Politics & Policy

Comey’s Firing and the Price of Blind Partisanship

James Comey prepares to testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee (Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)
Getting rid of an FBI director who had lost his credibility was going to generate conspiracy theories no matter what.

If there was one sentiment that had rippled through the bases of both major political parties by the end of the 2016 election cycle, it was that FBI Director James Comey should be fired. The trouble was that it had never gripped both parties at the same time. So when President Trump finally did on Tuesday evening what just about everyone believed necessary at one point or another during the course of the last year, reactions to Comey’s firing weren’t just predictably partisan. The knee-jerk impulse of Democrats to impute the decision to a potential conspiracy to cover up a crime committed by Trump tells us all we need to know about what’s wrong with our political culture in 2017.

There’s no question that Comey’s various inconsistent statements and decisions during the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation impacted the outcome of the presidential election. His controversial and arguably indefensible decision to spare her from prosecution even while denouncing her behavior saved Clinton from destruction in the summer, while his decision to inform Congress that he was re-opening the investigation in late October may well have sealed her fate. Such antics would have merited his firing no matter who had won in November, and there were many on both sides of the aisle who said so at the time.

But in a bifurcated society in which both political camps go beyond believing each other capable of grave wrongdoing to treat their foes as guilty of unspecified crimes until proven innocent, it’s a given that any hiring or firing in the Justice Department or the FBI will be treated as a rerun of Richard Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre.” We know that had Clinton won and then fired Comey, many on the right might be connecting some conspiratorial dots of their own. If instead she had kept him on there would have been no shortage of Republicans who would have assumed that it was a reward for his original decision not to indict her or his statement days before the vote that the investigation really was over. Many Democrats thought the same thing when it appeared that Trump was prepared to live with Comey.

So those analyzing the firing shouldn’t pretend that this is matter of bad timing. While it would have been better for everyone had Comey just resigned after the election, the same firestorm of liberal criticism aimed at Trump today would have been just as loud had he canned Comey at any other point during his first months in office. Whether or not one wants to accept the credible White House argument that the president was waiting for the confirmation of the deputy Attorney General to do the deed — since Attorney General Sessions had recused himself from the FBI investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — is beside the point. By now, Democrats are willing to do or say anything to revive the dubious theory that the Putin regime’s interference in the election was coordinated with Trump’s team.

The full story of Russia’s election interference and its contacts with the Trump campaign is still yet to be told. But let’s not pretend the insinuation that Trump fired Comey in order to halt that investigation is based on anything other than Democratic wishful thinking. No proof of any criminal connection has yet been produced, and given the way Washington works, if such evidence had been uncovered it would already have been leaked to the media. Nor are Democrats sure what laws Trump is supposed to have violated or what crime it is that the special prosecutor they demand be unleashed against the administration would actually investigate. Other, that is, than vague charges of treason that presume Trump’s guilt rooted in a desire to make the bad dream of his Electoral College victory go away.

But what is really at the core of this controversy isn’t a debate about Comey’s high-handed approach to his job and the careless way he dragged the FBI’s good name into the mud, alienating both Republicans and Democrats. It’s the poison of blind partisanship that views the FBI as a weapon to be deployed against political enemies.

By now, Democrats are willing to do or say anything to revive the dubious theory that the Putin regime’s interference in the election was coordinated with Trump’s team.

The Comey fight is just another chapter in a series of partisan battles in which both sides have sought to use the law to achieve a political victory. The long partisan battle over Clinton’s e-mails, in which conservatives were prepared to assume the worst about the former First Lady’s intentions, has now been replaced with one in which Trump is charged by liberals with having stolen the election and now seeking to cover up his crimes. While the evidence of Clinton’s malfeasance was far stronger than the evidence supporting the muddled allegations against Trump, the two parties have played identical roles here. When Republicans waxed indignant about Clinton’s prevarications and rule-breaking, Democrats ignored evidence of her lies and wrongdoing and dismissed the whole affair as a fishing expedition. The same thing is happening now with respect to Russia and Trump, the only difference being that Democrats are the ones spouting righteous indignation and Republicans are saying it’s a witch hunt.

There were good reasons to think Clinton was in the wrong and, if the Democrats are lucky, perhaps someday something might surface in the Russia investigation to embarrass Trump and the GOP, unlikely though that seems right now. But if Republicans wanted to “lock her up” and Democrats now fantasize about impeachment, their reasons were and are political rather than altruistic.

We will hear a lot in the coming days from Trump’s defenders about why Comey deserved firing, while Democrats will huff and puff that Trump was motivated by a desire to squelch the Russia investigation, even if Clinton would have lost the election without any help from Moscow. But none of this is really about an FBI director who destroyed his credibility during the 2016 campaign or whether Trump is guilty of anything besides winning an election that Democrats thought they couldn’t lose.

Like it or not, we live in a society where half the country reads, listens to, and watches news that pushes one reality and the other half consumes a competing reality. It’s a country in which the 48 percent who voted for Clinton think the 46 percent who voted for Trump are out to destroy democracy and vice versa. In such a political culture, there’s no such thing as an issue that can be discussed in a nonpartisan way. Comey’s long-overdue firing would have generated conspiracy theories and outrage no matter who did the deed.


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