“Trump has an authoritarian impulse,” Ian Bremmer tweeted after the president fired FBI Director James Comey, “But incompetence is a better explanation of his administration’s challenges to date.”
It’s difficult to believe that Donald Trump is both a clueless idiot, unable to spell or read or earn a single cent on his own merit, and a nefarious mastermind, capable of bamboozling the entire nation so he can hand over the White House to Russia. The truth is that the plausible explanation for the timing of the Comey firing — and for the many other political missteps of this administration — is remarkably undramatic: Trump isn’t very good at being president.
The Comey firing was reflexively framed as the next Watergate because there is a predetermined conclusion regarding Russian collusion. We’re still re-litigating Trump’s victory. All coverage flows from this inevitable finale. It clouds all perspective and creates a hysterical environment that leaves no space for anything but rigid positions.
“I remain a Trump skeptic in more ways than not,” Commentary’s Noah Rothman tweeted, “but I’m more concerned we now regard withheld judgment not as prudence but as collaboration.” C’mon, Noah, make a snap judgement or you are embracing Putin.
David Frum called Comey’s firing a “coup.” Jeffery Toobin, a reliable defender of executive abuse over the past eight years, went on CNN and claimed it was a “grotesque abuse of power by the president of the United States,” the “kind of thing that goes on in non-democracies.” The rule of law, the very fabric of American life, was under attack, says almost everyone on the Left. Now more than ever, we have to save our institutions.
Never mind that the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president. The firing of Comey is not a constitutional crisis until there is evidence that it is. Democrats have spent months impugning Comey’s integrity, after all, and most Republicans weren’t exactly fans either. When Politico asked a number of experts whether the Comey firing rose to the level of crisis, refreshingly enough, all but one was reluctant to say yes. They were inclined to wait and see what happens.
I’ve defended Comey’s integrity on numerous occasions, although I don’t believe he was particularly good at his job. Firing him was a mistake. The optics are appalling. Trump’s stated reasons for firing him are completely absurd. Still, it’s difficult to believe that Comey was dismissed because he was on the cusp of some great Kremlingate discovery. In fact, if Comey were about to break the case wide open, he has more freedom to divulge that information now.
Moreover, the Russian investigation doesn’t end with Comey. With Comey gone, it will likely end with someone far more competent. The melodramatists wishcasting the next Watergate on cable news know this well. (If Trump names a lackey, and the Senate lets him, then we have a crisis.) It is far more likely, as this Wall Street Journalarticle points out, that the president was looking for a pretext to fire the FBI director for wholly Trumpian reasons. They are not good. They are not “Nixonian.”
But I’m open to believing the worst-case scenario. So if the Senate wants to pressure the president or launch an independent investigation, I’m all for it. Separation of powers is a vital component of healthy governance. The problem, though, is that Democrats only embrace these checks and balances when they’re convenient.
I know, I know, whataboutism! But actually, it’s something more serious than a gotcha. It’s a cycle of partisanship that has truly corroded our institutions.
Fact is, we’ve had (at least) two norm-busting presidents with authoritarian impulses in a row. Both believe in ruling with a pen and a personality, disregarding process whenever it suits their political purposes. One was a thoughtful-sounding, charismatic force, and a talented fibber; a virtuoso at erecting strawmen and offering false choices. He pushed his party farther to the Left than it has ever been. The other is a clumsy and transparent fibber, an incompetent novice, pushing his party into whatever ideologically untethered position is catching his fancy at the moment. Only one of these men, however, was given a free pass by most people in the institutional media because his progressive ideological outlook pleases their sensibilities.
You don’t trust Donald Trump to name an FBI director, even though it’s within his purview to do so? Well, I don’t trust Barack Obama to enter into faux treaties with a bunch of nations without Senate approval or to unilaterally legalize millions of people without Congress. I understand that you find those unilateral decisions morally comforting, but if process and norms matter they should always matter. (An example of the opposite would be an ACLU lawyer who argues that Trump’s immigration order might have been constitutional had Hillary signed it. This undermines trust.)
While there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around, Democrats’ newfound adoration of checks and balances simply isn’t credible. And once that trust has been eroded, it’s difficult to regain it. Most Americans aren’t impressed by procedure. So why would they surrender power when they’re certain you will abuse it again four years from now?