Assuming a Plan Behind Comey Firing Would Be Giving Trump Too Much Credit
Andrew Coyne delivers insightful, provocative commentary on political and economic issues to Canadians across the country. The former national editor of Maclean’s, and currently a nationally syndicated columnist with Postmedia, Andrew’s topical and timely presentations are sure to ignite debate and discussion with every audience. Andrew takes a look at the ramifications around Donald Trump’s recent firing of James Comey, below:
Among the many challenges Donald Trump presents is simple comprehension. His unfitness for office is so complete, his failings as a man so profound, it is difficult to take it all in. The mind resists: the constant temptation is to think he can’t be as bad as all that, or to seek refuge in some imagined precedent. We have known, after all, presidents who were liars, or corrupt, or incompetent, or erratic. But we have never seen a president like this, who combines all of these qualities — in spades — and more: among them bottomless ignorance, childlike impetuousness, and a raging, non-stop, all-consuming narcissism.
Above all, we have never seen anyone rise to such high office so unbound by any of the usual norms of behaviour, personal, political or presidential, of which the past three months-plus have been a daily tutorial. The firing of James Comey, the FBI director, is of a piece with this. For a president, several of whose associates are under criminal investigation, to fire the person at the head of that investigation is, of course, outside every norm of constitutional government and defies every understanding of the rule of law.
And yet the temptation, even now, is to rationalize: to assume, at the very least, there must be some method in his madness. There is no evidence of this. The official explanation for the firing — that the president had suddenly become displeased with Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails he had earlier publicly praised — is transparently, clownishly false. There has been ample reporting from inside the White House that the decision to fire Comey had been in the works for days, if not weeks; that it was motivated by the president’s irritation at the FBI’s continuing investigation into various Trump associates’ alleged collusion with the Russian government to throw the presidential election to Trump.
But even without the torrent of leaks from within, Trump’s motives would be comically obvious: witness that bizarre aside, in his letter to Comey, to the effect that Comey had “on three separate occasions” informed him that he was not personally under investigation. To pretend the decision was based on the advice of Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, notwithstanding the latter’s earlier recusal from any involvement in the investigation after he was found to have lied about his own dealings with the Russians; to have all this break hours before he was to meet with the Russian foreign minister; to compound the Nixon-era associations with a photo op with Henry Kissinger — these are not the actions of a strategic genius.
But if Trump’s every move suggests he has something to hide, that does not mean firing Comey will have no impact on the investigation. Trump need not install a more compliant director to further slow its progress. He can, as David Frum has suggested, simply leave the office vacant for months on end, as he has hundreds of others. Neither should Comey’s firing be seen in isolation: this is the third senior legal officer Trump has dismissed, after acting attorney general Sally Yates and New York federal prosecutor Preet Bharara. All three were responsible for various aspects of the Trump-Russia investigation.
As crude and obvious as Trump’s obstruction of justice may appear, in other words, that does not make it any less obstructive, or less defiant of a foundational principle of any law-based state: that no one, no matter how powerful, is above the law. Those fine minds who think the really essential point to make at this moment is that it is “perfectly legal” for Trump to fire the FBI director, or that the Democrats didn’t care much for Comey either, might wish to consider how they became so blind to context. Whatever Trump’s powers, whatever Comey’s mistakes, for the president to fire the FBI director in the very middle of an investigation into his administration — an investigation that, whatever his protestations, is very likely to touch upon the president himself — is self-evidently unacceptable.
The immediate imperative is to see that Trump does not succeed in the attempt: to carry on with the various congressional inquiries into the affair; to appoint a special prosecutor to oversee any criminal investigation; and so on. But the implications of what has just happened go well beyond the specifics of the case.
The comforting supposition that Trump, whatever danger his presidency might present, could be contained by the checks and balances built into the U.S. system, is now very much in doubt. For ultimately checks and balances depend upon a willingness of the president to be so checked and balanced — the very kind of norm that Trump has shown at every turn he is unwilling to observe.
We have been given a picture of the next four years, in which the best-case scenario is that the U.S. continues to drift — distracted, paralyzed, consumed by scandals, with no policy direction but the whims of an increasingly paranoid president and whichever side is ascendant in the constant civil wars within his administration. And the worst case? Oh, how about nuclear war in Korea?
The question is whether this prospect can safely be endured. And the answer, it is now clear, is no. If sense prevailed, the wheels would already be in motion to remove him from office. Alas, political calculations on both sides of the aisle may conspire to leave him there: the Republicans, in dread of the turmoil his removal would unleash among their base; the Democrats, because he may help deliver them the Congress, as early as 2018.
They should think again. The risk is too great, not just to the republic, but to the world.