Former FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday, revealing the shocking extent of President Trump's meddling into the investigation into his subordinates and his ties with Russia. Trump himself explained that he fired Comey over the investigation. This scandal is so obscure and multifaceted that it's hard to keep track of just what the allegations are, and which potential implications are most credible.
But the basic political truth revealed is simple: Donald Trump is trying to undermine the democratic structures of the United States.
Boiled down to its essential framework, Comey's story goes like this. After the election, Trump made repeated, personal contact with the FBI director in an attempt to suborn his professionalism. In a private dinner with the president, Comey got the strong sense that Trump was trying to "create some sort of patronage relationship," and he repeatedly tried to buffalo Comey into promising "loyalty." Comey was extremely uncomfortable with this, trying to say he would only promise honesty, but eventually agreed to "honest loyalty" to end the conversation. Disturbed, Comey immediately began creating a paper trail of memos documenting every aspect of his meetings with Trump.
In a subsequent one-on-one meeting, Trump attempted to get Comey to drop the investigation into Mike Flynn, saying: "He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." Comey agreed that Flynn was a good guy, but did not promise to drop the investigation. In the later questioning, Senator Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked why Comey had not told Trump off for even asking that, and Comey replied that he was so stunned he didn't even think to confront him. "Maybe if I were stronger, I would have," he said.
Trump then made two calls to Comey, saying that the investigations into potential Russia connections were creating "a cloud" over his presidency, asking what Comey could do to "lift the cloud" and if he could make it known that Trump was not personally under investigation. In the second one on April 11, Trump pretty clearly referenced the stooge relationship he thought he had created, saying "I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know."
Some days after that, of course, Trump fired Comey, citing his mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails, and how his poor leadership of the FBI was creating a morale crisis. Only days later Trump admitted in an interview with Lester Holt that the Russia investigation was the real reason. Regarding this latter excuse, Comey said this choice "to defame me and more importantly the FBI" were "lies, plain and simple."
It's obvious to anyone with eyes to see what's happening here. Trump wanted to use the FBI as his own personal goon squad — one that would drop investigations into Trump himself or any Trump associates (every one of which should be assumed to be corrupt to their very marrow until proven otherwise) on cue. The flip side of that coin, which would have almost certainly come if Comey had been a loyal stooge, is abusive investigations into enemies of the regime.
Denials from the White House that this is what Trump was doing are utterly non-credible. It is known that the president lies constantly, that he has no respect for institutional norms, and that he is using the presidency for personal enrichment.
It feels almost pointless to keep repeating this, but Trump is about the worst kind of person to have in the presidency. Any democracy relies to some degree on top elected officials respecting the rule of law — which means, first of all, that they shouldn't try to turn the agents of law enforcement into personal sycophants. The FBI has a long, dark history of anti-democratic abuse, of course, but it has never been used as the personal attack dog of a shameless, corrupt authoritarian. In a nation with weak democratic structures, Trump almost certainly would be most of the way towards setting himself up as a Mobutu-style autocrat already. It remains to be seen whether the American system can withstand another several years of this president undermining it from within.