Trump, Comey, and the Rest of Us

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Former FBI Director James Comey. 

There’s a very good reason why President Trump’s inner circle and his apologists have had trouble defending their chief’s firing of James Comey: Neither the stated reason for the firing nor the real reason is actually a prudent case to make if you don’t want to undercut the president—and, in the case of administration officials, if you don’t want the Donald to fire you, too.

Suppose you defend the firing on the grounds stated in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s brief: Comey trampled over Hillary Clinton’s rights when he trashed her last summer, violating Justice Department rules. Then he rode roughshod over those rules again when he announced the FBI was reopening the case last October.

That’s a dicey case to try and defend when you land on CNN, because Trump applauded Comey’s October announcement. It only invites further discussion of whether Comey’s misdeeds actually, and unfairly, gave the election to Trump. Your boss really doesn’t want to have that conversation. Or suppose you defend the firing by saying that Trump has concerns about what the FBI may now be turning up on the connections between his presidential campaign and the Russian government. Naah, you can’t say that either.

Trump’s defenestration of Comey was a banana republic move, exceeding even what we’ve come to expect from this banana Republican. But also, in a quintessentially Trumpian way, it unfolded with utter indifference to the stated reason for doing it. Most presidents (indeed, most public officials) take care that their statements connect sufficiently with their actions—and with the understanding of their supporters—so that defending those statements shouldn’t border on the impossible or the ridiculous.

Not Trump. The disconnection between what Trump says, what he means, and what he does, plus his fundamental indifference to the veracity and consequences of the cases he makes, clearly runs very deep. So deep that those disconnects may even be partly neurological. In this instance, that indifference has put his own minions in a very tight bind.

The problem he foisted upon the nation, though, is not neurological. It’s constitutional. A president has fired the top federal law enforcement official charged with and currently engaged in investigating his presidential campaign, and, by extension, the political legitimacy of his presidency— for serious misdeeds. It’s the Saturday Night Massacre redux. A response as serious as the one that Congress came up with back in 1973—full-blown bipartisan investigation that can lead to impeachment— should be Congress’s next move. The Republicans are not likely to support such action, but that’s one more reason why they are on increasingly shaky ground as the 2018 midterms draw closer.

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