Donald Trump’s firing of James Comey has to be the most thuggish, venal act committed by a U.S. president since Richard Nixon’s desperate Saturday Night Massacre. Trump is trying to shut down the investigation with the most potential to cripple – or perhaps even end – his presidency. He is attempting a power play straight from the playbook of some tinhorn dictator, and he believes he will get away with it.
The claim that Comey’s mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails is the reason for his dismissal insults the nation’s intelligence. During last year’s campaign, you will recall, Trump loudly cheered the damaging disclosures about his opponent that he now cites as cause for immediate termination. Just last week, the president tweeted that “FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” Trump and his angry crowds brayed for Clinton to be locked up, not treated fairly.
Comey’s real transgression was to launch a serious investigation into possible cooperation between Trump’s campaign and a clandestine attempt by the Russian government to swing the election in Trump’s favor. With both the House and the Senate in Republican hands, the president probably calculates that the various congressional probes can be neutered. Fox News and other friendly media can be counted on to push the line that the real issue is leaks, not possible collusion with a foreign power to subvert our democracy.
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But the FBI is not so easily put off the scent. Does Michael Flynn – fired as national security adviser for lying about his talks with the Russian ambassador – have a story to tell? What about Carter Page? If they are in legal jeopardy, how will they react when the FBI squeezes them? Whom else might agents be talking to? Is the FBI asking about members of Trump’s family? About Trump himself?
Yelling “fake news” hasn’t put an end to the investigation. But firing Comey might – if he is replaced with someone less independent and more compliant.
At some point over the past year, almost everyone in Washington has wanted to fire Comey. But a president cannot suddenly, for no good reason, dismiss an FBI director who has the president’s campaign under investigation. That can only be seen for what it is: an attempted cover-up and an abuse of executive power.
Anyone who thought the Russia story was all smoke and no fire now has to suspect there’s really something there. Congress and the Supreme Court stood up for the Constitution during Watergate. Now they must do so once again.
Eugene Robinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.