Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey last night has met criticism from both sides of the aisle, but the lawmakers calling for the investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia to be moved to an independent prosecutor are overwhelmingly Democrats. Is this, as some experts fear, the end of the Russia investigation?
The axing of James Comey will not be the end of the Russia investigation. But it may be the beginning of the end of the Trump administration.
Let’s assume the worst immediate scenario for the moment. That the Vichy Republicans in D.C. — whether Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, or the big-bark-no-bite John McCain and Lindsey Graham — either block or pocket veto the Democrats’ calls for an independent prosecutor. And that somehow Trump and Jeff Sessions (who claims to have recused himself from all matters Russian, but clearly has not) ram one of their personal toadies through the Senate as the next FBI director: Rudy Giuliani perhaps, or Michael Mukasey, or, heaven knows, Jeanine Pirro. Nonetheless, the new director’s attempts to further derail the ongoing investigation will be met with revolt by the career professionals within the organization — an unwinding that may already be happening. There will be chaos. There will be leaks. There will be resignations. There will be synergy, clandestine or otherwise, with the Senate and House investigations into Trump and Russia. There will be blood. After the news of the firing broke last night, McCain called the scandal “a centipede” and made an unassailable prediction: “I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop, I can just guarantee it. There’s just too much information that we don’t have that will be coming out.”
Anyone in criminal jeopardy will be out to save his or her own butt, not to protect Donald J. Trump. This includes Michael Flynn — whom Trump is trying to hush up by continuing to sing his praises in public, presumably because Flynn knows enough to blackmail Trump (just as Russia knew enough to blackmail Flynn). My guess is that Flynn, who took such delight in calling for Hillary Clinton to be locked up, does not want to go to prison. Nor, I imagine, do the other White House hands who may be implicated in the 18-day gap that separated Sally Yates’s informing the White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was lying about his dealings with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Flynn’s exit.
The White House will be outwitted and outmaneuvered at nearly every turn by the events to come. Let’s not forget the good news that came out of the Comey firing: It turns out that Trump, who has no idea of what is required to be a competent president sitting on top of the vast federal government, also turns out to have no idea of how to be a competent gangster sitting on top of what increasingly seems to be a somewhat-less-vast Trump-Kushner family criminal enterprise. Trump actually thought that Americans could be duped into believing that the abrupt Comey firing was triggered by Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation. He actually thought that Democrats, some of whom blame Comey above all others for Clinton’s defeat, would go along with the firing at a time when the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s collusion with a foreign foe to sabotage the election in the Republicans’ favor. And, as we saw from all the frantic White House scurrying last night, Trump and those around him were shocked — shocked! — to discover that the firing precipitated an uproar in Washington and beyond.
Watch Trump praise Comey in 2016 for how he handled the Clinton email probe, something Trump is now supposedly firing him over.
A White House gang this insular, this politically naïve, and this transparent in its maladroit efforts at deflection and deception is a gang that can’t shoot straight. No one in the West Wing apparently even considered that it might look bad to time this debacle on the eve of a day when Trump’s only scheduled official event was an Oval Office meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. No doubt these same brilliant masterminds now think that Washington will go back to business as usual. You know: The all-male, 13-member Senate task force will produce a new version of Trumpcare that the House will buy and the president can sign; that new tax legislation benefiting Trump, his billionaire cabinet, and his donors will speed on a glide path through both chambers; that right-wing federal judicial nominees will be rubber-stamped; and that new White House–devised press stunts, executive orders, and tweets will quickly change the subject after each indignity, inducing the press and the public to move on to the next outrage. None of this was in the cards even before the Comey firing.
Now that Trump, by his own actions, has shown that the Russia investigation is anything but the “total hoax” that his tweets have claimed — now that everyone knows he sees himself in criminal jeopardy — he’ll be engulfed in 24/7 whack-a-mole as the “fake news” rolls out one revelation after another. And those revelations won’t just be about Russia, but about the entire family enterprise. It should not be forgotten that the week’s other news has included the revelation that Jared Kushner’s sister, Nicole Meyer, took advantage of a freshly minted Trump law to market U.S. immigration visas to Chinese customers in exchange for $500,000 investments in a Jersey City real-estate development. What’s the story with Nicole Meyer? What else has she been up to? We are soon to find out.
There will be no resumption of order in the capital until after the 2018 midterms, or there is a credible resolution of the Russia story — whichever comes first. And there’s at least the possibility we won’t make it to the midterms. Richard Nixon, a far more devious criminal mastermind than Trump could ever be — just ask Roger Stone — fired the special Watergate prosecutor closing in on him on Saturday night, October 20, 1973. He was in that helicopter fleeing the White House the following August 9.