Trump vs. the Russia Investigations

by Ramesh Ponnuru

When President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, it seemed to me that there were three main possibilities for why.

A The stated rationale was the real one. Trump thought, for example, that Comey’s July press conference about the Clinton-email investigation was improper.

B Trump was angry that Comey had not shut down the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the election because he regards the investigation as part of a Democratic plot to raise baseless questions about his legitimacy as president.

C Trump thought that the FBI’s investigation posed an unacceptably high risk of turning up evidence of serious misconduct on his part.

Explanation A seemed obviously false. At Bloomberg View yesterday morning, I speculated that explanation B was more likely to be true. I take it from the president’s recent comments that explanation B has now emerged as Trump’s public line too.

Explanation B is much more plausible than explanation A. Its adoption by Trump makes it likely that administration spokesmen and surrogates will have to do what he wants them to do: forcefully argue in public that there’s nothing to see with respect to Russia and the investigation is a charade put on by his enemies.

I see two potential problems with this line. The first is that we have seen enough evidence of Russian interference to warrant investigation. A lot of people who don’t want to condemn Trump as a Putin lackey, including a lot of Republican congressmen, have conceded that point. Taking the shut-it-down line will isolate the administration politically. It will make surrogates choose between saying things they’re not comfortable saying, abandoning ship, and laying low for a while.

The second is that it’s not a proper basis for Comey’s dismissal. The president is not supposed to dismiss a law-enforcement official because he thinks that a line of investigation is a waste of time or because it angers him. This should not need explaining and, obviously, it didn’t need explaining to some people around the president, which is why they originally went with explanation A, as risible and doomed as it was.

Did I say two problems? There’s a third one, which is that the current strategy mimics exactly what an administration would do if explanation C were correct.

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