critics of Trump’s executive order on immigration say it “eerily recalls” the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In both cases, we see fear, stereotypes and prejudice fomenting an environment in which some groups are deemed less worthy of rights and protections—indeed, less human—than others.

In one of his early works, 1872’s “Roughing It,” Twain was already castigating those who bullied and abused Chinese immigrants as the “scum of the population.” His disdain for xenophobia and prejudice only grew later in life.

He would be a fierce critic of Trump’s nativist rhetoric even if—perhaps especially if—he had previously praised Trump the entertainer.

Twain targets Teddy

By the early 1900s, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House. Trump—whom some have compared with Roosevelt—has said that when he speaks of trying to “Make America Great Again,” one period he has in mind is around the turn of the 20th century.

A 1904 New York World cartoon criticizes Teddy Roosevelt’s militaristic and imperialistic impulses. Wikimedia Commons

Around this time, Twain was not just a celebrated author but a leading figure on the lecture circuit. As both a speaker and an essayist, he was known for his satirical jabs. A key target of his became American expansionists, whom he skewered in, among other works, the 1901 essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which lambasts Americans for committing violence across the Pacific under the guise of “civilizing” backward peoples.

In 1900, there were two U.S. military campaigns underway in China and the Philippines. In China, U.S. soldiers joined forces with a host of other countries to fight the anti-Christian Boxer militants and the Qing dynasty. In the Philippines, American troops brutally suppressed Filipinos who sought independence.

Teddy Roosevelt was an enthusiastic supporter of these campaigns. The main goal in the Philippines and in China, Roosevelt insisted, was not enrichment but defeating “barbarous” enemies.

Twain disagreed. In his caustic “Salutation Speech from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth,” Twain dismissed the military campaigns as “pirate raids” that “besmirched” Christianity’s reputation.

Where Roosevelt saw the Boxers as just the latest wave of savages to be suppressed, Twain viewed them as patriots defending their threatened homeland, spelling out his position in essays, personal letters and public lectures.

Sticking to his guns

The anti-imperialist Twain would likely have criticized other recent presidents. He wouldn’t have approved of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, nor of the way Barack Obama employed drones.

Nonetheless, the writer would find Trump’s disparaging of Muslims and various other groups on the campaign trail—in addition to the immigration ban—particularly distasteful.

He wasn’t afraid to change his mind, and to admit that he had been wrong (as Trump is loath to do). He briefly supported the Spanish-American War, for example, but then spoke openly about how jingoism had blinded his moral concerns. And as American studies professor John Haddad has detailed, Twain’s previous praise for Cody didn’t stop him from walking out of a Wild West Show performance in early 1901. Cody had performed a reenactment of a 1900 Chinese battle, uniformly depicting the foreign invaders as heroes and the Boxers as barbaric villains. Twain thought his old friend was deeply misguided—and he let him know.

In 1901, Twain wasn’t alone in holding and expressing fervently anti-imperialist views. But he was in a minority. Most Americans felt that allied actions in China and U.S. ones in the Philippines were completely justified. So did many famous writers of the time, from Rudyard Kipling to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” lyricist Julia Ward Howe.

That’s one difference from today: Twain would find himself firmly in the literary mainstream—and would be far from alone in saying that a president who wanted to govern a truly “great” America should not look to the country at the turn of the 20th century for inspiration. §

 is Professor of Chinese and World History at the University of California, Irvine. This article is republished by permission of The Conversation, where it first appeared.

CLASS WARFARE: PUSSY POWER

Now’s the time for all good women to come to the aid of their country

by Dell Franklin

It’s time for a woman president who isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s time for a firebrand of a female to replace Bernie Sanders and lead the Democratic Party against the swine not only running the country, but the same swine taking over the Senate, the House, the governors’ seats and most of the state offices in America. It’s not enough that these women are marching in the streets with furious and ferocious passion and anger at what has transpired in their country. They need to unite and begin an ongoing chant accusing the President of the United states as a molester, liar, tax criminal, scam artist, a dangerously incompetent and emotionally and intellectually stunted sociopath as well as enemy of the goodness of humankind, and a real threat to send the world spinning off its axis.

And there are a slew of capable and ferocious women out there to replace the democratic male milquetoasts who will roll over like bowling pins at the onslaught Trump and his gestapo have prepared for them once they commence running.

It will take a good woman to take this venal dictator down, and now that the country’s most valuable and sane assets are stirred up like millions of enraged hornets, out to sting any male hide in their way, let us begin with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and, in time, Mrs. Michelle Obama, and every democratic woman in the Senate and House and all the state senates and assemblies in the country to carry out a vicious vendetta against the white male conservative onslaught that has captured this country and threatens to undo everything Franklin Roosevelt accomplished.

Fellow female media harridans on the wrong side, like bony-assed, supercilious Anne Coulter, penis-envy Laura Ingraham, and Trump’s grinning barracuda confidante Kellyanne Conway need to be excoriated by the most lethal female cat-fighters on the liberal side, and especially those gals on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid. Nobody can attack like women, and the liberal side needs to sharpen their claws and dig deep, gouging out blood and matter and leaving their victims bleeding and suffering in the streets of American air time.

Trump must be hounded. Women know how to do this. They are relentless because they’ve had to be for centuries while dealing with the brutish nature of men—just to survive. When Trump slithers out of his Twitter cave and faces the media, the women reporters must call him on his lies. If he ignores them, they should bully the male reporters aside and confront him and call him the coward and liar he is. They should develop media personalities and spend their every waking moment creating and sustaining new methods to expose and demean this rat in office. Those women he fondled should join forces and continue their lawsuits, whether they win or lose, just to expose Trump for the pig he is.

When Trump attempts to put forth any speech in the Senate chambers, like a State of the Union, not one, but all  female democratic office holders should yell out LIAR! every time he lies, and continue the chant, and perhaps add to it, “Jail the liar, jail the liar….”

An association of women has to be forged, and their mantra should be to extinguish in office all alpha male business tycoons and those stooges these tycoons bankroll to run for office. They might explain that this country has been run by men of hubris and extreme ego for too long, that we are returning to barbarism under the leadership of paranoid greed-bags who, like Nazi operatives, will stop at nothing to terrify the population and scapegoat minorities while feathering their own nests and through propaganda continue to amass a power base, and that they cannot be trusted because as males, as the masculine race, they are too flawed, too overcome with their own importance and ego and rage to control and dominate in any way they can.

And it hasn’t and doesn’t work. They have made a shambles of the world.

Do the women need a hero? A leader? Present Tammy Duckworth, the Illinois senator who lost her legs in Iraq as a helicopter pilot. She is a spitfire. She, along with every  female leader, must spell out how urgent it is to protect themselves and the country from the previous follies of men, and especially of Trump, who will gouge out every civil liberty and human right of women and put us back in the dark ages, and they must also spell out how complicit the entire conservative movement is in creating demagogic lies and enforcing the cruelest, most heartless policies for the poor, minorities, and anybody who is not white and rich.

These ladies must go overboard to wake women up, to stir emotions, rattle the cupboards of every kitchen in America. They must unleash a movement that literally saves us from ourselves in these dire days of basically good versus evil.

Everything that has ever been achieved to create a world of hope and compassion AND survival is at stake.

It’s not time for the ladies to “Take our country back,” but to “Take our country over.”

Go get ‘em, gals! §

Dell Franklin gets his inspiration from women who know how to take down cads like the man posing as President of the United States. For more of Dell’s views on sports, politics and culture, visit his website: dellfranklin.com.

Class warfare in Trump’s America

Boycott all political cable TV news programs

by Dell Franklin

I’m guilty of a two-decade addiction to cable TV political programs, never missing Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC at 4 in the afternoon. I adjusted my day to watch Chris and felt he was an indispensable fixture of my daily agenda, especially when he came around to my views on the mindless butchery and stupidity of George W. Bush’s and despicable Dick Cheney’s bogus wars in Afghanistan and especially in Iraq, and the lies and propaganda that led up to Iraq. I even managed to tolerate Chris’s propensity to drown out his guests with long-winded personal orations and rude interruptions.

But now I have turned on Chris, turned on him with a vengeance. Why? At this point I’m probably too enraged by the Trump election to really explain why, but we can start with Chris’s fawning treatment of a mean-spirited, lying, bile-infested hater named Rudy Giuliani, an opportunist and braggart to whose image Matthews repeatedly contributed as a sort of self-proclaimed savior of New York City after 9/ll, a bilious chest-beater he allowed to treat Hillary Clinton as a common criminal, a wind-bag so supercilious, high-minded and loathsome he wouldn’t last five minutes in a common man’s tavern without being beaten senseless.

Chris also began to draw my wrath by telling us all that former GOP pundit and final Donald Trump head campaign manager and current confidante Kellyanne Conway is a  close friend of his, and allowed her to precede or follow one Trump rally after another with nauseating spins and lies which he seemed to find amusing, so enamored was he of this cutesy-cutesy perpetually grinning Christ-crazed poisonous blonde asp.

Watching Chris led me to hanging with the rest of the geniuses on MSNBC, all partisans I agreed with, though after switching occasionally to CNN and Fox News and cackling at fascist punk Sean Hannity and bully/browbeater,blowhard Bill O’Reilly, I began to feel MSNBC was, at least 50 percent of the time, broken records blowing smoke and repeating the same old tired refrains and, finally, not worth listening to.

CNN is more of the same, though somewhat tempered, but still guilty of shilling for Trump rallies and allowing them to hog precious time because it was entertaining, brought in viewers, brought in sponsors, brought in millions in profits, and resulted in the election of a veritable monster and white collar criminal as president of the country.

The Sunday morning shows are full of the identical, if modulated lies and spins, the same old tired and jaded faces and voices, the politicians stabbing you in the back or cutting out your intestines while smiling with pencil-tip eyes, these tie-wearing so-called respectable and civilized crusaders who must fabricate or embellish to be heard, to make their points, to penetrate the doldrums of a benumbed incurious illiterate zombieland American electorate needing only to be entertained, its attention span so limited from technology and just plain apathy.

Even the fair-minded, sane, brilliant Fareed Zakaria on CNN, who makes more sense than the entire pack left and right, is dispatched, the bad going with the good, like clearing out a whorehouse and jailing the johns along with the hookers, like in the old days.

I have not watched a second of this garbage since November 8. My friend John Winthrop constantly emails me with reports observed on Fox News and MSNBC and CNN about Trump’s latest appointment or tweet, these snippets inflamed with his own brand of spleen and hatred at the events taking place in America, and I repeatedly urge him to quit watching this misery before his anger kills him (he’s already had a heart attack). And of late this concern with the disaster of our politics has so sapped his immune system he is down with a brutal flu that has him aching from bone to joint.

Another reason not to watch even the nightly news, much less these programs, is the odious and now ubiquitous presence of Trump himself. The sight and sound of him is so repulsive and infuriating and downright abhorrent it drains you of your vital juices, deprives you from pleasant thoughts and harmony with fellow man, grinds your guts and mind into a writhing ball of incoherent, corrosive rage. Hell, I want to get through the day, the week, the months without losing myself in a stew of disenchantment with humanity for allowing this mercenary crackpot to be the shameful representative of our nation.

Hell, I stayed mostly drunk throughout the Reagan Administration and was salvaged health-wise because I was younger and could deal with the punishment of one hangover after another, and I had a great time celebrating my nonstop escape from reality and missing Reagan’s good old boy Howdy Doody technicolor grin while he shafted the little guy.

But now I am in my early 70s and cannot allow myself to be pissed off or drunk the whole time by watching Chris Matthews or any other of these programs or personalities, simply because I need to have some semblance of peace of mind. I get enough information out of the LA Times to know what’s going on, and I read the New Yorker weekly, and Winthrop keeps me abreast of the latest catastrophe, but mainly, if I do not have to see these people, and hear these people, and especially Trump, it is out of sight and out of mind, at least temporarily, and I can salvage some peace of mind from the country I dwell in…while waiting for the massive sledge hammer to drop and blast us back into the tragic truths of our times. §

Dell Franklin writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif., where he can look out over the vast Pacific Ocean lapping at his doorstep and hope for better times. For more in his Class Warfare series, visit dellfranklin.com, where this article first appeared.

Can’t get past the DNC’s cynicism

Please tell me what have we learned as progressives?

by Sean Shealy

It has been six months since Democrats made the greatest political blunder in modern history. It was glaringly obvious: If you nominate this person, it was going to completely demoralize the activist base, give a MASSIVE shot of political adrenaline to the Republicans, and middle America would think, “Ick! Another career politician.”

This was the political equivalent of your teenage son riding his bike off the roof of your house. You ask, “What in God’s name were you thinking?”

I understand women wanting a female president. I share that goal. And it is certainly true that misogyny played a role in this election across the political spectrum, right, center, and left as well.

But I submit you this: If BILL Clinton had been eligible to run, and had been the nominee—Donald Trump would still be sitting in the White House today.

And millions of Democrats would have stood on Clinton’s ropeline, feverishly cheering him on, working diligently to defeat the progressive candidate.

Have we learned nothing from history?

Donald Trump doesn’t keep me awake at night.

THIS keeps me awake at night: At every turn, the Democratic establishment, and half of Democratic voters, have screwed and abandoned progressive activists.

They’re happy to have us, so long as we’re working to put the Democratic establishment back into power—but the second they get there, it is this:

  • Mass surveillance police state? But we HAVE to have that, to protect us from terrorists!
  • Well, we certainly need to keep bombing people all over the world, to keep the empire going.
  • Single-payer? That’s a pipe dream.
  • Free college? What is that, some kind of communism?
  • $15 an hour? Why, that’s not realistic! You’ll just have to raise a family on $12!

And on and on and on. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

THAT is what keeps me sitting on my hands right now, as an activist, at a time when we are needed most.

My view is that America is going to have to be so devastated, Americans so utterly destroyed and destitute and desperate, that they will finally be forced to look at baseline, bread-and-butter issues, because they have no other choice.

Where there is hope, they can equivocate; where there is hope, they can spend their time hating Mexicans, or gays. Where there is hope, they can vote for politicians who speak in platitudes, or from paranoia, making vague reassurances about jobs and upward mobility, or promising to bomb their nightmare fantasies away overseas.

Without hope? Different story. Without hope, they will ask:

  • Where is the bread coming from? I WANT SPECIFICS.
  • My child will never go to college. WE DEMAND EDUCATION!
  • My mother died, and my child, and my wife, from lack of healthcare. WE DEMAND UNIVERSAL HEALTHCARE, NOW!

These may seem like bleak, dystopian doomsday visions to many middle-class Democratic voters.

But they are reality already for millions across this country, millions who have been left behind, abandoned, so hopeless that many of them turned to Donald Trump in hopes that he would just change something—ANYTHING.

Or, barring that, burn it all to the ground.

They’re dying for progressive change. STARVING for it.

Trump won, largely, on a progressive platform plank: getting out of these insane free-trade agreements. The same agreements pushed by Bill, and Hillary, and Barack Obama. The agreements that have made Wall Street so wealthy, while devastating American workers.

The myriad ways that the Democratic Party establishment has screwed us cannot be listed here. It would be a book.

But the math is pretty simple:

1) Wall Street owned the Republican Party.

2) Reagan destroyed the unions, the lifeblood of the Democratic Party.

3) The Democratic Party then turned to the banks, which were distinct from Wall Street, for contributions.

4) In exchange for the support of the banks, the Democratic Party, under Bill Clinton, agreed to break down the wall of separation between Wall Street and the banks.

5) The banks then became Wall Street.

6) Wall Street then controlled both parties.

The Bible says, “Man cannot serve both God and money.”

Likewise, a party cannot serve both Wall Street and the interests of social and economic justice—of THE PEOPLE.

The two interests conflict. Sharply. They OPPOSE.

Somebody, please: Tell me that a gigantic, blinding light, as hot as the sun, just exploded into your brain. Tell me that you get this. Tell me that I won’t work and sweat and bleed for another four years—for nothing.

Donald Trump’s way is the way of wealth, of oligarchy, of empire.

The Democratic establishment’s way is the way of wealth, of oligarchy, of empire.

Without a clear, complete progressive turn of the Democratic Party, wealth will have its way.

Please, someone, tell me that you have understood?

Otherwise, my activism is a waste of time.

I’d rather go to the beach. §

Sean Shealy is an activist and the author of Corruption & Cover-Ups of the Bush White House Unmasked and the novel Killing Limbaugh.

CLASS WARFARE

Living with more (or less) in Trump’s America

by Dell Franklin

This kid was my best friend when we were both 12, and he told me his goal in life was to be a millionaire. We will call him Carl C. Today, if you drive along a certain freeway in Southern California in an industrial area you will be hard-pressed not to spot a huge square-block-size building with his name on it. He is a billionaire.

Back when we were 12 in our blue-collar town, Carl was already working in his father’s business, a small manufacturer of construction accessories. Carl took my two prized agates I got for my birthday in marbles and sold them. He had the best rare coin collection in town. He was already better than me at cards and repeatedly took money I earned shining shoes at a local amusement park. In junior high, when we walked around town, he never carried money, only a dime in the change purse of his bill fold in case he needed to make an emergency telephone call.

In high school, he bought a car. When he drove us neighborhood kids around town, cruised the drive-in, went to The Pike in Long Beach, or to the beach on summer days, he made sure we paid for gas. If he loaned you money he charged 20 percent interest. I never borrowed money from him because I didn’t need to, but hanging out with him forced me to be almost as cheap as he was, so I wouldn’t get swindled, but I often did get swindled. He was smart, daring, always one step ahead of everybody, including me. The only thing I was superior to him at was athletics. I started and excelled in all three major sports and ran track. Though he was slightly stronger than me, he stunk and got cut from every team sport.

All through high school and college he worked for his dad, whose business grew and boomed, and he wore a coat and tie to learn finances and sales. He majored in business and languages. I went into the Army for three years, and when I got out he had a master’s degree and enough money to start his own business by living at home and saving. It was 1968, and he was about to be drafted. I advised him to go to Canada to avoid Vietnam, but he felt with his education and his ability to “talk himself into good situations” he would get a cushy job, while those less qualified for language school would fight. He ended up in the infantry and deserted a troop movement to ‘Nam and showed up at my apartment with his passport. He was fleeing to Europe. His dad, already hounded by the FBI, showed up looking ten years older, a decorated WWII infantry soldier who fought in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.

We watched Carl fly away to Paris from LAX and when Mr. C put his arm around me, and I put my arm around him, he was shuddering. His wife was in hysterics.

Five years later, as the war died down, Carl was back home running his dad’s business after Mr. C had a heart attack. Neither Carl or his dad would discuss how he’d managed to get back in the country without going to jail. I had visited Mr. C off and on during Carl’s absence and he was slowly deteriorating before my very eyes, twitching and shaking, black rings beneath his eyes, his once-powerful body withered. He was a person I adored.

When he died a year after Carl’s return, Carl took over the business and expanded. He lived in a plush two-story home on the beach with his beautiful blonde wife and occasionally came into the saloon where I worked as a bartender in Manhattan beach and carried only the dime in his change purse and a crisp new hundred-dollar bill he never broke. He also refused to pay for his drinks, stating if he was tending bar he’d give me free drinks as his good friend, while I explained I worked for a house and didn’t give away their money. He allowed others to buy his drinks. He was always trying to coerce me and bar denizens to bet on football and basketball games where he was at a huge advantage, realizing he was studious of odds and cold-blooded about who won or loss, having no loyalty to any team, while others were guided by emotions. He won a lot of money. When he lost, instead of paying off, he managed to talk winners into letting what was owed them ride on another bet.

I began to despise him. Just the look on his face and in his eyes as he sized up those with less money, less intelligence, less heart, and manipulated them with his uncanny ability to subtly browbeat, began to eat away at me, especially when he never bought anybody a drink after he took their money on bets. The way he so gloatingly fit those bills into his wallet reminded me of his stashing away my agates years back. Like he owned you.

I finally refused to serve him. We had an argument. He called me a loser, working in a bar for tips and coolie wages at 30 years old. I was a failed athlete and had no chance as a writer. He had everything. I countered by telling him I loved my job, played in two basketball leagues, surfed just about every day, had a wonderful girlfriend and a great cat. He scoffed at me, sneered, said not only was I failed athlete, but that he, a non-athlete, could beat me in tennis and wanted to play for a hundred bucks.

He took lessons from a famous pro in Beverly Hills and owned state-of-the-art rackets, a ball machine and 50 cans of balls in the trunk of his Mercedes. I upped the stakes to two-hundred. So we met on the local courts, and as we warmed up, his face changed. The cockiness disappeared. He began to look craven. He came to the net and stated he wanted to play that afternoon for nothing, until he “felt ready”—this after we had shook hands. I called him a slew of names, cussed him in front of various players on other courts, accused him of being a coward and stormed off, told him to never come around me again. He never did.

So I forgot about him, until I heard he was now a billionaire.

***

Carl was not a creep like President Trump. He was a gentleman around girls. As a kid, he was funny and observant and well-read and curious and good company. But as the years passed, his drive to accumulate money began to change him and control his life, until greed began to win out over humanity, just as today, in  this age, capitalism has won out over democracy, turning us into an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy.

As a millionaire and finally a billionaire, I’m sure, as a person who never liked paying for anything, and coaxed others to pay his way, Carl C has the finest tax lawyers to write off everything. I’m sure he became admired in his own sphere of business and society and eventually worshiped, for in America attaining millionaire and billionaire status is the culmination of the American Dream, so that when one of these people speaks, others stop and listen, as well as catering to and often becoming obsequious to such financial titans, almost as if, as billionaires, whatever they touch turns to gold, whatever they say is the truth, and that because they can make millions and billions they can do anything, even run the most powerful, important country in the world, even, as a young millionaire deserter, beat a trained athlete (who in our society is a poor slacker and loser) in a tennis match for two-hundred dollars because his hubris and ego has no bounds. §

Dell Franklin lives in quiet simplicity, never got rich, and doesn’t lack for anything. He writes from his home in Cayucos, Calif. Visit his website: dellfranklin.com.