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FBI Director Contradicts Trump On Wiretap Claims, Confirms Investigation Of Campaign

Trump Russia

In testimony this morning before the House Intelligence Committee, F.B.I. Director James Comey stated that there was no evidence that the bureau has uncovered indicating any wiretapping of Trump Tower, and appeared to confirm that there was an ongoing Bureau investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and contacts between Russia and members of President Trump’s campaign for President:

FBI Director James B. Comey on Monday said there is “no information” that supports President Trump’s claims that his predecessor ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the election campaign.

“I have no information that supports those tweets,” said Comey, testifying at the House Intelligence Committee’s first public hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI,” and agents found nothing to support those claims, he said.

The hearing comes amid the controversy fired up by Trump more than two weeks ago when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that President Barack Obama had ordered his phones tapped at Trump Tower.

Under questioning from the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), Comey said no president could order such surveillance. He added that the Justice Department had asked him to also tell the committee that that agency has no such information, either.

Comey also acknowledged the existence of a counterintelligence investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, and said that probe extends to the nature of any links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.

Comey said the investigation is also exploring whether there was any coordination between the campaign and the Kremlin, and “whether any crimes were committed.”

The acknowledgment was an unusual move, given that the FBI’s practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations. “But in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest,” Comey said, “it may be appropriate to do so.”

Comey said he had been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the wide-ranging probe’s existence.

He spoke at the intelligence committee hearing along with National Security Agency head Michael S. Rogers.

Trump and the committee’s Republicans seemed most exercised by leaks to the media. Information shared with the press have resulted in a series of stories over the last month and a half about contacts Trump administration officials or close associates had with Russian officials.

One story in particular that apparently upset the Republicans was a Feb. 9 piece by The Washington Post reporting that Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, discussed the subject of sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in the month before Trump took office. The Post reported that the discussions were monitored under routine, court-approved monitoring of Kislyak’s calls. Flynn, who had denied to Vice President Pence that he had spoken about sanctions, was forced to resign.

Just hours before the start of the hearing, Trump posted a series of tweets claiming Democrats “made up” the allegations of Russian contacts in an attempt to discredit the GOP during the presidential campaign. Trump also urged federal investigators to shift their focus to probe disclosures of classified material.

“The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” Trump wrote early Monday. “Must find leaker now!”

(…)

Comey did confirm that the NSA, CIA, FBI, main Justice Department and others – including personnel in the White House in some situations – could have access to unmasked names of U.S. persons.

But he stressed that only the collecting agency can unmask the identities of people. Others with whom the information is shared “can ask the collectors to unmask,” he said – but can’t do it on their own.

The FBI probe combines an investigation into hacking operations by Russian spy agencies with efforts to understand how the Kremlin sought to manipulate public opinion and influence the election’s outcome

In January, the intelligence community released a report concluding that Russian President Vladi­mir Putin wanted to not only undermine the legitimacy of the election process but also harm the campaign of Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances of winning.

(…)

On Friday, the Justice Department delivered documents to the committee in response to a request for copies of intelligence and criminal wiretap orders and applications. Nunes, speaking Sunday, said the material provided “no evidence of collusion” to sway the election toward Trump and repeated previous statements that there is no credible proof of any active coordination.

But Schiff, also speaking Sunday, said there was “circumstantial evidence of collusion” at the outset of the congressional investigations into purported Russian election meddling, as well as “direct evidence” that Trump campaign figures sought to deceive the public about their interactions with Russian figures.

There are two big news items that come out of Comey’s testimony today, of course.

The first, and arguably most significant, piece of news that Comey has made today is his acknowledgment that there is indeed a pending criminal investigation being conducted by the Bureau into both Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election and regarding contacts between certain persons associated with the Trump campaign and/or transition team and Russian officials that appears to include contacts that stretch back over several years leading up to 2016. While Comey would not comment on the identity of any individuals who may be the target of such an investigation, their identities are not difficult to figure out based on what we already know. Prior news reports, for example, have indicated that Paul Manafort, who had served as Trump’s campaign manager up until being replaced by Kellyanne Conway in August 2016, is known to have had a long history of business and other dealings with Russian business officials with known government ties and with government officials in Ukraine who were part of the pro-Russian regime that was deposed amid protests in 2014. The same is true of retired Lt. General Mike Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Adviser who was forced to resign when it was revealed that he had lied to the transition team and Vice-President-Elect Trump regarding contacts with Russia’s Ambassador to the United States. Additionally, Carter Page, who served in an advisory role on the campaign for a time before leaving has also been documented to have had relationships with Russian oligarchs linked to Vladimir Putin. Finally, Roger Stone, who served as an adviser to Trump and the campaign on both a formal and informal basis is believed to have had some business ties to Russia and has been reported to have had known contact with a hacker in Europe believed to have been part of the group that hacked into the computers of the Democratic National Committee and Anthony Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager during last year’s Presidential campaign. There could be other individuals being investigated, including the President himself, but just based on the reports we are aware of, it’s likely that these four individuals have at least been looked into.

As Comey stressed during his testimony, the fact that there is an ongoing investigation doesn’t necessarily mean that a crime was committed, of course, and it certainly doesn’t mean that these four individuals have actually committed any crimes. Under the law, they and anyone else who might be the focus of an investigation is entitled to the same presumptions of innocence that any other American is entitled to. What will be interesting to see, though, is how the individuals who may have something at stake in this investigation will react if and when they are subpoenaed to appear before Congress, which will no doubt occur as the Congressional investigation continues. The wisest course of action, of course, would be for them to exercise their rights under the Fifth Amendment to decline to testify given that anything they say before Congress could be used against them by the F.B.I. or another law enforcement agency could use against them, as part of proving a case in chief or indict them for perjury if they testify falsely and that falsehood can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt as required by Federal law. As I’ve noted before, if and when that happens, and I suspect it will with respect to one or more of these individuals simply because that would be the smartest advice their attorney could give him, we need to be careful about not jumping to conclusions since exercising one’s rights under the Constitution is not, and never should be taken to be, evidence of guilt or innocence.

In addition to confirming the fact that there is an investigation of Russian influence in the election and contacts between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, Comey also made news by directly contradicting the assertion by the President of the United States (in two tweets on March 4th) that his campaign was “wiretapped” by President Obama during the height of the campaign, This is somewhat anti-climactic, of course, given the fact that there have been numerous reported denials from the American intelligence and law enforcement communities, and from intelligence officials in the United Kingdom, who had been accused of playing a role in the surveillance by Fox News contributor Judge Andrew Napolitano. Both the GCHQ itself and Fox News strongly disputed Napolitano’s apparently baseless claims, but the Trump Administration continues to repeat them as if they are fact. Whether the Administration backs down from defending these remarks going forward given Comey’s testimony will be interesting to see to say the very least.

Obviously, none of this is good news for the Trump Administration. The fact that Comey has essentially said the President was at the very least inaccurate in his claims about the claimed wiretapping of Trump Tower is certainly embarrassing and, ordinarily, would ordinarily lead an Administration to get the issue behind them as soon as possible by retracting the claim and apologizing to former President Obama. This is not any ordinary Administration, though, as the fact that they have vigorously defended the President’s tweets despite the fact that the available evidence was clearly contradicting what he had said. Beyond that, though, the real problem for the Administration is likely to be the revelation that the F.B.I. is investigating people who have been close to the President in the past could be a source of problems for some time to come. First of all, of course, there’s the fact that the known existence of such an investigation is likely to hang like a cloud over the Administration going to forward and will call into question whatever policy initiatives are undertaken that involve Russia in some way. Second, the confirmation is likely to spur Congressmen and Senators to their own investigations, along with the requisite public hearings that could reveal information regarding past dealings with Russia that Trump would prefer not become public. Finally, as we’ve seen so often in the past, investigations such as this tend to have an impact on even the most popular Presidents for several years. Given the fact that Trump has started his Presidency in a far weaker political position than most of his predecessors over the past sixty years, this could have a real impact on the ability of the White House to get anything done in Washington.

Stay tuned, because this story clearly isn’t over.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Scott says:

    I suppose that separation of powers doctrine prevents Congress from forcing sworn testimony from Trump with respect to his “evidence”. Nonetheless, it demonstrates that Trump is a liar and a persistent one at that. From here on, it is prudent to consider him to be lying anytime his lips move. And, of course, insists on backup evidence.

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  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    The fact that Comey has essentially said the President was at the very least inaccurate in his claims about the claimed wiretapping of Trump Tower

    Oh c’mon…both the Directors of the FBI and the NSA called President Costanza a liar. Let’s start calling a spade a spade, eh?
    At the same time, Comey was very tight-lipped about the ongoing investigation, which hints that there is some there, there. Once the FBI turns Flynn and Manafort and Page and Stone…well, who knows? This is only starting to get going…and it’s looking more and more likely to blow up in Republicans faces.

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  3. Jeremy says:

    @Scott: I’d say that would be prudent when listening to any politician. Or real estate guy.

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  4. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    My guess is that Mr. 37% approval rating isn’t having a lot of fun pretending to be President.

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  5. CSK says:

    Trump read a story in Breitbart based on some speculation by a talk show host, bought it hook, line, and sinker, and went on a Twitter rampage with it.

    And no matter how his minions try to spin it, Trump not only directly accused his predecessor of committing a criminal act (wiretapping) but of being “a bad (sick)” individual.

    Those were Trump’s words.

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  6. Hal_10000 says:

    A relative who is a Trump supporter recently texted, “He needs to shut up and govern.” Trump’s big mouth is the reason he’s in trouble here. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Comey started his Russia investigation about the time Trump invited Russia to look for Clinton’s emails. And this baseless brain-fever accusation of wire-tapping is souring relations with the UK and turning the intelligence community against him. I mean, granted, distracting Trump from governing is like distracting a bear from eating your baby ($0.05 to P.J. O’Rourke). But this getting insane. There are govt posts *still* unfilled because he’s too busy doing other stuff.

    Unfortunately, Trump doesn’t know how to shut up and do anything. His entire career is about shooting his mouth off and pretending to a big shot. And if there really is something to this Russia stuff, it’s going to get even worse (he tweeted out a baseless accusation that the Russians had ties to the Clinton campaign). This could end very very badly.

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  7. Argon says:

    I wish the statements would be made along the lines of: “I have seen no evidence to suggest that Obama had Trump Tower tapped AND I WOULD EXPERT TO HAVE KNOWN IF HE DID.” Instead, the “I’ve seen no evidence” response sounds too milquetoast.

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  8. CSK says:

    Oh, for Gawd’s sake. Sean Spicer just claimed, with a straight face as far as I can tell, that Paul Manafort played only a small role in the Trump campaign.

    Am I losing it, or was not Manafort the frigging CAMPAIGN MANAGER?

    Spicer also said that Michael Flynn was a mere volunteer.

    Cue the damn Twilight Zone theme music.

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  9. Moosebreath says:

    As the updated version of the old joke goes:

    Washington could not tell a lie. Nixon could not tell the truth. Trump could not tell the difference.

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  10. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @CSK:
    They are flailing about…like a sunfish pulled onto the dock.
    Lying about the lies they have already told.
    Spinning new lies to obfuscate the old ones.
    And remember…we are only two months into this thing.
    It’s ridiculous that this man is President. Anyone who voted for him has to be flat-out stupid.

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  11. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    Comey was very tight-lipped about the ongoing investigation, which hints that there is some there, there.

    No, it doesn’t, but proceed with your BENGHAAAAAZZZZZIIII!!!!11!! moment if you must.

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  12. Liberal Capitalist says:

    FBI Director Contradicts Trump On Wiretap Claims, Confirms Investigation Of Campaign

    Guess who just lost any chance of Trump Property upgrades… Forget about walking onto a course!

    The enemies list is jus writing itself. :)

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  13. grumpy realist says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: Interesting article on what Comey’s testimony might be indicating, from a legal guy who has watched Comey before.

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  14. al-Alameda says:

    Trump: “The real story that Congress, the FBI and all others should be looking into is the leaking of Classified information,” Trump wrote early Monday. “Must find leaker now!”

    What a coincidence, that was exactly the tack that (House Benghazi Committee Chairman) Representative Trey Gowdy took too!

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  15. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @grumpy realist:
    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker:
    Thanks – I was going to link to that same article.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Hal_10000:

    Well, exactly. Trump has no idea of how to govern, and it’s not just because he’s never held any electoral position. The man thinks that being president is being the star of your own reality show. He spends his days watching “the shows,” as he calls them, and reading print-outs his minions provide him (since he can’t operate a computer himself) from The Conservative Treehouse, Breitbart, Infowars, and The Gateway Pundit, all hysterical crackpot semi-literate alt-right blogs that affirm his vision of himself as El Supremo.

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  17. grumpy realist says:

    Remember Milo Yiannopoulos? Well, seems his latest exploit (!?) has been pissing off the Scots.

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  18. CSK says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl:

    Of course they’re flailing about–not that I have any sympathy for them. Their boss is a psychotic with no fixed beliefs who blurts out whatever random thought crosses what passes for his mind at any given moment.

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  19. Scott says:

    @CSK: If you want a laugh, just go to Trump’si twitter feed and see who Trump follows. He follows 42 others, mostly his family, the usual Administration gang (Kellyanne, Reince), Fox personalities (Hannity, O’Reilly, not actual news), and his Trump business twitter feeds. What a wide ranging intellect.

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  20. Lit3Bolt says:

    Never tweet.

    Also, never run for President. You know what being President means, Trump? It means starring in a Broadway show for the next four years, every day! Hope you have the energy!

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  21. grumpy realist says:

    And Forbes just whacked off another billion in their estimate of what Trump owns, sending him careening even further down The Rich Man’s List.

    (Given what a certain commentator here at OTB has hinted, I’d take this estimate as well as being Too Damn High.)

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  22. DrDaveT says:

    @Hal_10000:

    A relative who is a Trump supporter recently texted, “He needs to shut up and govern.”

    You’re right — that’s a lot like telling Jeffrey Dahmer that he needs to meet a nice girl and go vegan.

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  23. Surreal American says:

    @Hal_10000:

    A relative who is a Trump supporter recently texted, “He needs to shut up and govern.”

    Trump is incapable of doing either.

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  24. CSK says:

    @Scott:

    He would follow anyone who told him he was swell. Too bad there are only 42 of them–and 41 of those don’t mean it.

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  25. An Interested Party says:

    Of course the right wing echo chamber is downplaying and/or trying to divert from all of this…when Trump completely blows up in their faces, Republicans will just be so shocked…how in the world could they have seen that one coming…

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  26. Gustopher says:

    I’m less interested in criminal charges against people in the Trump campaign than I am in a full and open investigation and accounting of what happened.

    There may well have been compromising activity that falls below the level of criminally prosecutable behavior, and the American people need to have confidence in their President (or a good reason to have no confidence, beyond rumors and possible coincidences)

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  27. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I’d take this estimate as well as being Too Damn High

    You have no idea. Forbes is simply tallying the property values (and as far as I can tell, having to assume 100% ownership, which is incorrect) and then taking a stab at attempting to value the underlying debt, which is a fair effort but unavoidably inaccurate. Wildly inaccurate …

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  28. CB says:

    I don’t think any major scalps will be claimed, because I don’t believe that even these people would be that flippin’ stupid.

    But that Chinese philosopher and his witty proverb can go suck an egg.

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  29. Eric Florack says:

    Say, wasn’t Comey the guy who could find nothing prosecutable in Hillary Clinton’s violation of numerous laws in her handling of government property, including national security secrets? Nothing.
    And now we’re supposed to believe him when he says Trump was never surveiled?
    Uh, no.

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  30. CB says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Yeah dude, Comey is the Democrats’ shill. That’s the ticket.

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  31. Sleeping Dog says:

    Its 3 AM and Trump is pacing about the private quarters. Rumor has it that Manafort and Stone are spilling their guts to the FBI. “A distraction,’ he muses, “I need a distraction.” Then it dawns on him, Pyongyang.

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  32. Pch101 says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Funny how you were defending Comey when Clinton was the target:

    http://wordpress-80960-242333.cloudwaysapps.com/f-b-i-to-congress-never-mind/#comment-2136140

    What a dumb hypocrite you are.

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  33. rachel says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Oh, shit.

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  34. Davebo says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Clinton’s violation of numerous laws

    I’ll bite counselor. Name the laws and violations.

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  35. MarkedMan says:

    The Republican’s seem to be thinking this is just campaign dirty tricks and they can bulls*t and distract their way through it. But the leader of the Republican Party, Donald J. Trump has a decades long history of shady dealings with Russian Mafia types as well as other eastern block track suit type of guys. Any serious investigation is going to turn up a heck of a lot more corruption than just Trump colluding with our enemies to steel an election, which alone should be impeachable.

    Trump invited the Russians in. And remember Machiavell’si advice to Princes that had been secretly asked to help take over another city-state: If you decide to do it, then once it is done put your own men in power and kill everyone who asked you in – after all, you know they can’t be trusted. Now, in this day and age they would get a lot farther in crippling the US and exacting their revenge by simply letting out what Trump had done. They don’t need to kill him.

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  36. Mr. Bluster says:

    Fox News is concerned about the credibility of one of it’s
    Talking Heads?
    Must be fear of some sort of liability???
    I can’t imagine they are interested in the truth.

    Andrew Napolitano absent from Fox after citing anonymous spying claims
    The Los Angeles Times, citing anonymous sources, said “Napolitano is not expected to be on Fox News Channel any time in the near future.”
    http://money.cnn.com/

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  37. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    What percentage of Republicans still are saying that Trump and crew (including Congress on Healthcare distruction reform) are doing a great job? There will be no impeachment–no matter what charges are proven as long as it takes HIS party to adopt the articles.

    For example, I didn’t care about Nixon’s “high crimes and misdemeanors” in 1974. Still don’t. I sorta care that he was inept enough to get caught, but even that is more of a meh… I care that he wrecked the economy, though. And Ford was even more feckless.

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  38. grumpy realist says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: I haven’t figured out whether the ridiculous heights of the stock market are due to the fact that there’s nowhere else to stuff the money that has a decent rate of return, or people honestly believe that Trump will be “good for the economy.” If the latter, expect a splendid crash when people realize that none of this “$100B towards infrastructure” is going to get done–it’s just another one of Trump’s promises that he never intends to carry out.

    How many times can you watch this man reneg on his promises, over and over and over, before you start thinking “hey, maybe he can’t be trusted!”?

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  39. Pch101 says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Stock values are based upon expectations.

    The market is expecting a significant cut in the corporate tax rate. That should increase corporate after-tax earnings, which should necessarily increase share prices.

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  40. Moosebreath says:

    @grumpy realist:

    “I haven’t figured out whether the ridiculous heights of the stock market are due to the fact that there’s nowhere else to stuff the money that has a decent rate of return, or people honestly believe that Trump will be “good for the economy.””

    I vote for being good for the bottom line of business, by removing regulations, cutting tax rates, etc. It’s no coincidence that a major part of the gains in share prices comes from the banking sector, for whom the prospect of repealing Dodd-Frank looms large.

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  41. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @grumpy realist:

    I haven’t figured out whether the ridiculous heights of the stock market are due to the fact that there’s nowhere else to stuff the money that has a decent rate of return, or people honestly believe that Trump will be “good for the economy.”

    Promises of massive tax cuts and lax regulations are enough to drive the market higher. But at what price? If a booming stock market is the only goal of governance then even President Costanza would be able to handle the office. But those tax cuts mean that sick people aren’t going to have care, and scientific research isn’t going to get done, and those lax regulations mean that our water and air are going to be dirty and unhealthy.
    A booming stock market is nice eye-candy…but the reason it’s booming is not good for the country in the long run.

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  42. teve tory says:

    yes, the planet got destroyed….

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