When Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, David Frum described it as “a coup.” Writing at Vox, Philip Carter declared the firing “another win for Vladimir Putin.” Laurence Tribe decided to use the T word: treason.
Maybe you believe Donald Trump capable of involving himself in a foreign-led conspiracy that concluded with him becoming president of the United States, only to screw it up by acting in the most guilty way imaginable. But to my eyes this looks more like a case of the E word: Donald Trump was having another episode. He saw something he didn’t like in the media, got angry, and thought he could end it by sending out a pink slip. After all, “You’re fired!” had ended scores of storylines before, hadn’t it?
That might sound like a defense, but it’s not. The administration lied. Rod Rosenstein dutifully produced the official reason, that Director Comey had mishandled the investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s e-mail scandal. But dozens of White House sources and a half-dozen Trump interviews this week confirmed that Comey was fired simply because he annoyed Trump. The giveaway is another word that has featured prominently in coverage of the firing and the potential candidates to assume control of the FBI: Loyalty.
Trump has this idea that the Executive Branch is an extension of the Trump campaign, the Trump brand, or even the Trump family. If the FBI director is someone whom Donald Trump technically employs, and Donald Trump can fire him, then it follows that he ought to be on Team Trump. Instead of being loyal to the country or the law, Trump imagines that everyone on the federal payroll ought to bend the knee. James Comey made the mistake of continuing to appear in headlines or stories that angered Trump, so he had to go. Sad!
I admit that my theory doesn’t offer the psychological kick that the others do. The problem isn’t that Donald Trump is an illegitimate president, empowered by a foreign potentate. It’s that our legitimate president is Donald Trump, star of the Donald Trump show, which has taken quite a dramatic turn as it enters its final run. He wants all the other stars to be committed to the plotline: Donald Trump is our hero. And he wants good ratings, which means he has to keep the drama going.
In a strange way the Comey incident confirms that for Donald Trump almost nothing can be merely political; it’s all personal. Someone with even the most rudimentary political instincts would have counseled Trump against canning Comey while the FBI’s investigation of his campaign and associates was still ongoing, for appearances’ sake. And indeed, those with political instincts did. Steve Bannon, the supposedly vengeful Machiavelli behind the Trump throne, is said to have cautioned the boss that this was an unwise move.
Will this scandal hurt Trump’s presidency? Almost certainly, but only by doing further damage to the public’s already-low opinion of the White House’s competence.
But as predicted, Trump makes everything about his personal relationships and how they play on TV. When foreign leaders pay him a visit, he does not offer the usual canned, anodyne public statements about their meetings, with their talk of “mutual interests” and “cooperation.” Instead, he casts himself and foreign leaders in an ongoing series of buddy-cop movies and romances. “President Xi, we have a, like, a really great relationship,” Trump said to the AP. “Great relationship with Merkel, one of the best,” he told Time. “She loves Ivanka.” There are dramatic reconciliations, too. Weeks after blowing up at Australia’s prime minister, Trump met him and smiled to kick off the next act: “It got a little bit testy. But that’s okay,” he said. Luckily for our nation’s place in the world, Trump treats other leaders like movie-star peers. (He has great “chemistry” with Xi.)
Employees, meanwhile, are afforded no such deference. In fact, James Comey is almost no different to Trump than a media antagonist such as Joe Scarborough or Rosie O’Donnell. The FBI was just part of a media-scape polluted with stories that don’t flatter Trump. It was time, as Trump likes to say, to fire Comey “like a dog.” And then tweet about it. Get the casting agents to Pennsylvania Ave., pronto.
Will this scandal hurt Trump’s presidency? Almost certainly, but only by doing further damage to the public’s already-low opinion of the White House’s competence. Who wants to work in an administration that will turn on you like this if circumstance should temporarily put you at public odds with the boss?
Will it hurt Trump politically in the long run? I dare not say for sure. But if gross-out digressions about blood — whether a pig’s or Megyn Kelly’s — didn’t turn off enough Americans to sink him, I doubt the impolitic dumping of a lawman will.
For all I know, this style of governance will work to Trump’s advantage. Cable-news ratings are up. Newspaper subscriptions, too. It may be a rolling disaster. But I can’t stop watching. Can you?