How Donald Trump royally botched James Comey's firing
This was an astonishingly bad move, and it will probably backfire on the president
Fresh takes in the Trump administration have the tendency to quickly curdle, especially as the extraordinary becomes the new ordinary and the media struggles to find the language to communicate to the American people the gravity and consequence of each decision made by President Trump. To counter this effect, we can look for patterns.
When deployed correctly, cold, hard, indisputable patterns can be very telling. Here is a pattern I've noticed that emerges when the Trump White House does something extraordinary, as in the case of the sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday:
- Whatever outlandish decision Trump has made, the story put out by the White House to explain it often chokes over its own incoherence within mere hours.
- When the White House tries to change the subject, the subject becomes the story and quickly boomerangs.
- Because Trump has no natural constituency inside of Washington, he faces an unusually large blowback from all corners. This feeds his paranoia that official Washington, including the dominant media, is against him.
- Trump's team, desperate for approval by the leviathan they hate, seems genuinely perplexed to never be given the benefit of the doubt. They do not to understand that a reflexive distrust of Trump's actions is the first step towards understanding them.
This pattern lends itself to the following conclusion: Trump is his own worst enemy.
If the goal in firing Comey was to move on from the investigation into the Trump campaign's potential collusion with Russia ahead of the 2016 election, that goal was kneecapped as soon as the president released a letter pointedly, directly, and unashamedly linking his own animus towards Comey to the Russia investigation even though the point of the letter was to undercut that very claim.
"While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation," Trump wrote in his termination letter to Comey, "I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not all to effectively lead the Bureau."
What is more unnerving: A president who is this oblivious to his own obliviousness? A staff that cannot convince him to remove such a self-damaging sentence? Or the removal of the director himself? It is hard to say.
To be sure, like Trump, Comey has no constituency in Washington outside of the bureau, some prosecutors, and a good mass of national security commentators who respect his integrity. And the White House seems to have sensed an opportunity to pounce on Comey last week, when he delivered a lengthy and ill-digested account of his Solomonic decision-making during the campaign while testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But the opposition to Comey's political decisions during the campaign did not abrogate a corresponding faith in his ability to be an independent check on the president's own recklessness. Yeah, he's sanctimonious. Sure, he might have cost Hillary Clinton the election. But his own imperviousness to sounder political judgments demonstrated, in a weird way, his significant power.
What happens now? The pressure to appoint a special prosecutor is growing. If Trump worried that the FBI was getting too close to the truth about his Russia connections (less likely) or simply felt the FBI was becoming a generator of instability, drama, and power (more likely), he will not know how to handle an independent counsel who has subpoena power and doesn't take kindly to presidential tweets. His firing of James Comey may have hastened the hour when he will have to reckon with a potentially greater threat to his standing and stature than Comey ever was.