Donald Trump hasn’t even been in office for four whole months, and already he’s being compared to Richard Nixon. That is both stunning as well as somewhat expected, really. Just on personality alone, Trump seems the most Nixonian figure to occupy the Oval Office since Tricky Dick himself roamed the hallways. Sooner or later, Trump’s penchant for vengeance against his perceived enemies was going to cause some problems. It’s now obvious that “sooner” won out over “later.”
The two men aren’t exactly peas in a pod, however. Nixon built his political career on red-baiting, and he was second only to Joe McCarthy in seeing Communists everywhere. So it’s pretty tough to imagine Nixon being Trump’s buddy, what with all of Team Trump’s ties to Russia. Nixon might not have publicly labeled Trump a Commie or a Pinko, but it’s hard to picture Nixon being some sort of elder statesman giving Trump expert advice. Then again, Henry Kissinger just surprised everyone with a photo op at the White House, so who really knows?
What Trump and Nixon would see eye-to-eye on, it is now obvious, is how to deal with inconvenient Justice Department investigations ― if the investigation gets too close, just fire the head investigator. If the head of the F.B.I. won’t just make an investigation go quietly away, then hand him his hat and show him the door.
As with most things Trump does, the entire process was pretty badly handled. Trump reportedly decided last week to get rid of James Comey (just as Comey was asking for more resources for his Russia investigation), so Trump told his loyalists to find a plausible reason for firing Comey. The reason they came up with, however, is so transparently false (and downright laughable) that no one in their right mind believes it. Trump fired Comey for being too hard on Hillary Clinton, and interjecting himself into a presidential race? Um, OK... and I’ve got a beautiful bridge in Brooklyn to sell you, too.
Personally, I’m glad Comey is gone. I think Comey acted in a manner not seen at the F.B.I. since the days of J. Edgar Hoover. Comey might not have “had a file on everybody” or directly threatened politicians with blackmail, but he certainly did put a rather large thumb on the scale during the election by publicly discussing the case against Hillary Clinton, while refusing to even admit there was a concurrent case against Donald Trump. That was unconscionable, which is why I am shedding no tears at Comey’s departure.
However, that certainly doesn’t preclude me from being astonished at how Trump fired Comey. If Trump had dumped him during his first week in office, it probably would have been seen as just extended housecleaning for a new administration. He chose not to. Instead, Trump was reportedly incensed at Comey’s continuing investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign and the Trump administration. Trump really wants this investigation to just go away, but he’s finding out that that’s not the way things work in Washington. By firing Comey now, Trump has instead poured gasoline on the fire. By offering up a laughably false reason for the firing, Trump has assured that the investigation will remain front and center for a long time to come, and this may be the final straw that leads to an independent prosecutor looking into the whole mess. That is not exactly the outcome Trump planned, to state the obvious. If Richard Nixon were still alive, he could have told Trump that his own Saturday Night Massacre didn’t really work out too well for him, either.
Now all it is going to take is three Senate Republicans to join with Democrats in demanding an independent prosecutor to force the Justice Department to take action. The next F.B.I. director has to be confirmed by the Senate, and if Democrats are smart they will vote against any candidate who does not pledge to immediately do so. If three Republicans agree, it will force the issue.
Independent prosecutors have wide-ranging powers, of course. That’s their whole point, really. Ken Starr started with a land deal in Arkansas and wound up with sexual misconduct in the Oval Office. Who knows where a Trump investigation of the same caliber would lead? The possibilities really seem almost endless. Trump’s taxes would obviously be the first place such an investigator would look, to see how involved Trump’s businesses have been with Russia and Russian banks over the years. But that’d just be a starting point, really. The question of whether Trump was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians would also be a key area to investigate.
Rather than dousing the smoking ashes of the Russia scandal, Trump has fanned the flames by firing Comey. Even Republicans are now shying away from even making the attempt at defending Trump’s action. Far from going quietly away, the Trump/Russia scandal is now guaranteed to be around for many months to come. The cloud that already hung over the Trump administration just got darker and bigger, and isn’t going away any time soon. There are many such metaphors one might use, at this point. John McCain has been using one (that I had never heard before) to describe the continuing scandal ― it’s a “centipede,” McCain says, because there are so many more shoes that are left to drop. He’s probably right about that.
Donald Trump, by all appearances, seems to be desperately trying to hide something. After all, if there was nothing to find, why take the drastic step of firing the head of the F.B.I.? So far there’s been no smoking gun uncovered (by which I mean “an impeachable offense”), but we’re still in the early days of the investigation, and as McCain points out, there are other shoes yet to fall.
What will be ironic in the extreme, however, is if Trump firing Comey leads directly to a special prosecutor being named ― which leads directly to Trump’s removal from office. Because then a man whose signature catchphrase (before he entered politics) was: “You’re fired!” would have undone himself by uttering that very line to the wrong person at the wrong time.
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