What the new GOP offensive against James Comey is really about
Former FBI Director James Comey's new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership won't be out until next week, but it's already number one on Amazon, tidbits from leaked copies are making the rounds, and Comey is planning a round of high-profile promotional media appearances. This is no doubt driving President Trump around the bend, which helps explain why the White House, the Republican Party, and Trump's allies in the conservative media have begun a highly organized campaign to discredit or even destroy Comey.
How organized is it? CNN reports:
The battle plan against Comey, obtained by CNN, calls for branding the nation's former top law enforcement official as "Lyin' Comey" through a website, digital advertising, and talking points to be sent to Republicans across the country before his memoir is released next week. The White House signed off on the plan, which is being overseen by the Republican National Committee. [CNN]
To be honest, it's a little disappointing that "Lyin' Comey" was the best they could come up with. We already had "Lyin' Ted" Cruz after all, so it seems rather unoriginal. But in this battle for public opinion, they have to convince people that Comey is lying, or the whole enterprise fails.
Furthermore, there's a purpose underneath the effort to discredit Comey that may not be immediately apparent: They need to provide a justification, or at least some measure of cover, for when the president moves against Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
That doesn't mean that Trump has decided he will, or when, or how. He probably hasn't. And Trump's allies don't know for sure what he's going to do. They're taking cues from his tweets and public statements just like everyone else. But they know what he might do, and what he wants to do, because we all do.
Trump wants to be rid of Mueller, that is for sure. If he finally overcomes the objections of all the aides telling him it would be politically suicidal, he could do it by replacing Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller's investigation, with someone more loyal and compliant; that person could then fire Mueller. Or he could replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose successor could take over responsibility for the probe and then fire Mueller.
Where does Comey fit in? Comey's statements about Trump, particularly that the president pressured him to leave former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn alone, are likely to be key to any case Mueller tries to make that the president committed obstruction of justice (fortunately for Mueller, Trump admitted on national TV that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation). And there are plenty of unflattering details of their relationship in leaked copies of the book. Comey reportedly writes that dealing with Trump gave him "flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the Mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth." The president was also allegedly obsessed with the infamous story about him and Russian prostitutes at a Moscow hotel, bringing it up repeatedly when they met.
But if Trump can convince everyone that Comey is a liar, then he won't be damaged by what Comey says about their interactions, even though Comey took extensive notes at the time and shared them with other officials.
Trump doesn't actually have to convince everyone, though. Because Mueller is unlikely to indict him (there's disagreement among legal scholars about whether a sitting president can be indicted), Trump's survival will ultimately be decided in the political realm, in Congress and at the ballot box in 2020. So what Trump needs is his own side to stay behind him, even if he moves against Mueller. Some Republicans may now say, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) did, that firing Mueller would be "the beginning of the end of his presidency." But those behind the "Lyin' Comey" campaign want to make sure it isn't.
It's not a complicated strategy. The idea is to convince Republicans that everything about the Mueller investigation and anyone associated with it is hopelessly corrupt and out to get Trump. Comey, Mueller, Rosenstein — they're all either actively working together in a Deep State conspiracy or at least united in their maniacal and probably illegal pursuit of our noble president. The whole thing is illegitimate from top to bottom.
One of the main vehicles for this campaign is Fox News, where on a daily basis President Trump is being encouraged to fire Mueller, Rosenstein, or both. Critically, this message is delivered most often by the hosts Trump trusts the most, and with whom he often speaks privately: Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, and Lou Dobbs.
Despite White House denials, according to various reports Trump is actively ruminating on firing Rosenstein and/or Mueller, and encouraging others to do the same. Bloomberg reports that he has been discussing the possibility with aides, and Jacqueline Alemany of CBS News tweeted on Thursday, "A source tells me that Trump called yesterday and asked source to go on TV to call for Trump to fire Mueller." That sounds like someone who is leading his own campaign to lay the groundwork for Mueller's firing.
When Comey's book officially comes out next week, things are going to get even more intense. The former FBI director will be absolutely everywhere in the media; he's already taping interviews that will drop when the book does. This will of course enrage Trump, who will respond with a blizzard of angry tweets. The hosts on Fox will beat the drum for Mueller's firing even louder than they have been up until now.
And if Trump thinks Republicans will stick with him, he just might do it.