The Godfather in the White House
The prepared testimony former FBI Director James Comey provided to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence ahead of his hearing today is an altogether remarkable document. It confirms much of the scandalous and anonymously sourced reporting that emerged from Donald Trump's abrupt dismissal of Comey, and it reveals a president who is thoroughly consumed by the scandals plaguing his still-young administration. But more importantly, it portrays a sitting president of the United States who conducts business like a sort of low-rent mafioso.
According to Comey's narrative, President Trump invited him to a private dinner shortly after the inauguration, where Trump asked Comey if he wanted to remain FBI director. After Comey said he intended to stay, Trump purportedly told him: "I need loyalty. I expect loyalty." At their next one-on-one meeting, held in the Oval Office the day after Trump fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump allegedly pressured Comey to drop the FBI's investigation into Flynn. "He is a good guy and has been through a lot," Trump said, per Comey's testimony. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."
A month later, Trump phoned Comey to talk about the FBI's investigation into Russian hacking of the 2016 election, calling it a "cloud" over his presidency and asking what Comey could do to "lift the cloud." One month after that, Trump called Comey again to complain about the "cloud" and he returned to the topic of loyalty. "I have been very loyal to you, very loyal," Comey says Trump told him, adding cryptically: "We had that thing you know." Less than a month after that, Trump fired Comey.
What this tells us is that Trump's view of government is rooted firmly in patronage and profound contempt for the idea that the president is bound by laws. Public servants are expected to show fealty to the Constitution, and they take an oath to that effect. Serving under Trump, however, means serving Trump and doing whatever he asks out of fealty and respect.
Comey's testimony sketches out repeated and flagrant abuses of authority by Trump that warrant aggressive investigation. He tried unsuccessfully to get the FBI director in his pocket with poorly disguised threats centering on "loyalty," and then applied pressure on Comey to influence Justice Department investigations that were politically troublesome. After Comey withheld his loyalty and refused to meet Trump's demands on Russia and Flynn, he was sacked. (We don't have to guess that Trump fired Comey over the Russia investigation because he said as much on national television.)
For the moment we can set aside the question of whether Trump actually obstructed justice, given that Republicans in Congress need Trump to pass their agenda and won't make any effort to check his abuses, no matter how well they are documented. But the longer Trump is given a free hand to treat the government he runs as loyalty-driven syndicate, the more damage he'll do to our governing institutions.
By making "loyalty" an overriding requirement for service in the executive branch, Trump is ensuring that the only people who will seek out and succeed in public service are strivers and toadies. Trump's erratic behavior and constellation of scandals have already made it damn near impossible to find competent recruits for key administration jobs that remain vacant. Trump even had difficulty finding outside counsel to represent him in the Russia investigations, as top law firms worried that he would disregard their advice and stiff them on the bill. The sort of person who would happily sign up with a turmoil-ridden executive branch that requires slavish loyalty to the president very likely doesn't have the public's interest foremost in their mind.
The flip side to this poisonous dynamic is that good, competent public servants who value their oath to the Constitution over loyalty to the president will eventually make for the exits. The behaviors described by James Comey in his testimony should have every executive branch employee who isn't already in Trump's thrall worried that they'll one day have to choose between their jobs and the demands of an autocratic chief executive.
And, of course, everyone who comes up for a high-level position within the administration will automatically come under suspicion. The release of Comey's testimony was preceded by Trump's announcement that he'll nominate attorney Christopher Wray to lead the FBI. Why shouldn't we assume that Wray was asked to kiss Trump's ring? What assurance can we have the Wray didn't promise loyalty to Trump as a precondition for his nomination? Democratic senators will undoubtedly ask Wray these questions at his confirmation hearing, but why would anyone expect him to own up to swearing allegiance to Trump?
By running the government like a small-time gangster outfit, Trump is nurturing institutional rot and making it impossible to assume that high-level executive branch employees are operating in good faith.