This may sound incredible when you consider the shitstorm that’s been underway inside the Beltway since Tuesday afternoon, but according to the *Washington Post*, President Donald Trump “expected only applause” when he fired FBI director James Comey. Heck, hadn’t Democrats condemned Comey’s last-minute intrusion into the 2016 presidential race?
Even though Comey took back his late-October announcement of a new turn in the Bureau’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails four days before Election Day, Clinton herself believes his intervention cost her the presidency.
That explains how Trump managed to delude himself that liberals would be thrilled to see Comey’s head on a stick six months later. Preposterously, the FBI chief’s mishandling of l’affaire Hillary was the White House’s initial explanation for why he had to go. Needless to say, Trump had praised Comey’s action at the time: “It took a lot of guts,” he said then. But then is a word of no significance in Trump’s lexicon—except, of course, when he’s bragging up his Electoral College win. A festive map of it was reportedly hung in the West Wing just this week, presumably to console him when he’s feeling down.
Because projection is Trump’s default mode, he’s convinced the opposition is as obsessed with re-litigating Clinton’s defeat as he is with enshrining his victory, and would therefore greet Comey’s ouster with delight. But they aren’t, and they didn’t. They understand they’re coping with an unprecedented new reality. Part of that adjustment means recognizing that institutions they once mistrusted, the FBI included, have become a useful firewall against Trump’s penchant for despotism.
Comey didn’t get fired because he did his job badly last October. He got fired because he’d started doing it too well.
Comey didn’t get fired because he did his job badly last October. He got fired because, more recently, he’d started doing it a little too well for Trump’s taste. He was canned just days after requesting more resources for the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Although the House and Senate investigations are still ongoing, pro-Trump Republicans control both. This means, sad to say, that they can’t be relied on to put patriotism ahead of partisanship in the crunch.
The only exception may be the Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by butter-voiced escapee from a Tennessee Williams play Lindsey Graham. On Monday—ah, but can anyone remember Monday?—Graham’s panel provided the forum for fired former acting Attorney General Sally Yates’s and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s carefully framed (but fairly incendiary) Russiagate testimony. One far from incidental side effect of firing Comey was to stop Yates and Clapper’s most vivid sound bites from dominating the next day’s news cycle.
The FBI’s probe was always the one most likely to give Trump heartburn, since the Bureau is officially apolitical. Besides, Comey was undoubtedly eager to restore its (and his) reputation for even-handedness after last October’s snafu. He’d also recently asked for an upgrade from weekly updates on the investigation’s progress to daily ones, which may or may not signify that what his agents were discovering about the Trumpistas’ Russia connections had started to alarm him. Whatever the facts turn out to be, that familiar Watergate aura of a White House trying to smack at a tightening legal web with presidential brooms will be hard to dispell.
Whether or not Sean Spicer has figured this out, give the man credit for knowing when it’s time to hide. (Where was that damn bunny suit now that he needed it?) On Tuesday night, bizarrely, he skulked along the bushes on the White House lawn to dodge reporters, then consented to a quickie Q&A, so long as the TV lights were turned off. It was less like a press briefing than an abused fox terrier’s cry for help, and you could write the cartoon speech balloon yourself: “Please, fellas! I’m in the dark on this one.”
The ex-director’s loyalists inside the Bureau won’t be docile about Russia or anything else now that he’s gone.
Even minus Spicey’s hunt for Romeo’s toilet paper, watching this administration do spin control can be a lot like watching rabid laundry try to take over a laundromat. At first, the White House claimed that Trump had simply followed a recommendation from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Assistant AG Rod Rosenstein. Since Sessions supposedly recused himself from all matters relating to the Russia investigation in March, backing the firing of the man who was running it isn’t an especially seemly look for the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer. As for Rosenstein, he got so indignant at being cast as the prime mover behind Comey’s firing that he reportedly threatened to resign.
As it turned out, a stewing Trump had decided on his own he wanted Comey gone. Then he’d asked the Department of Justice’s higher-ups to invent a pretext for doing so, and revisiting Comey’s missteps during the Clinton e-mail kerfuffle was the best Rosenstein could do. By Wednesday, Trump, whose grasp of the difference between silk purses and sows’ ears has always been obscure, was telling NBC’s Lester Holt that he’d have dumped Comey no matter what the DoJ urged. Then he blew up the official line’s whole premise by adding that “this Russia thing” had been part of his motivation all along.
The same day, White House assistant press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried peddling the story that Comey had lost the confidence of the Bureau’s rank and file. By Thursday morning, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe told the Senate Intelligence Committee that it just wasn’t so: “Director Comey enjoyed broad support within the FBI and still does to this day,” he said. Not that anybody seems to have noticed, but maybe that “to this day” (meaning two days after Comey’s departure) ought to unnerve Trump a little. The implication is that the ex-director’s loyalists inside the Bureau won’t be docile about Russia or anything else now that he’s gone.
By then, of course, the Russians had shown up—right in the Oval Office, as if things weren’t surreal enough already. On Wednesday, an obsequious POTUS greeted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergei Kislyak like a muzhik grateful that the Tsar’s representatives were consenting to grace his hovel. Of the two, Lavrov has been denied White House visits since 2014. Kislyak is none other than the roly-poly nesting doll that various Trump associates have been accused of improperly conferring with before inauguration day.
Trump’s actions have put Russiagate back on Washington’s front burner more effectively than Rachel Maddow ever could.
According to one report, the get-together was at Putin’s insistence, suggesting that Vlad has gotten bored with playing the furtive puppetmaster. It’s more like he’s reached the gloating stage and wants to make Trump’s strange fealty to him indelible. Adding to the effect, no U.S. media were allowed to cover the meeting, but a photographer for TASS, Russia’s state-run press agency, was. Afterward, as security experts clutched their heads at the idea of giving a shutterbug employed by a foreign power the run of the Oval Office, an unnamed White House official fumed, “We were tricked.” Right, because there’s absolutely no reason to suspect a Russian photographer let loose in POTUS’s inner sanctum could be anything but above-board.
Those pics weren’t even the day’s most wince-worthy visual. At his liveliest, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s somnolent style can give “drone warfare” a whole new meaning, but he came off like a deferential zombie concierge when he welcomed Lavrov to the State Department. Even with the sound turned off, any child could have guessed who was dominant. Asked by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell whether Comey’s firing “cast a shadow” over their talks, Lavrov put on a rich show of Boris Badonov incredulity: “Was he fired? You are kidding! You are kidding!” Just in case we didn’t get the point that the U.S.A. was being treated with contempt, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs promptly posted the clip on Twitter.
So what now? Nobody knows. Though Trump undoubtedly hoped otherwise, the FBI’s Russia investigation hasn’t been derailed. In fact, the opposite may be true, since people will be watching McCabe like a hawk for symptoms of spinelessness. Trump has yet to name Comey’s formal successor, but the pliable stooge he was presumably fantasizing he could install in the job is unlikely to pass anybody’s smell test. (Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie can both fuggedaboudit.) In other words, Trump’s own actions have put Russiagate back on Washington’s front burner more effectively than Rachel Maddow’s yammering about it ever could.
By Friday, Trump was threatening Comey with murky hints he’d taped their private conversations, not to mention suggesting he might cancel White House press briefings from now on. Not exactly the behavior of a POTUS who’s confident he’s put a crisis behind him, is it? But at least he’s scrapped his bumptious plan to visit FBI headquarters after being told he wouldn’t be “well received.” From where we sit, the idea did seem foolhardy. They’ve got a lot of sets of handcuffs lying around at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, after all, and it’s awfully easy for a newcomer to get lost there.