Before Tuesday, Donald Trump had already fired two high-level law enforcement officials who were involved in investigating his administration’s ties to Russia: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. One official he did not fire is Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was caught lying to Congress about his contacts with Russia during the campaign. Intense, bipartisan pressure forced Sessions to recuse himself from the Russia probe, a decision that reportedly made President Trump go ballistic. Then Sessions turned around and fired FBI director James Comey, right after the FBI had issued grand jury subpoenas to business associates of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, related to Russian intervention in the election.
It is impossible to prove that these firings were intended to insulate Trump from the Russia investigation. That impossibility is inherent to the nature of the acts themselves; when the president quashes independent investigations, it quashes the evidence that would confirm his motive for doing so. We are left only with a series of extremely suspicious facts. The stated cause for Comey’s firing — his mistreatment of Hillary Clinton last July — is absurd on its face as a Trump motivation. Trump and Sessions have repeatedly praised Comey for the actions they now claim to be a firing offense.
The defense offered by Republicans — see Trump himself, Senator John Cornyn, National Review editor Rich Lowry, and innumerable others — is that Democrats are also hypocritical. After all, they expressed outrage at Comey’s behavior during the election, and now Trump is firing him for that very same putative reason. How can they object?
This is obviously absurd. The entire objection to Comey’s intervention in the election is that he violated FBI protocol because — as an exhaustively reported New York Times account found — he implicitly assumed Clinton would win, and feared postelection attacks on his agency by enraged Republicans. The refusal by Republicans to accept the legitimacy of law enforcement, even a Republican official like Comey, is the source of both Comey’s unusual foray into the election and Trump’s decision to fire him. It is perfectly consistent to object to both — not to mention for Democrats to fear that, however unforgivable Comey’s actions, a Trump-selected replacement would be more dangerous.
Trump has demonstrated his inability to tolerate any authority that lies beyond his control. He disputes the right of courts to review and overturn his actions; he regards his power as a vehicle for enriching himself and his family, and recognizes no public right to know even the contours of his self-interest. It is fitting that Trump sent his personal bodyguard to hand-deliver Comey’s letter of termination. He sees the federal government as a whole as personally subordinate to himself, exactly like his business. He would no more tolerate independent legal enforcement investigating his potential misdeeds than he would allow his own private security detail to dig up dirt on him.
There is no longer any serious possibility that he will respect the norms of conduct governing his office. The only questions are how far his fellow Republicans, who control all the power in Washington, will let him go before they stop him, or whether the midterm elections will give Democrats the chance.