President Trump’s firing of James Comey revealed strange timing, herky-jerky methods, and bad political optics.
Certainly, in the existential political war that Trump finds himself in, it would have been wiser, first, to have rallied his entire White House team and congressional leaders around the decision and established a shared narrative, to have been magnanimous to the departing James Comey, and to have had obtained private guarantees from a preselected successor that he or she would serve and be appointed within a day or two.
The head of the FBI (quite outside his purview as an investigatory official) announced in summer 2016 to the nation that he had decided not to seek an indictment of Hillary Clinton. Then, again in the role of a presumed federal attorney, he seemed to reverse that judgment by reopening his investigation. Then he appeared to re-reverse that decision — all at the height of a heated presidential campaign.
Throughout such a bizarre sequence, Comey stuck to a (flawed) exegesis about the nature of federal statutes in question (intent is not a mitigating circumstance in the felonious insecure transmission of classified federal documents).
Last summer, the many-headed Comey apparently believed that he would face no consequences for his moth-to-the flame desire for public showmanship — given the widely shared belief that Hillary Clinton was going to be president and that Loretta Lynch would probably continue on as attorney general. (Lynch met privately with Bill Clinton on the tarmac five days before Hillary Clinton’s FBI interview, and, around the same time, Clinton allies said that Hillary was considering retaining Lynch as the attorney general.)
In Comey’s case, in his public and congressional statements, he repeatedly emphasized that he was conducting an ongoing investigation of possible “collusion” between Putin and those who surrounded Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Yet at the same time, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had casually exonerated Trump from just those charges of collaborating with the Russians. Comey may have confirmed that in private to some senators.
In contrast, in the past, Comey had foolishly put some currency in an unsourced and unverified but tawdry and soon-leaked Fusion GPS dossier of supposed Trump sexual antics in Moscow — fake news stories generated, as Comey should have known, by opposition researchers funded first by Republican Never Trump operatives and then by the hit teams of the Clinton campaign.
Yet Comey was uncharacteristically quiet about ongoing disclosures that members of the Obama administration had unmasked names of people surveilled by intelligence agencies. At best, if true, the administration unduly revealed identities and then leaked them to the press; and at worst, it deliberately reverse-targeted political opponents, on the pretext that normal monitoring of Russian officials had, mirabile dictu, caught up Trump associates. Either way, it illegally leaked classified material.
Comey probably understood that keeping silent about FBI inquiries into alleged collusion with the Russians could earn bad enough press to endanger his career. And in the opposite fashion, he seemed to think it was wiser to remain mute about FBI investigations into why and how the administration had surveilled American citizens and then leaked their names to pet reporters.
In the end, Comey’s gymnastics were too clever by half, and he strategized himself out of a job. One of his legacies will be that Hillary Clinton broke the law in using an unsecured server, illegally passed on classified materials, destroyed a great deal of evidence, and participated in Clinton Foundation payola through the cheapening of her position as secretary of state — and got off not just scot-free but outraged that anyone would suggest she should face any consequences whatsoever.
Janet Napolitano’s Slush Fund
The larger problem with modern government is not that high federal and state officials like the megalomaniac James Comey are sometimes fired (they rarely willingly resign in the fashion of the British or Japanese), but they are almost never let go.
We live in a private-guilt rather than a public-shame culture. The now stereotypical “I take full responsibility” fillip of the state apparatchik, by its mere utterance, is supposed to exonerate culpable officials, regardless of the turmoil that their substandard performance has spawned or the absence of real sacrifice that follows such loud penance.
Currently, a University of California internal audit has revealed some rather shocking behavior on the part of Janet Napolitano, president of the UC system.
Her office has requested tuition increases. Student debt is reaching all-time highs in California. At a time that the over-taxed state is facing billion-dollar budget deficits, some retired UC professors are reported to have been earning more than $300,000 in pensions while returning as emeriti instructors; this maxes out their total state compensation at more than a half-million dollars a year. And yet Napolitano apparently failed to disclose that she had accumulated a slush fund of some $175 million in reserve cash.
Her stash reportedly was the result of a long and deliberate practice of requesting far more money that she actually planned to spend. That way, she freed up capital for her own agendas — one of which seems to have been to fund lavish retirement parties. Over four years, Napolitano inter alia also billed the university more than $200,000 a year for her personal apartment. UC, like many contemporary progressive institutions, has a paradoxical view of capitalism and its fruits: Progressive social-justice warriors must be well accommodated first, if, second, they are to advance social justice.
Even as Napolitano championed social-justice agendas, from global warming to safe and sanctuary spaces, she seemed to adopt an imperial lifestyle at public expense.
Even as Napolitano (infamous as Homeland Security secretary for authorizing a memo suggesting that returning military veterans and right-wingers rather than radical Islamists posed the greatest terrorist threat to national security) championed social-justice agendas, from global warming to safe and sanctuary spaces, she seemed to adopt an imperial lifestyle at public expense.
Will she be fired for gross negligence? Malfeasance?
Probably not — and for a variety of well-known reasons.
Savvy public officials purchase de facto indemnity insurance by professing progressive solidarity. Napolitano learned long ago — during her various missteps in the Obama administration — that “noble” aims can more than justify unsavory means to obtain them. In contrast, had she entered UC from the corporate world, had she supported issues such as guaranteeing free speech on campus, or had she opposed the spread of segregated safe spaces and campus attacks on invited speakers, then she probably would have been fired over this latest scandal.
Susan Rice’s Many Dissimulations
Susan Rice managed to be at the center of almost every major Obama-administration scandal involving national security. She lied repeatedly on national television about the cause and nature of the Benghazi killings. She misled the U.N. about the nature of humanitarian and no-fly-zone resolutions in Libya, in order to facilitate bombing Qaddafi out of power. She fantasized about the Bowe Bergdahl swap and in Orwellian fashion assured the nation that the AWOL soldier had “served with honor and distinction” before being captured on the field of battle as a POW; “Sergeant Bergdahl wasn’t simply a hostage; he was an American prisoner of war captured on the battlefield,” she said.
She was a party to the dissimulations about the Iran Deal side agreements (whose sordid details are slowly trickling out), falsely assuring the nation that there was no connection between cash payments to the Iranians and the release of American hostages.
By any fair measure, Rice at some point deserved to be fired. Instead, after the Benghazi debacle, she was promoted from U.N. ambassador to national-security adviser.
She had insisted to the nation that the Assad regime had destroyed all its Sarin gas weaponry: “We were able to get the Syrian government to voluntarily and verifiably give up its chemical-weapons stockpile.” And she uttered this just months before Assad once again gassed his own people.
Plus, in all likelihood, she was central to the unmasking of American citizens surveilled by intelligence agencies during the last election cycle and then leaking their identities to pet reporters.
By any fair measure, Rice at some point deserved to be fired. Instead, after the Benghazi debacle, she was promoted from U.N. ambassador to national-security adviser, a post in which she served a full term.
Lois Lerner’s Corruption: More Than a Smidgeon
Lois Lerner, a high-ranking executive at the IRS, resigned under conservative pressure after staging a sort of fake question-and-answer confessional during a panel discussion that disclosed she had targeted conservative groups for undue IRS scrutiny. Like Napolitano and Rice, Lerner understood that she had purchased indemnity with her political partisanship. Barack Obama ultimately characterized her behavior as evincing “not even a smidgeon” of corruption. And why not, given that many conservative groups were defanged by the IRS during the critical months of the 2012 election campaign?
The list could be expanded, but the message is clear. Rarely do presidents or governors fire miscreant government officials — unless they judge that they have become political liabilities, a status that is largely determined by politicized media coverage. Of course, that reality is known in advance by bureaucrats who make the necessary careerist political adjustments.
Donald ‘You’re Fired’ Trump
Into this matrix barged politically incorrect and often mercurial Donald Trump, whose past televised celebrity was largely a result of hosting a reality show in which he ostentatiously fired poor performers.
Trump’s misdemeanor was not that he fired someone who deserved to be fired, but that he did so as if he were still the host of The Apprentice rather than the president of the United States.
The real felony remains the exemptions given to high officials such as Lerner, Napolitano, and Rice who have wreaked havoc because they assume they will never be fired.
Yet the real felony remains the exemptions given to high officials such as Lerner, Napolitano, and Rice who have wreaked havoc because they assume they will never be fired. Even a badly conducted severing of a culpable government head is always preferable to an adroit exemption from any consequences. The one is rare and salutary, the other is commonplace and insidious.
Cry not for the firing of James Comey, but for the thousands of Americans who suffer from these incompetent and haughty officials who are never held accountable.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, to appear in October from Basic Books.