Donald Trump's firing of James Comey may not be a cover-up – but it is a complete political disaster

Sheer incompetence and schoolyard nastiness may better explain the botched dismissal

David Usborne
New York
Wednesday 10 May 2017 16:44
Trump greets the now former director of the FBI, James Comey, at the White House in happier times
Trump greets the now former director of the FBI, James Comey, at the White House in happier times

Finished with the last meeting of the day in New York, Joe Crowley, the fourth most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, was headed to an intimate fundraiser in a private home on the Upper West Side when the news, and his jaw, dropped: Trump fires Comey.

The guests had been promised an evening of song from the musically inclined Crowley, whose district encompasses large chunks of Queens and the Bronx. But first he felt the need to express his befuddlement about what had just occurred. “I can’t figure out what this White House is up to half the time,” he said. A voice at the back cried, “Half? You’re doing well then.”

Theories about the Comey dismissal – the reasons for it, the timing of it and the likely fallout – multiplied quickly enough to plug the hole in the ozone layer. Television pundits writhed in pain, their bloviatory bladders threatening to explode if they were not allowed to say Trump and Nixon in the same sentence. CNN became the “Cardiac Care Network because their ppl are having heart attacks over Trump,” former Governor Mike Huckabee quipped in a cheeky Tweet. (Never mind that his CNN is suddenly CCN.)

The only thing making sense to his critics was that Trump had become so fearful of the FBI’s investigation into possible collusion between his campaign last year and Russia that he, along with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had concluded he had to sabotage it. Fire Comey! How brilliant is that? All you need to do next is find a poodle to run the FBI. Problem over.

Vladimir Putin responds to James Comey firing: 'We had nothing to do with it'

Pressed at the fundraising party, Crowley said he really didn’t know what had been in Trump’s head but quickly added that two words instantly came to his lips. They were “cover” and “up”. He added hastily that he had never considered himself prone to conspiracy theories.

Trump loyalists were plumbing, with varying amounts of desperation, for more innocent scenarios, including the White House claim that the President was displeased with the way Comey had handled the email allegations against Hillary Clinton last year and believed the FBI needed new leadership. But even in super-contorted Trumpworld this is not quite believable.

Comey, by some accounts, did more than anyone to help Trump win the presidency, notably with his bombshell letter to Congress days before the vote revealing he was looking again at the Clinton case even after saying months before he was done with it. Each time Comey did something to hurt Clinton’s chances, Trump praised him. Now, suddenly, he feels sorry for Clinton and wants him punished?

The timing is weird too. Actually, it’s awful. Trump has returned the spotlight to the whole Russia-collusion fandango at the very moment when the early constipation of his administration was starting to ease, notably with the House getting over the hump with replacing Obamacare. As if to add a little icing, he does it the evening before a scheduled meeting with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in the Oval Office. Why, if not because there was a real reason to panic about what Comey and his team of investigators were getting close to finding?

This is what lies behind the screeching comparisons of what Trump wrought here with the Saturday Night Massacre when Nixon sacked the special prosecutor responsible for probing Watergate which triggered the resignations of the Attorney General and his deputy at the Justice Department. These are probably overblown for a number of reasons. Above all, we should not forget that, as yet, we have seen no evidence of coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election. And while Nixon faced a Democrat-controlled Congress already convinced at the time he had done wrong, Trump has the backing of his party on the Hill.

Mostly, he has their backing. But the other result of putting Comey in the ejection seat and pulling the lever is that demands for a more aggressive investigation into the alleged Trump-to-Kremlin axis have roared back to the fore just when they had been fading. For Democrats that means appointing a special prosecutor, an outcome that Trump surely cannot want. As yet no Republicans have called for that, but some, including Senator John McCain, are now arguing that it’s time for a special congressional committee to look into the issue.

If such an amped-up investigation were to begin and if it were to find that indeed crimes were committed last year that deformed the electoral process and impacted on the outcome of the election and that Trump, or people close to him, were involved both in those doings and in subsequently trying to cover them up, the consequences for this young presidency would be catastrophic. But notice the string of “ifs”. For now, at least, I prefer an explanation that derives from two other ingredients: stunning incompetence and sheer, base nastiness.

Why did Donald Trump fire James Comey?

Add to that a self-destructive love of drama. Trump forged a whole reality TV career priming ratings by firing people. He may be suffering from a lingering addiction to that simple act. Since becoming President he has fired one national security adviser as well as the former, and highly influential, attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara (after telling him he was safe in the job). He fired Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General before Sessions was confirmed, and now he has fired an FBI chief who was in the midst of investigating possible malfeasance by his campaign last year – lest we forget, that last, rather salient, point – who also had been told he was safe in his job and would hold it for another six and a half years.

The incompetence barely needs commenting on. For all the reasons discussed, it is looking already like this will backfire on the President in all manner of ways. That there has been such a pounding backlash from all quarters, even from some Republicans, seems to have caught this White House by surprise. Comey, meanwhile, was given no prior warning and found out through news alerts on TV screens playing at the back of a room of his own agents he was addressing in Los Angeles at the time. FBI directors deserve a bit better than that, surely.

That comes from the playground nastiness that fills this Oval Office. Possibly, someone told the President that Comey would be unprepared for what was coming and grinned. We do know the tenor of the Twitter spats he has engaged in in the hours since. He has lashed out at “cryin’ Chuck Schumer”, the top Senate Democrat leading the calls for a special prosecutor, and laid into Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, another leading figure in the special prosecutor camp, resurfacing old reports suggesting he once lied about his record in Vietnam. “When caught, he cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness,” Trump jabbed. Edifying stuff.

In time we’ll know if “cover-up” properly applies to the latest Washington doings. But what does, however the dust finally settles, is “cock-up”. Nobody wins from this and certainly not Trump.

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