WASHINGTON – Succeeding in politics in a democratic nation is different from making a go of it in a business centered on one person – or in an autocracy. Almost all of President Donald Trump’s problems can be traced to his failure to grasp this. It explains why he now has such a big problem with former FBI Director James Comey.
It’s not surprising that Trump’s warmest words have been reserved for autocrats. They run things the way he likes to run things. No obnoxious media. No annoying political opposition. No independent judiciary. No need to show any concern about the people who work for you. Despots can make them disappear. It’s no accident that “You’re fired” is the phrase that made Trump famous.
In Trump world, everything is a deal, everything is transactional, everything is about personal loyalty – to him. What can I give you to make you do what I want? What can I threaten you with to force you to do what I want? Will you be with me no matter what?
In constitutional democracies, rules and norms get in the way of this sort of thing. Other institutions in government have autonomy and derive their authority from being at least partly independent of politics. The boss does not have absolute power.
This is how we should understand Comey’s extraordinary prepared testimony released on Wednesday in advance of his Thursday appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Here are the things Trump still doesn’t get: (1) Comey is his own person concerned with his own reputation and standing. (2) A president, unlike a despot, can’t unilaterally change the rules that surround a legal investigation. (3) People in government don’t only work for the president; their primary obligation is to the public. (4) Personal relationships matter a great deal in government, but they aren’t everything; Comey could not go soft on Michael Flynn just because Trump likes Flynn or fears what Flynn might say. (5) Because of 1, 2, 3, and 4, Comey was not going to do what Trump asked, even if this meant being fired.
Comey’s testimony describes the interactions of a classic odd couple. They’re spectacularly ill-suited for each other. Everything Trump said made Comey uncomfortable.
When Trump asked Comey at a Jan. 27 White House dinner if he wanted to keep the FBI job, Comey found the question “strange” and a “pretense,” since Trump had already said twice he hoped Comey would stay. Comey thought Trump was trying to “create some sort of patronage relationship.” (No kidding.) Later, Trump got to the point: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.”
Hearing those words, Comey reports, “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.”
This really wasn’t going well.
Trump returned to his demand. “I need loyalty,” Trump said again. Comey replied: “You will always get honesty from me.” That was the beginning of the end, but the incompatible duo held things together for a while on the basis of a compromise: They agreed on “honest loyalty.” But for Trump, this may have sounded like an oxymoron. It would never fly.
For fans of irony, the next effort to make this dysfunctional relationship work came on Valentine’s Day in the Oval Office. It was then that Trump cleared the room and said: “I want to talk about Mike Flynn.” And eventually came the words that could get Trump into a lot of trouble: “He is a good guy and has been through a lot. … I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy.”
The best one-liner in Comey’s prepared remarks: “I did not say I would ‘let this go.’”
And that’s when their breakup became inevitable.
There has been a lively debate among Trump critics about whether he’s dangerous because he’s inclined toward authoritarianism or because he’s incompetent. The Comey episode allows us to reach a higher synthesis in this discussion: Trump is incompetent precisely because he believes he can act like an autocrat in a constitutional democracy. This doesn’t work, and it makes him do stupid things.
Trump operates as if he were still running the Trump Organization, as if the rules that worked fine when nobody challenged him are the rules he’s under now. His worst mistakes flow from this profound misunderstanding.
As a democratic leader, Trump is an apprentice with little desire to learn. And his role models teach him the wrong lessons.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.