Let’s dispense with ambiguity. What happened Tuesday was the work of a man who believes he is above the law, a man who believes the law must answer to him rather than the other way around, a man who is clearly nervous that James Comey was getting too close to the truth for comfort. President Trump’s firing of the FBI director in the midst of Comey’s investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia is the act of an autocrat, and a direct attack on democracy. As legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said on CNN, it is a “grotesque abuse of power.”
Trump’s action has been labeled Nixonian; numerous comparisons have been made to the 1973 Saturday night massacre. And for good reason. The echoes of Watergate are impossible to ignore. The firing is a huge conflict of interest, and obviously part of a cover-up. There is no other reasonable explanation for its timing. In a news conference Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested a cover-up. President Trump unwittingly made it crystal clear in his letter requesting Comey’s resignation that this is part of a cover-up. Unlike the letter written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which blames the firing on Comey’s missteps in the Clinton investigation, Mr. Trump’s letter does not mention Clinton: it focuses on Russia.
“While I greatly appreciate your informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
Comey has in fact confirmed that the FBI is investigating potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. It is an investigation that could eventually take down the president and some of his inner circle. That is what keeps Trump up at night, and that is what motivated him to fire Comey. I am no fan of the former FBI director, but if they were going to fire him over the Clinton debacle, they would have done it a long time ago.
And now what? Who is going to get Comey’s job? Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie? Or, perhaps it will be someone with a modicum of integrity. But no matter who Mr. Trump names, the American public will not be able to trust the new FBI director because he (it will never be a woman) will have been appointed by President Trump. And if that person does continue to conduct an investigation, it’s a pretty good bet that they will eventually meet the same fate as Comey, Sally Yates and Preet Bharara.
There is only one solution here and that is, as many Democrats including Senator Schumer have called for, a special prosecutor to investigate the possible Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the election. There must be independence, credibility and urgency, and that, as we all sadly know, falls to the Republicans to make happen.
Who is going to stand up in the Republican Party and be the Howard Baker “What did he know and when did he know it” of this defining political moment? Jeff Flake, Richard Burr, John McCain? Who is going to convince the rest of his party to finally put country over party? A growing number of Republicans are questioning Trump’s decision to fire Comey now, but the bigger question is, what will they do about it beyond tweeting or appearing on cable news shows?
The president’s firing of James Comey is, at first glance, a bullet to the Republic. On the surface, the firing dealt a major blow to our democratic system, to our checks and balances. But it may be something else in the end. It may be political suicide. By many accounts, the Trump White House was caught off-guard by the political fallout immediately following the news. That in itself is astounding – how is it possible that his people didn’t realize how big a story this would be, how suspicious the timing is? Judging by the reaction in Washington and around the country, the bullet may ricochet back to the White House, where the trigger was pulled in the first place. That may be magical thinking, but it would be, my fellow Americans, what we call justice.