Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper kicked off his week by appearing on two Sunday morning news shows to opine on President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. One Clapper comment, in particular, has garnered significant attention:
JAMES CLAPPER: The developments of the past week have been very bothersome, very disturbing to me. I think in many ways our institutions are under assault, both externally — and that’s the big news here, Russian interference in our election system. And I think as well, our institutions are under assault internally.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN: Internally from the president?
TAPPER: Because he is firing the checks and balances?
CLAPPER: The Founding Fathers, in their genius, created three co-equal branches of government, and a built-in system of checks and balances, and I feel as though that is under assault, and is eroding.
Let’s unpack those remarks. For starters, surely James Clapper, who has a bachelor’s and master’s degree in political science, knows that the FBI is part of the Justice Department, which is in the executive branch. For a president to replace an official in his own administration has nothing to do with the separation of powers between “three co-equal branches of government.”
FBI directors are given 10-year appointments, which they serve at the pleasure of the president. And though it’s rare to replace one, it does happen. The last president to do so was Bill Clinton, who replaced an FBI chief appointed by Ronald Reagan. Had Clinton’s wife defeated Trump, she almost certainly would have fired Comey herself: Only a week before Trump did so, Mrs. Clinton publicly blamed him for her defeat.
So firing an FBI director is not unheard of. What is new is to characterize such a personnel move as an “assault” on America’s democratic institutions. Clapper’s rationale — and that of others who came unglued over Trump’s decision — is that James Comey was leading an investigation into Trump’s own behavior: specifically, whether he or anyone in his campaign colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. But the Justice Department’s investigation continues and there’s every reason that its findings would be more credible — and received with less skepticism — with the preternaturally political James Comey out of the picture. Moreover, neither Congress nor the FBI is stopping its investigation into possible Russian meddling. If anything, both probes will be pursued more vigorously than before. If Trump’s goal was to delay or derail the Russia probe, his removal of Comey has had precisely the opposite effect.
So far from being under assault or being eroded, the checks and balances of our constitutional Republic appear to be responding exactly as we would want them to — and as the Framers intended.
But you know what does seriously erode our system of checks and balances? It’s when high-ranking government officials lie under oath to members of Congress. That’s what James Clapper did on March 12, 2013, while testifying before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
That day, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, asked Clapper for a yes or no answer to the following question: “Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?”
“No, sir,” Clapper replied.
Wyden, who appeared taken aback by the answer, tried again: “It does not?”
“Not wittingly,” Clapper responded. “There are cases where they could inadvertently, perhaps, collect, but not wittingly.”
Three months later, on June 5, 2013, The Guardian newspaper began publishing a series of reports about the NSA based on documents stolen from the agency by Edward Snowden that proved Clapper had perjured himself.
Days after The Guardian’s bombshell report, Clapper told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that he had responded in “what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner.”
Three weeks later, under increasing pressure, Clapper wrote a letter to the senators on the committee, apologizing for providing a “clearly erroneous” answer. He also changed his story, jettisoning the excuse he had tried to answer in the “least untruthful” manner, and instead claimed the reason he had misled Congress is that he had “forgotten” about Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which covered the NSA’s bulk collection of metadata.
Needless to say, members of Congress were not amused. Yet despite calls for his ouster and for criminal charges to be brought against him for perjury, Clapper suffered no consequences for lying to members of the Senate and remained in his position as director of DNI through the end of President Obama’s term.