Shortly after taking office as the 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson briefly considered firing then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. But Johnson was no fool, he knew that Hoover kept files of dirt on hundreds of politicians. LBJ decided to keep him on. "I'd rather have him inside the tent pissing out," the 36th President famously concluded, "than outside the tent pissing in."
That is not the path that Donald Trump has chosen. Rather than thinking through the consequences of firing the man overseeing the Russia-Trump investigation, Trump threw caution to the wind and decided to unceremoniously and publicly fire his FBI Director.
One week into his presidency, Trump summoned then-FBI Director Comey to dinner in the White House, where, like a newly installed third-world dictator, asked Comey to "pledge his loyalty" to him. Trump had good reason for concern. Two weeks earlier, Comey had privately briefed Trump on the infamous Russia dossier, prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele. The dossier described the involvement of Trump campaign officials in Russia's efforts to sway the results of the US presidential election, and the FBI was clearly taking it seriously enough to bring it to Trump's attention.
As in all matters related to the Russia affair, there was an inherent asymmetry in information between the two men. Donald Trump, after all, knew the truth of whatever had transpired between his campaign and Russia's efforts to sway our election, while James Comey was the FBI Director tasked with ferreting out the truth.
If Chris Steele's dossier is substantially correct--if there was, in fact, coordination between senior members of the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin's inner circle to undermine Hillary Clinton--an independent James Comey, unbound by a pledge of fealty to the President, represented an existential threat to Trump's presidency. If, on the other hand, the Steele dossier is a complete fabrication, and was never any involvement by Trump associates in Russia's efforts to meddle in our election, as Trump has insisted, then Trump had nothing to fear from Comey, and, in particular, nothing that would make firing Comey worth the political cost. At that dinner--as at the time that Comey briefed Trump about the dossier--Trump knew the truth, while Comey did not.
We have no idea whether in the intervening months James Comey has developed any greater insights into what actually transpired with respect to Russian meddling and the Trump campaign. All we know is that based on the reporting over the past two days, it is apparent that after that January dinner--when Comey apparently declined to pledge his loyalty to Trump--both Trump and Comey believed that it was only a matter of time before the President fired Comey.
The peculiar aspect of Comey's firing was how Trump chose to handle it. Instead of replacing Comey in a respectful and orderly manner, Trump clearly decided to do it in as disrespectful manner as he could. There was no face to face meeting, not even a phone call. Comey was not offered a chance to resign to spend more time with his family--the norm in these situations--or given the respectful send-off normally accorded a person in his position. Instead, Trump had his long-time bodyguard deliver the letter firing Comey to the FBI headquarters while Comey was out of town. Comey actually learned about his firing from a cable news broadcast while he was giving a presentation at the FBI office in Los Angeles.
It was not enough to unceremoniously show Comey the door, Trump then made sure to insult and kick him on the way out. He went out of his way to attack Comey on Twitter, with his own tweets as well as retweeting a hit piece on Comey circulated by the Drudge Report. Then--with no sense of irony--he went on to deride Comey as a grandstander and a showboat.
Comey is an institutionalist, and he understood from the outset that, notwithstanding his 10-year appointment, he served at the pleasure of the President, and could be dismissed at any time. It seems likely that if Trump had dismissed him with the respect and decorum due a person of his stature, Comey would have exited the stage quietly and let his successor deal with Russia, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. In contrast with LBJ’s acknowledgement that it is best not to pick a fight with a man who has the capacity to retaliate, Trump has gone out of his way to pick a fight with Comey.
Trump seems to believe that he can defeat Comey one-on-one in the court of public opinion, but he has a tin ear when it comes to understanding the consequences of his own declining personal credibility. His only contact with the public is his campaign rallies, where his adoring supporters mislead him into believing that he has his finger on the pulse of the nation, and that the only problem he has is with Democrats who remain embittered over the election outcome. His problems, however, go much deeper than that.
The Quinnipiac Poll released this week showed a continued decline in Trump’s poll numbers, with his generic job approval rating down to 36 percent job approval, with only 33 poercen of those polled believing he is honest. The Republican Congress represents Trump’s Maginot Line against whatever might transpire with respect to investigations into the Russia affair. Until now, Republicans in Congress have been terrified of crossing Trump and his supporters, but that fear will ebb as Trump’s poll numbers decline and members look to protect themselves as their reelection in 2018 approaches. In a similar vein, Republicans in Congress cannot have missed the large number of empty seats at Trump’s most recent rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Those empty seats mirrored the 10 percent decline in support among the Trump base evidenced in the Q-poll.
LBJ's admonition threatens to loom large over the coming weeks. By firing Comey, Trump has accomplished the opposite of what he intended; he put the Russia investigation on the front burner, and he has done so at a moment when his hold over Republicans in Congress is beginning to wane. By his own actions and insults, he has made an enemy of the man who knows the details of that investigation better than anyone. And he has removed any obligation for James Comey to keep what he knows to himself. Revenge, as they say, is a dish best eaten cold, and it is hard to imagine that Comey is not going to make Trump regret his words.
Follow David Paul on Twitter @dpaul. Artwork by Jay Duret. Check out his political cartooning at www.jayduret.com. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.