Donald Trump doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. But our president is accustomed to receiving things he hasn’t earned, so let’s give it to him, anyway.
Let’s say Trump has nothing to hide from the FBI. There was no collusion between his campaign and Russian hackers — or, at least, none that he’s aware of. Those tax returns he won’t show us may be filled with political liabilities, but not legal ones. James Comey told him (on three separate occasions) that he was not under investigation. The president is not a crook.
Would that make the events of the last 24 hours any less alarming?
It is impossible to believe the White House’s official rationale for Comey’s firing. Giving Trump the benefit of the doubt does not require us to forfeit our frontal lobes. The president did not dismiss the FBI director because Jeff Sessions suddenly realized that Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation — which the attorney general had heretofore praised — was, in truth, a stain on the bureau’s reputation.
Overnight, the White House’s chatty John Does whispered variations on a truer story to multiple outlets: Trump was furious that Comey would neither comment on the details of an ongoing investigation (so as to declare the president innocent of all wrongdoing), nor direct the bulk of the FBI’s energies into punishing those agents who did comment on the details of an ongoing investigation (through leaks of non-exculpatory details about the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties).
Here’s a taste of The Wall Street Journal’s version of this narrative:
The more James Comey showed up on television discussing the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, the more the White House bristled, according to aides to President Donald Trump. Frustration was growing among top associates of the president that Mr. Comey, in a series of appearances before a Senate panel, wouldn’t publicly tamp down questions about possible collusion with Russian interference in the 2016 presidential race. A person with knowledge of recent conversations said they wanted Mr. Comey to “say those three little words: ‘There’s no ties.’”
Here’s the Washington Post’s:
Several current and former officials said the relationship between the White House and the FBI had been strained for months, in part because administration officials were pressuring Comey to more aggressively pursue leak investigations over disclosures that embarrassed the White House and raised questions about ties with Russia.
And a bit from Politico’s:
Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower.
Given these reports, we’re left with two possible interpretations of Trump’s behavior:
(1) He is guilty of illicit acts that the FBI’s investigation into Russia threatens to expose, directly or indirectly.
(2) He is hiding nothing (that the FBI could expose), and merely resents the way Comey’s Russia investigation — and the media’s coverage of it — produces insinuations to the contrary. Thus, he fired Comey not to kill the Russia investigation so much as to take the air out of the Russia “story.”
It is far from clear that the second scenario is less disconcerting than the first. A lot depends on precisely what the president is hiding. But assuming that Trump is not actually beholden to Moscow (due to unpaid debts or a pee tape or what have you), his behavior actually seems more alarming if it wasn’t motivated by a desire to obstruct justice.
Whether or not Trump abetted Russian interference in our election, the fact that he believes it is the job of the FBI director to corroborate his baseless accusations against Barack Obama is terrifying. And the same can be said for his conviction that federal law enforcement’s number-one priority should be combating leaks of information he doesn’t want the public to access — or his belief that it is reasonable to expect the FBI director to vouch for the president’s innocence on the latter’s command.
This is an affront to the spirit of the rule of law, even if the Trump campaign proves to be innocent of all wrongdoing. And that affront is so severe, it makes latter question almost trivial. What is more alarming: a president who allowed his aides to confer with Russian hackers about the best time to release an opponent’s emails — or a president who believes that when he (mindlessly) accuses his predecessor of a felony, it is the job of federal law enforcement to prove his intuition correct?
It is not unusual for American politicians to pursue unscrupulous campaign tactics. It is quite a bit rarer for American presidents to believe that the FBI should shape its activities around the public relations needs of the White House.
So, regardless of Trump’s guilt or innocence, his behavior is frighteningly authoritarian. But if he is guilty of colluding with foreign actors, at least his actions are somewhat rational.
The president has the legal right to fire his FBI director. And Comey’s conduct during the 2016 election really does call into question his fitness for his job. To this point, congressional Republicans have evinced little appetite for holding the president accountable. If Comey were getting close to uncovering something damning, hastily forcing him out of office could very well save the president’s hide — and thus, be worth the terrible optics.
But if the goal was to protect the president from bad optics — as opposed to legal troubles — then his actions are idiotic and insane.
It is hard to think of a stupider strategy for quashing the perception that you have illicit ties to the Russian government, than firing the man leading the investigation into those ties — the night before your meeting with Russia’s foreign minister.
And yet, multiple reports suggest that the president and his inner circle are so dense, they thought Comey’s dismissal would prompt bipartisan accolades and media yawns. As Politico reports:
But the fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise. Trump made a round of calls around 5 p.m., asking for support from senators.
White House officials believed it would be a “win-win” because Republicans and Democrats alike have problems with the FBI director, one person briefed on their deliberations said. Instead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him he was making a big mistake — and Trump seemed “taken aback,” according to a person familiar with the call.
By Tuesday evening, the president was watching the coverage of his decision and frustrated no one was on TV defending him, a White House official said. He wanted surrogates out there beating the drum. Instead, advisers were attacking each other for not realizing the gravity of the situation as events blew up.
If Comey wasn’t about to blow the lid off of something — and the White House had the luxury of time — its handling of the firing is astounding in its incompetence. The administration’s official narrative is that this decision came from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein assumed his post only two weeks ago, and so his arrival on the scene helps explain the otherwise baffling timing of Comey’s firing. The idea being: This Rosenstein guy showed up and made an impassioned case for Comey’s mishandling of the Clinton email case, and Trump yielded to his judgment.
A competent White House would have put Rosenstein front and center; leaked the memo days before the final decision; kept the president at a distance from the whole affair; and given Comey the opportunity to resign.
Instead, Trump mentioned the Russia investigation in the second paragraph of his letter to Comey; had his surrogates call for an end to the Russia investigation last night (instead of keeping the focus on Rosenstein’s indictment of Comey); tweeted incendiary attacks on various Democrats; and let Comey learn of his firing from a row of televisions, as he gave a speech in Los Angeles.
Is it really better to have a president that didn’t collude with Russia — but is so intolerant of hostile media coverage, so incompetent, and so unable to anticipate the consequences of his actions that he would have fired Comey in this manner, anyway?
More to the point: Is it acceptable for the United States to have such a president?
Tuesday’s events have inspired a few congressional Republicans to call for a new, independent investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. And certainly, such an investigation is called for. But we don’t actually need any more information to settle the question at the heart of these inquiries — namely, “Is Donald Trump fit for the Oval Office?”
Congressional Republicans already know that the president is an emotionally volatile, instinctually authoritarian imbecile, who has been milking his public office for personal profit. At this point, the duty to put country ahead of party does not compel Republicans to support an independent Russia probe — it requires them to commence impeachment proceedings.