You heard it here first: James Comey was fired because during his White House dinner with Donald Trump, when dessert arrived, he noticed that the president had two scoops of ice cream to his one, and dared to remark on it.
Don’t believe me? OK, I did make it up. But it’s as credible a claim as most of what came from White House officials, going all the way up to Vice President Mike Pence, in the hours after Trump canned Comey last week.
Pretty much every reason they gave was utterly dismantled, if not by FBI agents, who rejected the contention that they had turned on Comey, then by enterprising reporters or by the president himself in his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. Seldom has an administration operated in such a transparently dishonest, determinedly self-destructive and spectacularly inept fashion. That ineptness may be the scariest takeaway of all.
I began with ice cream because it really is central to understanding this. Bear with me. Two days after Comey’s ouster, Time magazine published a cover story that revolved around a recent evening that a few of its journalists spent with Trump at the White House.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Dinner was served. Trump got a different, more colorful salad dressing than theirs. His chicken had extra sauce on the side. With his pie came a double helping of vanilla. With theirs, a single. By the magazine’s account, there was no explanation. None was needed. He’s the president and you’re not.
One scoop of imperiousness. Another of insecurity. Top generously with impulsiveness. That’s Trump’s sweet spot, the real driver of his decisions. Comey’s dismissal was the definitive confirmation. It satisfied the president’s emotional appetite, at least at that moment. It undermined all else.
And it put the lie to the stubborn hope that there’s a core of shrewdness beneath his antics and a method to his madness. Mostly, there’s a raging, pouting child.
For all of the negative news coverage that he receives, there has also been a strand of analysis that insisted on, or at least sought, a silver lining to the golden-haired huckster. It reflected all the rationalizations that I heard from Americans who had voted for Trump or were willing themselves to see some upside to his election:
The tweets weren’t merely splenetic. They were strategic, providing distractions when he needed them most. He was amoral, sure, but that was part and parcel of his craftiness, which could do the country some good. He was a liar, yes, but the best deals and the bent truth often went hand in hand – and he was a dealmaker above all. He flouted norms, but that might be precisely the purgative our politics needed.
Commentators strained to spot and savor any flicker of something more dignified. Remember the accolades for his address to a joint session of Congress? All he’d done was the commander in chief equivalent of chewing with his mouth closed.
But no sugarcoating can survive the developments of the past few weeks. Congress approved a budget agreement at stark odds with Trump’s wish list, revealing that he’s no ace negotiator after all. It could have been titled “The Artlessness of the Deal.”
The House passed health care legislation that blatantly contradicted his incessant promises of terrific, inexpensive coverage and betrayed the hard-luck Americans whose champion he purported to be. The Senate made clear that it was going nowhere anyway.
He’s not coming to anyone’s rescue, just giving the Trump-Kushner clan a loftier status and more leverage for enriching themselves. He’s not draining the swamp. He’s globalizing it.
And to top it all off: the Comey fiasco, which will be remembered as a case study in misjudging a situation, mismanaging the easily foreseeable fallout and achieving the exact opposite of one’s aims. If this is private-sector savvy, give me a bloated government bureaucracy any day.
Trump reportedly thought that Democrats, so sour on Comey themselves, wouldn’t balk at his exile. No way. Trump’s aides tried to use a hastily composed memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as cover. Big oops.
With no media plan in place, they tripped over their own inventions and exaggerations. And Trump bumbled into a horrendously timed photograph of an all-smiles meeting of him in the Oval Office with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.
Please show me the shrewdness in any of that, or in a tweet Friday that ratcheted up his battle with Comey – who, mind you, has seen any and all evidence of Russian meddling in the election and left behind many loyalists in the bureau. For a president paranoid about the leakiness of his ship, this was like making a beeline for the nearest iceberg.
Please show me the strategic wisdom in threatening to cancel White House press briefings because Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders can’t be expected to achieve “perfect accuracy” at the rostrum. None of us are asking for “perfect accuracy.” Mere plausibility would wow us at this point. And the farther away the media is kept, the more we’re convinced that something is being hidden from us, and the harder we dig.
Trump wanted to move past all the insinuations of collusion between his campaign and Moscow, but the attention to that has only intensified, as have the accusations of a cover-up. We already knew that the president had no shame. Now we also know that he has no game.
He handed Democrats yet another cudgel. He tightened the bind that Republicans are in (though their sustained indulgence of him remains a thing of absolute wonder). He lengthened the odds against getting much in the way of meaningful legislation done.
He looked defensive, not decisive. He shrank, just when it didn’t seem possible for him to get any smaller.
He’s 70, but if we’re talking about deeds and not digits, psychological maturity instead of epidermal sag, he’s our youngest president ever, with the frailest ego. Aides feed him his information in easily digested bites: pictures, charts. They whisper sweet grandiosities in his ear. They devise strategies to shield him from upset and work around his ever-shifting moods. They cross their fingers and they tremble.
So do I. And when I picture him at that Time magazine dinner, with a portion bigger than anybody else’s, I don’t see him on a throne. I see him in a highchair, keeping his audience guessing about just how much ice cream he'll fling against the wall.