When news about the firing of former FBI director James Comey broke, the media immediately shifted to Watergate mode. Within hours, there was talk of a “Tuesday night massacre.” The word “coup” was bandied about.
Some of this hysteria was likely due to “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but some of it was, no doubt, an honest reaction to a stunning development—and the casus belli provided by the Trump administration (the suggestion that Comey was being fired because he was too mean to Hillary Clinton) didn’t hold water. Nor did the cover story that Comey had lost the support of rank and file FBI agents.
Still, I was taken by how the immediate assumption seemed to be that Trump fired Comey to cover up alleged coordination with Russia over the 2016 presidential election. We still don’t have all the answers, and some reports have emerged that support this thesis. For example, just prior to his ousting, Comey allegedly asked for more funds to support the FBI’s Russia investigation. This certainly qualifies as circumstantial evidence.
Other reports suggest that Trump’s primary motivation might be slightly less nefarious. The very fact that he was stunned by the reaction to his firing Comey suggests that it never occurred to Trump that people would think this was an attempt to stymie the Russia investigation.
Although this certainly doesn’t paint Trump in a favorable light, it’s plausible that his primary motive for firing Comey was simply that Comey had hurt his feelings and damaged his ego.
Think about the public events that transpired in the days leading up to the firing.
We had Hillary Clinton publicly saying that she would have won had it not been for Comey (an allegation backed up by Nate Silver). Everyone knows how obsessed Trump is with his presidential victory. Is it beyond the pale to suggest that he would be annoyed by the suggestion that he only won because Comey handed him the White House? As The New York Times reports, Trump “was particularly irked when Mr. Comey said he was ‘mildly nauseous’ to think that his handling of the email case had influenced the election, which Mr. Trump took to demean his own role in history.”
But it didn’t end there. A few days later, Comey testified before Congress, and we have multiple reports suggesting that Trump felt publicly shamed by what he said. A White House pool report from Wednesday suggests that Comey’s testimony made the president “strongly inclined to remove him.” A former Trump advisor told Reuters that Comey’s testimony “likely reinforced in Trump’s mind that ‘Comey was against him’” because the then-FBI director “regretted what he did to Hillary but not what he did to Trump.”
To be sure, even if this theory is true, it is likely that Comey’s investigation into Russia is part of the motive. However, it could be that, rather than having something to hide, Trump is just personally offended by having someone he views as an employee investigating him.
Even if we assume that there is no Russia cover-up (and who knows?), the best alternative theory I can think of still has Trump looking utterly petty and childish. These are qualities more suited for a strongman than for a president.
If we adhere to Occam’s Razor, where the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, does it pay to bet against Trump’s ego? Let’s consider the recent example of Trump believing he invented the economic term “prime the pump” (he did not). Aside from the fact that this is a Keynesian theory that a Republican should presumably not endorse, it demonstrates Trump’s utter egotism. Or let’s consider another recent story about how Trump insists on an extra scoop of ice cream. These are not elaborate or complex geopolitical machinations; this is pretty simple and base. It’s about privilege and authority and ego.
This is not a defense of Trump. In some ways, it paints a scarier picture than if Trump was merely attempting to cover up a looming Russia scandal. That would at least be rational. This theory suggests that Trump acted more hastily and that he removed the FBI director to avenge a personal slight. It also suggests that the administration lied to us and concocted a false timeline implying that the decision to fire Comey originated with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
The President will not allow anyone to take credit for his big victory. If you or anyone else tries to give you credit, you will be gone. This isn’t some big cover-up of some Russian thing. This is the president wanting sole credit for his victory.
Before going too far out on a shaky limb about some Russia cover-up, the media should consider a more simplistic possibility―this may be about Trump’s fragile ego and delicate image.