As a young conservative, it seemed to me that one of the main differences between liberals and conservatives was the reliance on feelings versus facts. It seemed to me that liberals tended to rely on feelings rather than empirical data. If a policy made people feel good, it didn’t seem to matter if it didn’t really work. In the view of my past self, conservatives were more open to seeking out the facts and reality rather engaging in wishful thinking. Imagine my dismay then when an independent senator who caucuses with the Democrats had to educate the national security director of a Republican and purportedly conservative president on the difference between feelings and facts.
The occasion was testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee and the witnesses were Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Director Admiral Mike Rogers. The problem was that Coats and Rogers refused to answer direct questions about whether President Trump had asked them to interfere with the investigations into collusion between members of the Trump campaign with Russia.
The response of both men to the questioning was that they “have never felt pressured to intervene or interfere in any way with shaping intelligence in a political way or in relation to an ongoing investigation.” Neither man would answer the direct question of whether Trump had asked for their intervention however. The men did not claim executive privilege or any legal justification for their refusal to provide answers to Congress other than to say that conversations with the president were classified.
In one exchange with Senator Angus King (I-Maine), Admiral Mike Rogers responded that he didn’t feel it was appropriate to answer the questions. King retorted, “What you feel isn’t relevant, admiral.”
King went on, “When you were confirmed before the Senate Armed Services Committee you took an oath, ‘Do you solemnly swear to give the committee the truth, the full truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”
“I answered ‘yes’ to that,” Rogers replied. “I’ve also answered that those conversations were classified and that it is not appropriate in an open forum to discuss those conversations.”
“What is classified about a conversation involving whether or not you should intervene in the FBI investigation?” King persisted.
“Sir, I stand by my previous comments,” was Rogers’ only answer.
King turned to Coats with the same series of questions. “I’m not satisfied with ‘I do not believe it is appropriate’ or ‘I do not feel I should answer.’ I want to understand a legal basis. You swore that oath to tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and today you are refusing to do so. What is the legal basis for your refusal to testify to this committee?”
“I’m not sure I have a legal basis,” Coats conceded, adding that he was “more than willing” to testify in a closed session.
There is a vast difference between whether the intelligence chiefs feel a line of questioning is appropriate and whether the representatives of the people have a right to know if the commander-in-chief is making unethical requests. There is a difference between asking and pressuring subordinates to influence the outcome of an investigation. There is a difference between facts and feelings, between objective legalities and subjective emotions.
If it was wrong for the president to ask his subordinates to quash an investigation, and even asking the question would be unethical even there are questions about whether it was illegal, then merely asking the question could be legitimately considered as bringing pressure. Perhaps Coats and Rogers didn’t feel pressured because of their strong personalities where a weaker person would have felt immense pressure and bowed to the president’s request. Is the nation well served by a president who relies on the strong character of his subordinates to prevent him from obstructing justice?
Similarly, is pleading that a conversation is classified a legitimate excuse to refuse to answer a question about whether the president acted unethically? The classification of secrets was meant to protect national security, not to protect a president from criticism or the consequences of his actions.
Like so many other aspects of the Trump Administration, the test for conservatives should be to ask themselves whether they would excuse an action if it was committed by Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. If a Democrat president asked his or her intelligence heads to interfere in an investigation would our response as constitutional, fact-relying, objective, law-abiding conservatives be to ask whether pressure was applied? Any honest conservative would have to answer with a resounding “hell, no!” If that’s the case, why do we make excuses for Donald Trump?
Two decades ago, conservatives ridiculed Bill Clinton for pleading, “It depends on what the definition of the word ‘is’ is.” Now the word games and Olympic-class linguistic gymnastics performed by the Trump Administration are no less embarrassing and pathetic.
To the casual observer, the goal of Coats and Rogers is obvious. The pair are walking a tightrope between being disloyal to their president and party while avoiding committing perjury. The strategy seems to be that if answering the question honestly will result angering the president or exposing yourself to prosecution, then just don’t answer the question.
In reality, not answering the question is an answer in itself. It is easy to make the assumption that if President Trump had not asked Coats and Rogers to compromise their principles that they would simply answer the question with a straightforward “no.”
In not answering the direct question, we are left to assume that President Trump did indeed ask his intelligence chiefs to interfere with an ongoing investigation, but did not press the issue to the point where Coats and Rogers felt pressured to comply. At this point, no one can say how far the president might have pushed.
What we can be certain of is how far the Republican Party has fallen in two short years. The party of law and order, of truth, justice and the American way has become the party of Trumpian equivocations and carefully worded denials.
The Bible says, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33) and that seems to be evident in the relationships of Coats and Rogers with Donald Trump. After five months in the Trump Administration, both men, generally considered honorable and respected, sat passively while Angus King gave them a lesson in moral clarity. Two years ago, that would have been hard to imagine.