Author Byron York’s writing room—and perhaps his brain—must look like a trapdoor spider’s nest with a thick webwork of connections, characters, plots, subplots, reveals, twists, reversals, turns, and counterturns. Yet in “Obsession: Inside the Washington Establishment’s Never-Ending War on Trump,” York’s chronicle of the partisan maneuvering to remove Trump from the presidency from 2016 to 2019, he delivers a cogent, complete, and surprisingly lucid (given the subject) account.
He does so by simply telling the story and letting the weirdness and complexity develop as his tale unfolds. Since York has covered the matter from day one in his position as a chief political correspondent at the Washington Examiner, perhaps all he really needed to do was pull out notes, jog his memory, and start writing.
York’s theme is that collusion, impeachment, bribery — all of it — was an arabesque. There was never any “there” there. Yet Democrats could not let it go.
J. Edgar Comey
Many may have forgotten some of the surreal details of the journey. York places the origin of the Democratic obsession on election night at Hillary Clinton HQ in Brooklyn, where it slowly dawned on the gathered faithful that the ceiling full of shattered-glass-shaped confetti would have to stay in the rafters, and their certainty of victory due to moral superiority was the only thing that would be broken that evening.
The ugly and strange Electoral College certification role call in January 2017 is another detail that may be lost in the smoke for some. As York reminds us, none other than Vice President Joe Biden presided over the formal certification of Trump as president. During the Trump roll call, House Democrat after House Democrat stood up and made objection to electoral totals. All were out of order, and Biden had to shut them down. Trump was certified.
As Republicans applauded, Biden turned to shake [House Speaker Paul] Ryan’s hand and said, ‘God save the Queen.’ It was unclear precisely what he meant, but it seemed to be a mild joke to ease the tension of one of the strangest Electoral College certifications ever.
Republicans should have taken this omen to heart, but did not. Yet.
A successful operation of smoke and mirrors starts with the set-up. This role was performed by a previous master of this dance, FBI Director James Comey. York provides a useful reminder that Comey was directly behind the appointment of special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who looked into the so-called Valerie Plame outing as a CIA employee during the George W. Bush years, an investigation that sent the second-term Bush White House into conniptions.
“[Trump’s] instincts were that Comey was no good,” says York. But Trump believed he could eventually win him over. Comey was likewise wary of Trump because he feared Trump would suspect he was trying to behave like J. Edgar Hoover and hold information over him for leverage. “Trump might make that assumption because that was exactly what Comey was doing,” York comments.
Comey was fishing for any kind of legally actionable statement from Trump. When he didn’t get anything, he moved to the Rube Goldberg apparatus known as “Crossfire Hurricane.” It was through this operation and its use of the spurious and ridiculous Steele dossier (a folder of alleged personal dirt on Trump provided by an ex-British spy who was employed, through a cut-out law firm, by the Hilary Clinton campaign) that Comey set his trap.
“Trump’s classic businessman approach caused him to repeatedly misjudge the intentions of rivals in Washington, especially in the critical early months of his presidency,” says York. If he’d fired Comey sooner, Crossfire Hurricane might have died in its own poisonous juices, and we all might have been spared making the acquaintance of the likes of the FBI’s Peter Strzok, James Rybicki, Andrew McCabe, and Lisa Page and DOJ attorney James A. Baker — and most of all, that twist of human barbwire made of equal strands narcissism, megalomania, and namby-pamby-existentialism, James Comey.
One doesn’t simply fire James Comey, however. Like the creature in “Alien,” he keeps coming back. Comey forwarded a series of memos that he had essentially written to himself during early 2017 to a friend with media connections, who promptly leaked them. These seven memos outlined the accusations against Trump and the hall of mirrors Comey constructed regarding the case for “Russian collusion.” Their purpose was to trigger the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, which is exactly what happened.
Fortune Favors the Innocent
At this point, York introduces his heroes. This is the dogged, nondescript group of White House lawyers who mounted the response to the Mueller probe and, later, the Ukraine impeachment. York reveals that, while they may not be geniuses or divas (with the exception — on the diva end of things — of Rudy Giuliani, who joined later in the process), they had one big strength and they capitalized on it at every turn: the fact that, despite what the legal thrillers may say, it is far, far easier to defend an innocent man.
These lawyers included Mark Kasowitz, Michael Bowe, Jay Sekulow, James Quarles, Ty Cobb, John Dowd, and in 2018, Giuliani, and husband and wife team Marty and Jane Raskin. York gives the legal team character development worthy of a novel, as circumstance and reversals slowly force them to face their understandable naivete and adapt.
For a sea change had come to the American left, and Democrats had become the political version of religious zealots. Like zealots throughout history, they just would not let their obsession go. Quoting Dowd, York writes:
‘We said, ‘look, we kept our end,’ ’ Dowd recalled telling Mueller, ‘Are you going to hold up your end?’ ’ The next moment marked an enormous change in the course of the investigation. ‘Well, you know, if we’re going to square our corners,’ Mueller replied, according to Dowd, ‘we ought to really talk to the president.’
For the White House team, phase two of the legal battle, the attempt to “square the corners,” was about wary defense of a strong position. There had been sharing and transparency. There was no case for obstruction of justice, and no reason for the president to submit to hours of legal grilling. In the end, Mueller’s team caved and sent written questions, whose extreme complexity and specificity gave a taste of the ambush that would have been in store for the president.
Another key theme of York’s account is the reluctant realization by the White House lawyers that Mueller was in physical and mental decline. He’d hired 13 lawyers who were stated Democrats. None of the Mueller team were Republicans. People thought this might be corrected with the straight-shooting Mueller in charge.
But Mueller was not in charge of anything. York presents evidence from early Trump team spokesman and public relations expert Mark Corallo, who knew Mueller from a previous job.
‘I said to [Mueller team member] Andrew Goldstein, ‘Hey, how’s he doing?’ They said great. I said, ‘Well, he looks a little gaunt. Is he eating? Is he tired?’ They said, ‘No, he’s running circles around us.’ This was the first time I noticed that he was not physically robust.’
Nearly a year and a half later, watching Mueller testify on television, Corallo was taken aback. ‘When I saw him testifying, it was significantly more apparent,’ he recalled. “And trust me, I was not the only one.’
Over the course of 2017 and early 2018, the president’s legal team pieced together a series of clues that Mueller had checked out. While at first maddening, the White House lawyers ultimately realized that they had been handed the game. “[A] bunch of scumbags were running the operation,” as Giuliani put it.
Again, the White House team had the one ace up their sleeve to beat all others: their man had done nothing wrong. In the end, there was no collusion. Although the final report did not categorically exonerate Trump from obstruction, there was nothing on which to hang a congressional impeachment trial. The Democratic humiliation was complete. But zealots don’t give up in the face of mere rationality.
York serves up the Ukraine impeachment saga to serve as a tragi-comic denouement. It is clear from York’s reporting that, whatever the identity of the “whistleblower,” the Ukrainian flap was all Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from start to finish.
The entire House impeachment rested on the delusions of grandeur of one jumped-up National Security Council bureaucrat, a supposed expert on Ukraine, his talk of “interagency consensus” as cringe-inducing and cloying as the Reverend Casaubon’s obsession with his “Key to All Mythologies” in “Middlemarch.” Yet again, there was no “there” there. York reminds us, “the President of the United States is simply not subject to any whistleblower laws.”
York gives us pointillist portraits of impeachment actors Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff. He reminds us of perhaps the oddest and most prescient reporting of the past four years, as well. This is Federalist Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway’s remarkable account of sitting near Nadler on the Acela train in November 2018, where she overheard Nadler loudly speaking into a cellphone about his plan to destroy Trump now that Democrats controlled the House.
Nadler was so loud Hemingway could take notes verbatim. Her report is both hilarious and horrifying. (In fact, considering how many Pulitzers have been handed out to dozens of undeserving idiots, hacks, and toadies over the past few years, Hemingway’s keen reporting is a reminder that of the old adage that good luck is when opportunity meets preparedness.) In the end, Nadler proved incompetent at putting his plans into action, and House Democrats sidelined him for the Mephistophelean Schiff.
With a steady drumbeat of factual, piece-by-piece storytelling, York captures the Chautauqua of sleaze and venality that has overtaken official Washington for the past four years in this, the greatest ongoing emanation of meaningless sound and fury in U.S. political history. It was a plot hatched by a comprehensive assortment of all the monstrous personalities in which the capital specializes: schemers, narcissists, and zealots, sure, but also the monomaniacally insane, the gutlessly obsequious, and, most of all, the overblown and hyperextended of ego.
In short, those who may have been people once, but have whittled themselves down to mere psychotic nubs, personas, corrupt freaks possessed of souls with the size and consistency of a mildewed ear — and all these behavioral mutants bathing in, absorbing their sustenance from, a miasmic slough of verbal pus spewed forth by a nattering, nattering, forever nattering horde of sideline-sitting SAT progenies, beard-tugging sophists, vitriolic fops, and cheese-brained shawties gussied up in meaningless degrees, chemical tans, pancake makeup, and whitened teeth looking like corpses attending their own funerals.
During that time, some Democrats worked themselves into a seemingly permanent state of hysteria over Russia. There was breathless (and endless) discussion of each new revelation out of the Mueller probe. There were serious people who, with a straight face, called the president a Russian agent. There were serious people who accused him of treason. There were serious people who believed the allegations in the Steele dossier. Reason, proportion, and critical thinking virtually disappeared from the daily debate.
York tells the story with no polemic. He doesn’t need it. All he has to do is illustrate the fact that there was no evidence supporting the great plot to bring down President Donald Trump.
This is the salient fact to which York returns time and again in this nuanced, complex, and remarkably complete account of the mania that overtook not only the political far left, but the Democratic Party, and quite a few bureaucratic operatives in their attempt to remove a U.S. president from office, and possibly see him to prison. Unfortunately, it is a mania that is far from spent.