James Comey fired: an analysis
Biting the hand that made him
Was Donald Trump being incompetent, or malign?
May 13th 2017| WASHINGTON, DC
WHEN the FBI director first learned of his sacking by Donald Trump, after news of it flashed up on television screens at an event he happened to be attending in Los Angeles, he thought it was a joke. That sentence can be confidently bequeathed to future historians of the 45th president. It points to the central, crazy conundrum of Mr Trump’s administration, the answer to which could determine either the future of the republic, or something much less than that. Is the administration chaotic and unworthy of its place in a mighty tradition, but more farcical than corrupting — a madcap approximation of government by a reality-television star? Or is Mr Trump, who has just become the first president since Richard Nixon to fire a man who was leading a formal investigation into his associates, and perhaps himself, a threat to American democracy?
The Democrats naturally suspect the worst. Even before Mr Comey’s sacking, they were demanding that Congress’s Republican leaders should launch a special investigation into the subject of his probe — Russia’s efforts to swing last year’s election for Mr Trump — to safeguard it against political meddling. It emerged that Mr Comey’s inquiries had led him to the peculiar closeness to Russia of two of Mr Trump’s sometime advisers, Roger Stone, a libertarian gadfly, and Paul Manafort, formerly the president’s campaign chief. The FBI director was also said to have requested more resources for the investigation. His firing therefore “raises profound questions about whether the White House is brazenly interfering in a criminal matter”, said Adam Schiff, a Democratic congressman and leading light in a separate investigation into the Russia allegations in the House of Representatives.
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A handful of Republican senators, including Richard Burr (who is leading a separate Senate investigation into Russian meddling), John McCain and Ben Sasse, appear to sympathise. Sacking Mr Comey — who now has no party registration, but was a Republican when Barack Obama appointed him — in the thick of such an important investigation seemed hard to justify, they said. Unless, they might have added, Mr Trump had something to hide from him. Mr Comey, noted Mr Burr, had been “more forthcoming with information” than any of his predecessors.
If the president nominates one of his stooges, such as Rudy Giuliani or Chris Christie, to replace Mr Comey, that opposition will grow. Such a nominee would struggle to win Senate confirmation. Alternatively, the president will have to name a worthier replacement — and risk that new director taking up where Mr Comey left off with redoubled gusto. Either way, if Mr Trump’s intention was to shut down the Russian intrigue, he has probably failed.
To give the president the benefit of the doubt, it is just about conceivable that he failed to appreciate what a big deal sacking Mr Comey would be. Seemingly immune to the norms that have constrained most of his predecessors — including Nixon, who took far greater pains to hide his ethical shortcomings — Mr Trump is steadily redefining the extent to which politics is the art of getting away with it. And Mr Comey, four years into a ten-year term, was so hated by Democrats that the president perhaps banked on his removal stirring little serious opposition. He had already fired as many senior figures as most presidents get through in a term, including the acting attorney-general, Sally Yates, and his first national security adviser, Mike Flynn. The former, among several affronts to the administration, had noted that Mr Flynn was secretly in cahoots with the Russian ambassador; the latter was sacked after journalists rumbled that story.
Mr Comey’s unpopularity on the left stemmed from his decision to inform Congress, 11 days before the general election last November, that he was reopening an investigation into an already raked-over and, as it turned out, overblown scandal concerning Hillary Clinton’s e-mail arrangements as secretary of state. He did not, it later transpired, at the same time see fit to inform Congress of the FBI’s concurrent counter-espionage investigation into members of the Trump campaign.
This intervention may have cost Mrs Clinton the presidency. Her five-point lead in the polls promptly tumbled to two points — the margin of her eventual victory in the popular vote. That did not to prevent Mr Trump, thanks to electoral-college arithmetic, squeaking to victory. The unconvincing defence of his actions Mr Comey has since offered, including in testimony to Congress on May 3rd, has only highlighted how misjudged they were. A recent admission that, despite his clear conscience, a notion that he might have influenced the election made him feel “mildly nauseous” was additionally irritating.
Mr Trump claims to have axed Mr Comey in part because of this error. That is incredible. Never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, the president had formerly praised Mr Comey’s “guts” in going after Mrs Clinton (though he criticised him for not pressing charges against her). The least-troubling alternative interpretation is that he had simply wearied of an FBI director whose independent-mindedness he has seemed increasingly to resent, including, but not only, over his dogged pursuit of the Russia investigation.
Alternatively Mr Trump’s doubters are right, and he is in real fear of the FBI probe. His notice letter to Mr Comey — hand-delivered to the FBI director’s desk, in a nice Trumpian touch, by the president’s former bodyguard — strained to allay that impression. “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau,” Mr Trump wrote. It read almost like a cry for help.
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Biting the hand that made him”