I’ve got a serious case of what I believe the shrinks would call cognitive dissonance going on here, involving a conflict between local news and the news from the White House.
First, the local: A suburban Dallas mother and father have been sentenced to federal prison — the mother for two and a half years, the father for a year — after pleading guilty to charges that they lied to federal investigators about the involvement of their two sons in terrorism.
Federal authorities presented evidence to prove that both sons — Arman Ali, 27, and Omar Ali, 26 — went to Syria in 2014 to fight with ISIS. The government claimed that the mother, Sumaiya Ali, 49, and the father, Mohommad Hasnain Ali, 58, lied to investigators, saying they had no knowledge of their sons’ involvement with ISIS. Government evidence showed that both parents were aware of and even condoned their sons’ actions. Their sentences were products of guilty pleas and a plea bargain.
Most of us — maybe all of us — get that it’s against the law to lie to law enforcement about a criminal matter. Lying about a crime to a cop is a crime. But not just lying. It’s a federal crime — a bad one — to do anything that deliberately impedes a federal investigation. Crossing your fingers won't help.
Maybe there is somebody out there who didn’t know that already. OK, here we go, then. Now you do. A story like the sentencing of the two Plano parents puts everybody on notice. Figure it out.
Does two and a half years in the pen seem harsh for a mother who was trying to protect her children? Yes, the law is tough about this. A sentence like this one is a big blowing of the public bugle. Listen up, all. Don’t take this for a gray area. It’s black and white. When they show you that federal badge, you need to swallow hard and forget any temptation to lie to them.
The FBI is serious. God forbid you should ever be involved in something that has agents knocking on your door, but if they do knock, you need to take their knock as the Grim Reaper and his assistant, Pestilence, dropping by for a chat.
I’m not saying I would sit down and start chatting about everything right away. If I were in that picture, I think I might call a lawyer first. That’s something we all have a right to do, and, whenever we think we could have the slightest exposure ourselves, it may be the smart thing to do.
But I can tell you the first thing that lawyer is going to tell us. She will say, “You’re either going to keep your mouth shut, which you have a right to do, or you’re going to tell them the truth, but you cannot lie to them, not at all, not about anything, or they will send you to prison for it.”
So here is my dissonance. Yesterday, The New York Times put together all of the White House Rob Porter wife-beating story in a precise timeline. Porter is the highly positioned presidential aide who resigned Feb. 7 in a wife-beating scandal.
My dissonance is not about the wife-beating. My problem with this timeline has to do with the way the president of the United States and his top staff are treating a federal investigation.
And, no, I’m not trying to concoct some kind of legal argument that would suggest an equivalence between what the White House is doing with the wife-beating story and what the Plano parents did when they lied to federal investigators about terrorism.
Not exactly. But I don’t see how anybody can avoid seeing very strong moral parallels, especially since the Trump administration has been floating all of this stuff about how it owns the FBI and it owns the Justice Department and it can do what it wants with them.
If you and I have to think of the FBI at the door as the Grim Reaper, and if the very thought of lying to the FBI about an investigation should make us quake in our boots — and it should — then what are we to make of a White House that lies blithely about an FBI investigation? Especially since it says it owns the FBI?
President Donald Trump, through his spokespersons, insisted that an FBI investigation into reports that Porter was a wife-beater was still incomplete when photos were published of a former spouse with a beaten face. In other words, no final or authoritative word could have reached the president about the wife-beating charges before the photos were published because the FBI was still working on its investigation.
But in Senate testimony Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray provided a timeline directly contravening the White House version. Wray said the FBI closed its investigation in January after multiple conversations and transactions with the White House.
There’s a bunch of who-shot-John going on now concerning who knew what when. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am talking about a simple lie: the president, through his spokespeople, attempted to dodge responsibility for keeping Porter on staff by telling the American people that the FBI hadn’t made up its mind yet about the wife-beating charges when the photographic evidence was published.
According to the FBI director’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, that’s a lie. The FBI completed its investigation the month before the facial injury photos were published.
Wray could be lying. All of this could be a conspiracy by a secret society within the FBI to take down Trump, in which case we might as well just ask the Chinese to come run the country for us for a while until we can get organized.
Or the White House is lying. And it is lying about a federal investigation. And it says it owns the FBI, which, by the way, it does.
Let’s not conflate things here. Specific statutes make it a federal crime to lie to a federal investigator or impede the administration of justice. There is no law against lying to the press. Believe me. So my cognitive dissonance is not about the law.
Nor am I arguing that the FBI is a priesthood that cannot be brooked or resisted in any way without bringing down brimstone. I’ve already said what I might do. Dummy up, call a lawyer.
But I can’t shake the feeling that there is something terribly wrong about the people who truly do have authority over and responsibility for the FBI lying about an FBI investigation. Nor can I stop thinking about those two Plano parents headed off to the pen because they lied to federal investigators.
Running through the heart of all federal criminal investigations is a broad principle that might be summarized as “no lying.” Calling the lawyer, yes. Keeping mum as long as you can, sure. Spinning it, well, maybe, OK. But no lying.
The importance of the no-lying principle is greatly heightened, it seems to me, when the person speaking has the authority to hire and fire the head of the FBI or, for that matter, the head of the FBI’s boss, the head of the Justice Department — and he keeps threatening to do just that. And he already has done it once.
Let’s go back to the blowing of the bugle in the case of the Plano parents. Those prison terms are intended to be a clear public message: Don’t do this. Don’t lie to the FBI. Don’t mess around with a federal investigation at all because you’ll probably get caught, and then you definitely will be sent to prison.
Is that a lesson about reverence for the law and the sanctity of civic duty? Oh, yes, absolutely. But in my own case, I can tell you what else it’s a lesson about. It’s a lesson about quaking in my boots. It’s a lesson about holy moly.
Should we be afraid of the law? You can do what you want there, but in my own case, I’m going to say yes, you bet, for sure. I am very much afraid of doing something that might get me sent to prison for any reason. I do not want to live in a prison. I’ve probably sat in more courtrooms watching people have that happen to them than you may have. It’s ugly, no matter how richly the sentenced wretch may deserve it.
And you know who they are? You know who the people are who get sent to prison? The guilty ones, anyway? They’re always like those Plano parents. They all have the same thing in common. They were too stupid to be afraid of the law.
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My cognitive dissonance doesn’t have to do with a specific statue. It has to do with an attitude, a moral and social posture. I’m talking about the message in the sentences of the two Plano parents versus the posture of people in the White House who can stand in front of reporters and lie about an FBI investigation.
The message of the courts and of the Justice Department and of the FBI is simple and clear. No lying. Not to us. Lie to each other all you want, but lie to us, and it’s a federal offense.
What’s going on now in Washington is not just disturbing. It’s topsy-turvy. We have a president of the United States, who proudly claims bully power over the FBI, lying through his spokespeople about an FBI investigation, and all for the relatively stupid purpose of avoiding embarrassment.
There is something fundamentally upside-down going on here. At some point, topsy-turvy has to topple, and we need to hope when it does it won't topple on top of you and me.