It is possible to underreact to Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey. It is also possible to overreact, which was the approach of most pundits on Twitter last night.
Start with David Frum, a former advocate of Republican moderation who now spends his time hiding behind his hedges and sniping at imaginary Russian agents with a weed whacker. “It’s a coup,” Frum pronounced, and his impressionable legion of Twitter supporters—we’ll call them the Branch Davidians—were off to the barricades. The Constitution does vest full governing power with the FBI, so Frum may have a point there. Elsewhere, public access TV host Keith Olbermann was spasming about, calling Trump a “traitor” and a “dictator,” and labeling a senator who disagreed with him a “fucking Texas fascist Rube.”
Spewing spittle-flecked accusations and advancing paranoia doesn’t make you a defender of democracy; it makes you indistinguishable from the president himself. During these times of scalding partisanship, what’s needed is careful analysis and pursuit of the facts, not conniptions. To begin: last night did not cement collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow—there’s still no hard evidence for that. Comey’s firing was punitive but not a putsch, alarming but not a constitutional crisis, unprecedented but not unlawful, possibly a power grab but not likely to leave Trump with any more authority than he had before.
There may come a break-glass moment in the Donald Trump era, but this was not it.
If anything, Comey’s firing demonstrates my theory that Trump is too inept to consolidate his own power. Politico this morning revealed that the president genuinely thought Democrats would be thrilled to see Comey go, given how biliously they’ve behaved toward him since the presidential campaign. The reality was that Trump left the path to the basket wide open and Chuck Schumer promptly dunked, demanding a special prosecutor in lieu of Comey, a call he repeated on the Senate floor this morning flanked by every sitting Democratic senator.
He’s right, by the way. After such an unprecedented ousting—Comey is the second FBI director fired in history and the first who wasn’t under serious ethical scrutiny—there should be an independent investigation, a point that drew agreement yesterday from plenty of Republicans. Ranks were broken by everyone from John McCain to Justin Amash, an impressive show in an ideologically riven GOP. Trump has accomplished nothing here except, as Dan DePetris put it this morning, turning the bonfire that is the Russia inquiry into an inferno. Contra the Branch Davidians, it will be harder for him to consolidate his power after this, not easier.
There are Inuits without television sets who are laughing at the White House’s explanation for firing Comey. The deputy attorney general somehow typed a memo without any LOLs that claimed the FBI director should be let go because he’d been too unfair to Hillary Clinton. Sure. If anything Trump thought the Bureau didn’t press Clinton hard enough, which is why he critiqued Comey during the campaign for not bringing charges and called on Russia’s immeasurably less restrained intelligence services to leak her missing emails.
So now Trump needs a new FBI director. He’ll have to squeak his pick through a Senate where enough Republicans are skeptical as to ensure he can’t confirm a lackey. Comey is outside of government now with a story to tell and reason for vengeance. The Bureau, where Comey had plenty of loyalists, is reportedly spitting nails—don’t expect “Trumpland” to let go of the Russia investigation anytime soon, and seal the bulkheads: we’re about to be deluged by leaks.
In the middle of this is James Comey, who by now is used to ducking political crossfire. I might be the last pundit in Washington who still has at least some admiration for the former FBI director. He was a hero of the Bush administration, racing Dubya’s henchmen to the hospital to make sure they couldn’t convince a convalescing John Ashcroft to sign off on an unconstitutional wiretapping order. I even sympathize with his plight over the Clinton emails, where he seemed damned if he did notify Congress and damned if he didn’t. If nothing else, Comey is transparently contemptuous of most politicians, a model for us all. He steered a steady course that only ran aground in the last year of his rocky tenure. His fate was, as our president likes to whine, “very unfair.”