Let’s begin with this premise: It is vitally important for the health of our democracy that our nation fully investigate both the extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election, and whether anti-Trump or anti-Russia hysteria led government officials to abuse their power or break the law in an effort to embarrass or discredit a new American administration. In a poisonous national atmosphere dominated by wild conspiracy theories, there is a crying need for a sober, independent, and trustworthy voice to investigate and articulate the key facts in a manner that builds confidence in the integrity of our government and the health of our democratic institutions.
And that’s exactly why President Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey, while defensible in the abstract (as my colleagues have ably argued), is profoundly, deeply flawed in context. There are three ongoing investigations of Russian interference — at the FBI, in the House, and in the Senate — and two of them have been thrown into chaos. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, engaged in a bizarre series of acts that seemed far more calculated to help Trump win a news cycle than to meaningfully advance a vital investigation. He then (rightly) recused himself from the Russia probe. Now the FBI has lost its leader, leaving only the Senate Intelligence Committee — which has (thankfully) conducted itself thus far with professionalism and integrity.
But that’s not all. It’s important to remember that the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has also recused himself from the investigation because of problematic (to put it mildly) testimony during his Senate confirmation hearing. Additionally, Trump has lost a campaign chairman (Paul Manafort), a foreign-policy adviser (Carter Page), and a national-security adviser (Michael Flynn) in large part because of their own problematic Russia ties.
Trump has lost advisers. He’s fired one of his chief investigators. Others have been forced to recuse themselves.
All of this compounds Trump’s pre-existing trust problem. Trump and his team have misled the public, repeatedly, about contacts with Russia, and new reporting shows there is reason to be concerned that Trump’s explanation for firing Comey (that he mishandled the Clinton e-mail investigation) is sheer pretext. Here’s Politico, this morning, reporting on Trump’s alleged mindset:
He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.
This is troubling, especially considering two other, additional facts. First, as Jim Geraghty notes this morning, Trump met with Comey in January and reportedly assured him that his job was secure. Keep in mind, in January we knew all the material facts about Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail controversy, the very controversy that allegedly cost him his job.
Second, the New York Times (and multiple additional news outlets) are reporting that Trump fired Comey just after he asked for additional resources for the Russia probe:
Days before he was fired, James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, asked the Justice Department for a significant increase in money and personnel for the bureau’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, according to three officials with knowledge of his request.
Mr. Comey asked for the resources during a meeting last week with Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who wrote the Justice Department’s memo that was used to justify the firing of the F.B.I. director this week.
The Department of Justice is denying these allegations, but the reports undeniably compound Trump’s problems. Trump fired Comey for months-old misconduct — after reassuring him that he could keep his job — just as Comey escalated an investigation that is so infuriating to Trump that it causes him to reportedly scream at the television? Nothing about that builds confidence. Nothing about that says that Trump’s primary concern is the integrity of the FBI.
The crisis we face isn’t ‘constitutional,’ it’s a crisis of confidence in our public institutions.
At the same time, however, online talk of a constitutional crisis is premature, to say the least. Trump can and should repair at least a measure of the damage by choosing an outstanding and respected replacement for Comey, a person who will pledge to continue the Russia investigation to its completion. Congress can and should establish a select committee to investigate Russian electoral interference and potential American governmental misconduct, including potential abuses of power and unlawful leaks.
Amidst all the outrage and fury, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we still don’t have a single credible report of collusion between Trump-campaign officials and Russian intelligence. At the same time, we still don’t know the full story of Russian efforts to disrupt our presidential election. The crisis we face isn’t “constitutional,” it’s a crisis of confidence in our public institutions. In an atmosphere of mistrust, conspiracy theories proliferate. By firing James Comey, Trump made the decisive case for a truly independent investigation. May it commence with all deliberate speed.