In our current environment, I think the answer is “no.” Imagine that Hillary Clinton had won the White House in November, and that she’d canned Comey at some point in her first year. Wouldn’t the Right have exploded in exactly the same way as has the Left? Fox News is already selling Trump’s decision as the overture to a potential prosecution of Clinton. Imagine what it would be saying if she were president.
Insofar as it helps us ask the right questions and get closer to the truth, the timing of Trump’s decision matters. But I’m not sure it has made a big difference to the rhetoric we’re seeing. If President Clinton had taken the decision to get rid of Comey on her first day, she would likely have been accused of vindictiveness or of self-protection. Had she done it 100 days in, she’d have been accused of removing the man who was “getting too close.” Whatever she did, she wouldn’t have been able to win.
The same, I’d venture, applies to Barack Obama. Many on both the Left and the Right called for Comey’s head last year. But what would have been the reaction if Obama had actually done it? Wouldn’t he have been accused of “protecting” Hillary and his party? Of taking “revenge”? Of a “cover up”? I rather think he would.
Now, none of this is to say that we shouldn’t be alarmed by Trump’s timing, to imply that he’s in the same position as would Obama and Clinton have been, or to propose that we shouldn’t demand a congressional investigation. We should, he’s not, and we should. Rather it is to suggest that our partisanship has become so pronounced that one can see a sharp case being made against any president who had followed this course. Indeed, it is not too difficult conceive of a similar case against any president who chose not to fire Comey. “He needs to keep him close,” the theorists would have said. Or: “He had to keep Comey there so he didn’t talk.” Or: “By not firing Comey, Obama/Clinton/Trump has kept new blood out of the FBI and ensured that a compromised figure will oversee the investigation.”
What a sad state of affairs.