The former chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign says the president is 'absolutely crazy' and Republicans are stuck to him like 'Velcro.'
Donald Trump is “unfit for office,” a president whose actions are often “absolutely crazy” and whose White House has “a complete disregard for the truth.” His firing of James Comey as the FBI director was overseeing an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and whether Trump’s advisers colluded with it amounts to “close to an obstruction case” against the president.
But, says John Podesta—the sharp-tongued campaign chairman for Hillary Clinton whose 60,000 hacked emails are at the heart of that FBI investigation into the team of the man who defeated them—don’t expect impeachment proceedings anytime soon.
Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have chosen to “Velcro their own political fate” to Trump’s and won’t pursue allegations against the president of their own party unless forced to do so by a 2018 midterm election debacle or further revelations. “It is clear to me that Republicans on Capitol Hill are not going to begin to turn on him at this point,” Podesta says.
His scathing comments about a presidency in crisis—and the Republicans who “enable” Trump—came in an exclusive new interview for The Global Politico about Clinton’s shocking election defeat and the still-unfolding investigations swirling around Russia’s role in it. The wide-ranging conversation covered everything from infighting on last year’s Clinton campaign (“if those 70,000 votes had gone differently in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, … we would have all been geniuses”) to Watergate comparisons (unlike Trump, “Nixon, for all his flaws… was a serious person”) to why Clinton lost and whether her new PAC means she’s running for president again (“quite frankly, she’s done with that”).
But most of the hour-long interview consisted of Podesta’s most extensive comments yet on the last two dramatic weeks in Washington that began with Trump’s firing of Comey and ended with Trump departing for his first foreign trip even as a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, was named to oversee the widening probe.
In the immediate hours after the firing, the White House claimed Comey was forced out because he had mishandled the investigation last year of Clinton’s private email server. But Trump himself soon undercut that explanation, telling a TV interviewer that in fact he had removed Comey with thoughts of the ongoing Russia collusion investigation in mind and even, according to the New York Times, repeating that directly to the Russian foreign minister in an Oval Office conversation where he also called Comey “a nut job.”
Podesta was still incredulous about all this when we talked this Saturday at his Northwest Washington home.
“It’s laughable, really laughable that Donald Trump would fire Jim Comey because of his interference which damaged Hillary Clinton. I mean, it was laughable from the very beginning,” Podesta says. “Just a complete misreading of reality.”
Like Clinton, Podesta remains adamant that Comey’s late intervention in last year’s campaign—he reopened the closed probe of Clinton’s private email server just 11 days before the voting—likely cost her the presidency. But he thinks Trump mistook their criticism of Comey for a blank check to fire the director amid the current Trump-related probe. “I still think what Jim Comey did last fall was wrong,” Podesta says, “but he shouldn’t have been fired, given the circumstances that he was leading this investigation.”
Podesta, who served as White House chief of staff during the impeachment of Bill Clinton and then became a top Obama White House counselor at the end of his presidency, has years of experience with the different varieties of executive branch dysfunction, and he sees Comey’s firing as a symptom of a Trump White House that is broken. He wrote a Washington Post op-ed last week saying the president should fire top advisers like current chief of staff Reince Priebus who are unable to confront Trump with unpleasant realities.
“The problem in the Trump White House is they have no one who really stands up to him,” Podesta says. “He’s impetuous, he’s impulsive, he fires things off and if anything, they enable him rather than trying to contain what are moves that in any other context would seem, you know, absolutely crazy. … If they’re going to try to right this place and be able to be effective, I think they need a much stronger team who can resist his impulses and tell him that he’s wrong.”
I asked Podesta if Bill Clinton had lied to him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, as aides have said Clinton did to hide his affair with the former intern—and what he would say to Trump’s increasingly beleaguered advisers now, as they are sent out to offer cover stories that the president himself soon discards or release information quickly proven to be incorrect.
“Look,” Podesta responded, “you need to probe that, and I think that you need to be sure that the information that you are providing is contextualized, and you’re not exaggerating the problem. And I think one of the things that we’ve seen in this White House is that they have a sort of complete disregard for the truth. So, they’ll say one thing one day, Trump will tweet something the next day, and they’re onto a different story.” The White House, he argued, has a responsibility “to basically put out straight information, and in order to do that, I think you’ve got to ensure that you’re getting straight information, and they seem to have little regard for that.”
Ultimately it’s Trump’s fault and not the staff’s, Podesta says, arguing the last couple weeks have proven that Trump is “incapable of doing the job.” Podesta says he believes the new revelations, with Trump linking the firing to the Russia case, amount to “close to an obstruction case, either in the political context of impeachment, or in the context of a criminal grand jury investigation to indict somebody for obstruction.”
As a matter of politics, however, Podesta says congressional leaders seem determined to stick with Trump, making impeachment unlikely for now, and a removal from office under Article 25 of the Constitution, by the president’s own Cabinet and vice president, even unlikelier. “You know, Betsy DeVos signing her name to throw Donald Trump out of office is kind of hard for me to imagine right now,” he says.
As for Ryan and McConnell on Capitol Hill, “I think they have concluded that their only chance of getting, you know, tax reform or repealing Obamacare, is to stick with Trump,” Podesta says. “And they’ll take the consequences. But I think they’re empowering him in their decision to Velcro their own political fate to his, and it could mean that in the midterm elections, they pay a healthy price for that.”
But Podesta, who may be the closest thing the Democratic Party has to a wise man right now even after the ignominious 2016 election defeat, isn’t ready to call 2018 just yet. “If the Democrats were to be so successful as to take back control of the House, then I think, you know, all bets are off,” he says. “I think you’d see a much more serious congressional investigation going on.”
Inevitably, much of the conversation with Podesta returns to the 2016 campaign, and the stunning events of last fall and even to one day in particular, Friday, October 7.
At one point that day, the main news looked to be a statement from senior officials in the Obama administration confirming that the Russians were indeed responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails in an effort to affect the U.S. presidential election. Then, just after 4 p.m. the Washington Post broke the news of the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Donald Trump could be heard bragging about sexually assaulting women. That revelation seemed so politically damaging to the Republican presidential nominee that an event just minutes later was almost lost in comparison: the release by WikiLeaks of the first of what would eventually be thousands of hacked emails from Podesta’s email account.
Podesta had no idea until that night that his email had been completely compromised—an action he says that resulted when one of his assistants followed the advice of a campaign technology aide and clicked inadvertently on a link (“you can’t come back and blame the victim,” he says)—and that he and others at the time did not fully understand the effect the Russian hacking, along with the spread of Russian-pushed fake news, was having in a “subterranean” way on the campaign.
Then came that explosive Comey letter 11 days before the balloting. And we’ve been arguing ever since about not only Comey’s action, but whether and how it might have resulted in the election of Donald Trump.
Clinton has taken a lot of heat for attributing her loss to Comey and appearing to minimize other factors—like her own decisions. In our interview, however, Podesta took much the same approach.
First, though, he acknowledged the loss was on them. “We bear responsibility and it’s a great burden and I feel it every day. I mean, we lost this election; we won the popular vote by 3 million votes, but we lost the Electoral College and lost the election to Donald Trump. So, we have a burden of his having the keys to the White House, and you know, codes to the nuclear football,” he says.
But he insists Comey did matter. “We had a lead, and that lead really substantially narrowed after Comey’s letter,” he says, though he acknowledges the criticism that the campaign had not campaigned aggressively enough in the three states that ultimately swung the election and appeared to confirm accounts he had disagreed with campaign manager Robby Mook about the distribution of resources to one of those states, Wisconsin: “We probably should have done more in Wisconsin; we didn’t advertise there until the very end. But you know, at the end of the day, we lost Pennsylvania anyway, and we had thrown everything we could at Pennsylvania. So, it is what it is.”
And he came back to Comey in arguing that’s where the late “swing” to Trump mattered among a group of voters who thought “it was just OK to blow up the system because the system wasn’t working for them, and they would take a flyer on someone they viewed as unfit to be president,” pointing out that “when we set out to prove that he was temperamentally unfit, and unqualified to be president, we convinced 60 percent of the American public of that. Unfortunately, 20 percent of his voters believed that and still voted for him, and I think that was part of it.”
But if Comey was part of it and voters “taking a flyer” was part of it and Vladimir Putin was another part of it (he had a “grudge” against Clinton, Podesta argues, going back to her days as secretary of state), another big factor, he acknowledges, was Trump himself. “He does create a vortex and a kind of trap for his opponents, which is he says, you know, something outrageous, and if it’s not outrageous enough to dominate the news, he just amps it up,” Podesta says. “And it’s easy to fall into the trap of always being kind of in his story.”
So how does Trump’s story, the one we are all now endlessly caught up in, end, I asked? Will we see a repeat of the Watergate era, when Podesta and the Clintons first entered politics, and “impeachment” was first broached in the modern era?
“It’s hard to imagine how this keeps going for an entire presidential term,” Podesta replied, noting that unlike Nixon, Trump benefits from the protective cocoon of a Republican Congress. “Right now, there’s nothing that compels him to leave. So, we’ll just, you know, it’ll unfold as it unfolds. But every day, there’s kind of new fodder for thinking that he can’t do this job.”