Civic Stress Test

Trumpistan Turns on James Comey

Freedom and accountability are not priorities for this president. Power is his bottom line.


Ralph Freso / Getty Images

Welcome to Trumpistan. Our country is better than this. But our president, sadly, is not.

FBI Director James Comey was suddenly fired Tuesday, even as the FBI investigates ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Subpoenas were reportedly being issued for a grand jury. This is exactly what it appears to be: executive overreach driven by an authoritarian impulse to derail an investigation.

Don’t buy the official line. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter arguing that Comey deserved dismissal for mishandling the Hillary Clinton email investigation and insubordination against then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch is pure crocodile tears. Trump had everything but pom-poms when he was cheerleading Comey’s actions during the campaign.

The high-minded idea that firing Comey represents a bipartisan consensus doesn’t begin to pass the laugh test. The only bipartisan consensus in the hours after the announcement came from horrified senators on both sides of the aisle. Republican reaction ranged from the calls for an independent investigative committee by Sen. John McCain to Sen. Richard Burr tweeting that he was “troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination” to moral exhaustion from libertarian Jeff Flake, who confessed that “I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing. I just can’t do it.” Even Democrats who detested Comey’s election interference were predictably outraged, calling for a special prosecutor and describing the concurrent chaos as nothing less than a constitutional crisis.

Our democratic republic depends on checks and balances. In less than 120 days, President Trump has repeatedly attacked any individual or civic institution that intends to hold him accountable. He’s labeled independent journalists “the enemy of the American people” and gone full Orwell by calling any critical coverage “fake news” while elevating frankly propagandistic outlets. He’s targeted the integrity of the independent judiciary by attacking individual judges when he dislikes their decisions. And he’s cracked down on protesters while partisan allies have proposed laws in 30 states to curtail civil disobedience.

While the FBI serves under the Justice Department—and under an attorney general who has been compelled to recuse himself from the Russia investigation for lying under oath about his contacts with the Russian government during the campaign—it is supposed to serve as an independent arbiter. That’s why FBI directors are granted 10-year terms, to ensure that they are free to act above the political fray. That’s also why Democratic presidents have been careful to choose Republicans to serve in this powerful position.

Imagine the righteous outcry if President Clinton had removed Louis Freeh as FBI director during his tumultuous troubles. The conservative fury if President Obama had removed Comey for insubordination against Attorney General Lynch. The situational ethics are absurd. Even the Nixon presidential library’s Twitter account found room for dark humor by pointing out “Fun Fact: President Nixon never fired the director of the FBI.”

Trump is already making Nixon look like a paragon of virtue.

Stan Pottinger, who was assistant attorney general of the civil-rights division during Watergate, had a moment of déjà vu when he heard about Comey’s firing:

“The personalities are different but the scene looks pretty much the same: the FBI, Justice, White House and Congress all doing battle with each other while the press reports winners and losers,” Pottinger told The Daily Beast. “The good news is that eventually the posturing gives way to substance and you get a right result. It will happen here, too.”

None of this is consistent with America’s best traditions. Neither is President Trump’s troubling affection for authoritarian strongmen from Putin to Erdogan to Duterte. But this is the same person who praised the Chinese slaughter of protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, saying, “the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

Freedom and accountability are not priorities for this president. Power is his bottom line. His administration has shown no real desire to unite the nation after a divisive campaign. He certainly isn’t about to put self-interest aside while an investigation closes in.

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But we are a nation of laws, not men. Even in the chaotic hours after this power grab, it is becoming clear that the administration’s reckless overreach will result in a massive backlash. The calls for an independent investigative committee will soon become irresistible and receive bipartisan congressional support. The optics of President Trump meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the day after firing Comey will do little to increase his dwindling credibility.

There will be more difficult days ahead. But as long as we don’t give into normalization, America will pass this civic stress test. We will emerge stronger because we’ll be less likely to take our democratic republic for granted going forward.

Paradoxically, surviving President Trump is what will make America great again.