The irony was too rich.
President Donald Trump meets with the Russian foreign minister the day after he fires the man who’s heading the investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia on election meddling.
You needn’t be clairvoyant to imagine what Sergei Lavrov must be thinking: “The Kremlin doesn’t need to waste time trying to undermine Americans’ faith in their institutions. Trump is doing that fine on his own.”
Trump’s decision to axe FBI Director James Comey will fray Americans’ faith in the independence of their law enforcement agencies. But it won’t – as Trump may hope – revive his dream of doing a grand political deal with Moscow. Not at all.
Only the brain dead could believe the cynical rationale given by the Trump Justice Department for the Tuesday Night Massacre. (Those under a certain age please Google: Richard Nixon, 1973 Saturday Night Massacre, Watergate.)
Supposedly, Comey was fired because of incompetence in the handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails. But Trump is on video showering Comey with praise for the very acts that are at the heart of the Justice Department’s case against him: Comey’s unprofessional public criticism of Clinton and his last-minute reopening of her case just before the election.
Comey wasn’t booted because he helped Trump win the White House.
As Trump’s tweets made clear, his beef with the FBI director was that he was too independent. Comey ultimately exonerated Clinton of any crime and refuted the president’s false claims that President Barack Obama tapped his phone at Trump Tower.
But the lawman really did himself in when he confirmed to Congress in March that the FBI was investigating Trump advisers’ links to Russia. He was trying to speed up the inquiry.
The president hates this investigation and the White House has tried to block ongoing queries in Congress. “The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax; when will this taxpayer-funded charade end?” Trump fumed Monday. That was the tipoff. Comey’s head rolled on Tuesday.
All this just in time for the Lavrov visit on Wednesday, which was supposed to set the stage for a possible Trump-Putin meeting at a G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, in July.
We all know that the president has been chomping at the bit to engage with Putin, whom he had repeatedly praised until Russia’s election hacking (and the gas attack in Syria) made this look increasingly odd.
“One reason Trump had to walk back” his campaign talk of grand bargains with Putin is “because of all these investigations,” says Angela Stent, author of “The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.” So long as these investigations continue, it won’t be easy to move U.S.-Russian relations forward.
But there’s no way for the United States to have productive talks with Putin until Trump understands his adversary’s strategy and tactics, which aim to undermine Western systems and restore Soviet, whoops, Russian great power.
In other words, the investigation of Russian hacking is about something far bigger than the election outcome, which, excuse me, Hillary, didn’t turn on Russia’s machinations. It is about Russian policy toward the West, and Putin’s efforts to undermine the West’s faith in its own institutions. It is about Kremlin support for populist leaders who play fast and loose with democratic niceties. (Putin just failed in his backing of French populist Marine Le Pen.)
Instead of standing firm against such Russian ploys, Trump has steadfastly denied them. When Lavrov emerged from the State Department, he denied any Russian cyberhacking and said the president never raised the issue with him. This is why so many Democrats believe the president was complicit. His firing of Comey seems to confirm he has something to hide.
I believe an unimpeded FBI inquiry might well have found no outright Trump team collusion in Moscow’s meddling. But it would have confirmed that Trump surrounded himself with a number of disreputable advisers who had shady and possible illegal dealings with Russian operatives and officials.
It would have shone a spotlight on the reason why many Americans believe the Trump team colluded with Russia: Trump’s unremitting campaign praise of Putin, his call for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, his past pursuit of development deals in Russia.
With the firing of Comey we'll never know.
Who can now believe the FBI – or Republican-led committees in Congress – will be allowed to conduct an honest investigation? Trump has guaranteed this issue will continue to haunt any dealings with Russia – unless the Justice Department appoints an independent counsel, or Congress sets up an independent investigation. No sign the president, or GOP leaders, will sign off on that.
When Foreign Minister Lavrov emerged from the U.S. Department of State, a reporter shouted, “What do you think of the firing of Comey.” Lavrov, with a straight face, shot back, “You’re kidding.”
My guess is he was already preparing his memo to Putin: “These Americans are amazing. They just keep devouring themselves. We can call off the cyber attacks.”
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.