Some of you readers seem to think that I am focused on whether or not Russia hacked the US election, and that my disgust with Trump over the Comey firing has to do with a desire to get to the bottom of the Russia mystery. You’re wrong.
I don’t really care about Russia in this matter. I assume that they did try to hack our election, just as the US tries to do in many countries around the world. I think it’s important to get to the bottom of the story. But it doesn’t trouble me all that much.
Nor am I troubled in principle by James Comey’s firing. As has been reported this week, Comey was far from irreproachable in his stewardship of the FBI. Whether or not Comey was actually fired for legitimate reasons, there were legitimate reasons to fire him, if you follow me.
What does trouble me is the outrageous behavior of the president this week. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that he is completely innocent in the Russia matter, or at least genuinely believes himself innocent. It has become clear by week’s end that the reason he fired Comey, or at least a major reason, was the president’s frustration over the Russia case.
It has been claimed that Trump asked Comey privately for his “loyalty” — a claim that is completely believable, given that Trump is well known for placing a high premium on loyalty. For a president to ask the FBI director to pledge his personal loyalty is outrageous. The FBI director is under the president’s authority, as a member of the executive branch, but he must be loyal to the law. Period. That Trump doesn’t grasp this is … well, very Donald Trump, but it’s troubling to have a man like that in the Oval Office.
Second, Trump blew up the White House’s credibility (such as it was) by sending his staff, as well as the vice president, out to lie for him. In charity, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they were telling the truth as they believed it to be. Trump cut the legs out from under them later in the week with his NBC interview. Who can believe a thing the White House spokesmen say going forward? As Chris Wallace of Fox News said yesterday, a particular exchange on Friday between Sean Spicer and a reporter was stunning, especially coming at the end of a week like this one:
“That was what in Watergate they called a non-denial denial. He was asked specifically, is there a recording device in the Oval Office of the President of the United States? He said, ‘I have nothing for you on that.’ He could have said no. He could have said yes. He said I have nothing for you on that. That is a non-denial denial. Look, it may just be that the President is trolling the press corps and saying work yourself into a frenzy about this and turns out it nothing. But why would he do that? Why would he want to decrease the credibility which is already in question of this White House and comments made from that podium? It seems to me that you’re playing a very dangerous game with the currency of the credibility of the President of the United States.”
Many of you pushed back on my claim yesterday that this Trump tweet constituted an attempt to blackmail the former FBI director:
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
I can see why some of you read a blackmail claim as too extreme, but I stand by it. What Trump said here was an attempt to silence Comey with a threat to expose contents of a private conversation between the president and the nation’s top law enforcement officer. Again, I find this despicable as a matter of practice. But what is more troubling is the idea that the president is secretly recording visitors to the White House, even those who give him advice that might rightly be regarded as confidential. Trump may be bluffing here, but even if he is, he wants Comey to worry that everything he may have told the president privately may be made public — this in an effort to prevent Comey from talking to the media.
Even if that does not bother you, even if you think that’s nothing more than hardball politics, you should be worried about Trump’s impulsiveness in this matter. Now Trump has raised the possibility that the president is secretly recording things in the White House — a possibility that means every single one of those conversations are, by a law passed after Watergate, available to Congress. From CNN:
But it’s the court cases and laws stemming from Nixon’s secret recordings that could send Trump’s tweet backfiring.
That’s because Congress in 1974 passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act that designated tapes like those Nixon recorded as presidential records that must be preserved in federal archives.
“If Trump installed a taping system … those are federal records thanks to Nixon’s court challenges,” said Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian and Nixon expert.
That means it’s illegal to destroy presidential recordings and they could by subpoenaed by, say, Congress — which is part of the reason why no president since Nixon has installed recording devices in the Oval Office.
Trump and Comey had their consequential discussion over dinner. It is possible that the president had his smartphone in his pocket recording the conversation. If so, that recording is now federal property, and if Trump orders its destruction, he has broken federal law. I don’t know what it would take to get Congress to put any potential recordings under subpoena, but I hope it moves quickly to do so, to protect them.
Here’s the thing, as a purely political matter: Trump, in the space of a week, has personally caused the greatest crisis of his presidency, entirely through his own impulsive and undisciplined actions. He is blowing up his presidency all by himself. If Trump really has been secretly recording people he talks to in the White House, he was a fool to raise the prospect publicly, because now he has signaled to Congress and the public that these federally protected recordings might exist. Had he not sent the Comey threat tweet, he would be in the clear.
But Trump cannot help himself. Ever.
Trump partisans need to step back and think about what this means for the GOP’s agenda. Mike Allen writes that Republican lawmakers on the Hill are deeply discouraged over this week’s events. Why? In part:
- This kills momentum on legislating, and unifies Democrats in opposition to everything they want to do.
- This makes it easier for Democrats to recruit quality candidates and raise money for the off-year elections.
- It sours swing voters.
- It puts them on the defensive at home. They want to talk tax reform and deregulation — not secret tapes and Russian intrigue.
- But mainly it reinforces their greatest fear: Trump will never change. They keep praying he’ll discipline himself enough to get some big things done. Yet they brace for more of this.
Few people would have predicted that even Trump could screw up this badly. But he has, and he has because he can’t control himself. Now he has put GOP members of Congress in a terrible position, especially those facing re-election bids in 2018 (as all House members do). Do they defend this president when his actions seem indefensible, thus enabling him to carry on? Or do they step away from them, afraid of what politically insane and possibly illegal thing he will do next?
At this rate, Trump’s astonishing, world-historic win in 2016 may turn out to be a spectacularly Pyrrhic victory for the Republican party. Trump is giving the weakened Democrats all the ammunition they need to mount a devastating comeback. For conservatives like me who were pleased to see the GOP establishment take a walloping from Trump, and who would like to see the Republican party remade in a more populist way, the president is making fools of us all.
If this is “winning,” what, pray tell, is losing?
UPDATE: Michael Brendan Dougherty nails it. Excerpts:
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!
UPDATE.2: Douthat’s right: Trump is nuts. He might be evil too, but based on what we know about his personality, his firing of Comey could easily have been triggered by nothing more than Trump was tired of putting up with him. No conspiracy theory is necessary.