The disorienting quality of the Donald Trump administration lies in the tension between the vastness of the threat it poses to the health of the republic and the smallness of the president himself. That juxtaposition of the terrifying and the ridiculous has been on display from the very beginning, when Trump personally attempted to bully the acting director of the National Park Service into vouchsafing obviously fake estimates of attendees at his inauguration. Every week brings new confusing episodes that could signal either a tantrum or a coup, and this has had a numbing effect on all of us observing his recent assault on the integrity of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And yet for all the farcical qualities on the surface, Trump’s bid to manipulate the nation’s highest law-enforcement agency presents a true crisis on a scale not seen since Watergate.
The president has the legal right to fire the FBI director. But there is a reason why FBI directors receive ten-year terms, as opposed to the normal at-will service of other Executive-branch officials, who customarily depart when the president who appointed them leaves office. The office holds vast powers, and if it is not walled off from a president’s interests it can provide almost limitless potential for abuse. A vital, bipartisan norm of American politics holds that the president can only fire the FBI director for cause — not to install a loyalist, and certainly not to influence an investigation into the president or his associates.
On May 9, the administration announced that Trump had fired James Comey at the urging of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, allegedly on account of Comey’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton during the campaign. The pretext that Trump had decided, ten months after the fact, to dismiss Comey for speaking too harshly about the misdeeds of a woman whose imprisonment Trump had repeatedly demanded was so transparently farcical that even the most competent administration would have had difficulty selling it. Trump compounded the difficulty by failing to prepare his blindsided staff. A panicked Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, hid among bushes in full view of reporters. “Total and complete chaos — even by our standards,” one White House staffer told a reporter.
The old Washington cliché — the cover-up is worse than the crime — presumes that the officials in question understand the severity of the crime they are covering up. This assumption apparently did not pertain, as the administration’s preposterous cover story quickly disintegrated in a hail of public statements by Trump and his own loyalists. Two days after Spicer had insisted, “It was all [Rosenstein] … No one from the White House. That was a DOJ decision,” Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt. “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.”
Trump and his staff proved either too incompetent or too irrepressibly goonish to conceal their true intentions. Deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced, “We want this to come to its conclusion; we want it to come to its conclusion with integrity. And we think that we’ve actually, by removing Director Comey, taken steps to make that happen.” Astonishingly, Trump confessed to Holt that he fired Comey in order to stop the Russia investigation: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.’ ”
Here Trump and his people have exploded not only the norms that protect American democracy from authoritarian abuse but the governing playbook of how scandals are supposed to work. At the moment, there are no unearthed tapes, no secret memos, no shocking testimony delivered under the pressure of a Senate panel. Trump is simply boasting in public about his obstruction of justice.
The most revelatory detail from the past few days concerned a meeting in January during which the president demanded the FBI director pledge his loyalty to him. Comey recounted this disturbing incident to two other people contemporaneously. The White House issued a formal denial that this conversation took place. But Trump’s own account of the dinner is hardly exculpatory. In his interview with Holt, Trump depicted himself as dangling the possibility of firing Comey as leverage over the Russia probe. (“He wanted to stay on as the FBI head. And I said, ‘You know, we’ll consider, we’ll see what happens.’ But we had a very nice dinner, and at that time, he told me, ‘You are not under investigation.’ ”) Kellyanne Conway, the aide who most closely channels the president’s impulses, defended the Comey firing specifically as a matter of loyalty (“The president expects people who are serving in his administration to be loyal to the country and to be loyal to the administration”).
Attempts to understand Trump’s long history of outrageous actions have often come down to the question of malevolence versus ignorance. A competent authoritarian would not have followed his assault on the FBI’s integrity by inviting the Russian ambassador to the Oval Office for a smiling photo session the next day, renewing his social-media feud with Rosie O’Donnell, and then publicly threatening Comey with the insinuation that Trump possesses secret tapes of their conversations.
But the best explanation for Trump’s behavior is that the ignorance is the malevolence. Trump gives every indication that he literally does not understand the concepts of popular sovereignty and rule of law. He has treated the presidency as a continuation of his business career, and the election as the sanctification of it, the final proof of his triumph over his critics. When asked about his conduct, he returns obsessively to the glories of Election Night. Trump grew especially furious at Comey’s confession of being “mildly nauseous” at the thought he might have swayed the election, “which Mr. Trump took to demean his own role in history,” the Times reported.
He continues to surround himself with family and personal loyalists, and judges his and his employees’ performance by the quality and (especially) quantity of free media they generate. That he is leveraging the office to enrich himself and his family strikes him as a perfectly obvious course of action. He casually refers to “my generals” and “my military.” He sent his longtime personal bodyguard to fire Comey. To Trump, the notion that his FBI director would investigate him and his associates is as outrageous as having a doorman at Mar-a-Lago greet him with insults.
What has enabled Trump to persist in this belief is a government controlled by a party willing to accommodate his vision. Whether or not Trump asked for the same kind of loyalty oath of the congressional leadership that he demanded of Comey, they have acted as though they have given one. The Republican Congress has quashed demands for his tax returns, blocked independent investigations of Russian hacking, and mostly refrained from condemning his firing of Comey. So deeply have Republicans internalized their dereliction of the traditional oversight function that New Jersey Republican representative Tom MacArthur recently told a gathering of upset constituents, “We don’t oversee the Executive … Congress is not the board of directors of the White House.”
Trump has governed like a child monarch. The only clear detail in his mind from the night he ordered a military strike is the cake he was eating at the time. He watches far too much television, sometimes shouting angrily at the screen. His butlers are instructed to give him two scoops of ice cream while White House guests receive just one. He is captive to simplistic notions and ignorant of the extent of his own ignorance. He is surrounded by patronizing advisers who fearfully monitor his turbulent moods, please him with flattery, steer clear of upsetting news, and try to talk him out of impulsive actions. Since January, his immaturity has been most in evidence. Now he is acting not only like a child but also like a monarch.
*This article appears in the May 15, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.