What happened to James Comey is not particularly unusual in Washington: When a political scandal explodes at your agency, you are expected to protect the president by risking your own reputation and, possibly, your job. And yet, the particulars of the case make it deeply troubling.
Start with the reason Comey was fired. Coming from the man who basked in chants of “Lock her up!” at his campaign rallies, firing someone for mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails does no more than provoke helpless laughter, liberally mixed with tears. Politico’s reporting offers a much more plausible explanation: Trump was frustrated by the investigation into his campaign’s Russia connections, and wants it to go away. So he fired the guy at the head of the agency that’s conducting it.
This is not the behavior of an American president; it is the behavior of a tinpot autocrat who thinks that the government exists to serve him, rather than the country. And it’s almost as troubling that Trump seems unaware that he is not a tinpot autocrat; he is the head of a state with a long (if perhaps somewhat checkered) democratic tradition.
This is also the behavior of an ineffective president, since the best way to ensure that this investigation grinds along to its inexorable conclusion is to summarily fire the man in charge of it. Comey’s replacement will not dare to shut it down, for fear of looking like the president’s water-carrier. And if that replacement, incredibly, actually does try to interfere, he is likely to face open revolt from the FBI’s rank and file, who are, unsurprisingly, already quite unhappy about what was done to Comey.
Had Trump put more effort into preparing himself for the job of president, he might have learned about an old adage, one dating to Watergate: “It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup.” The investigation into Russian connections has made for some bad news cycles for the president, but my expectation had been that eventually it would wind up with nothing very damaging — perhaps tainting a few advisors who could be thrown off the back of the sled to feed the wolves running behind. Now, however, Trump has made sure that the FBI will pursue this thing to the last lead, the press will keep it pinned to the front pages, and a lot of voters will ask themselves why the president was so desperate to suppress it.
If all this weren’t sufficiently troubling, there’s also the way the firing was carried out. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so secretive about intending to fire Comey, Trump’s advisers would have had time to explain that this was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. According to Politico’s reporting, at least one person did try to explain this: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York. Trump, “taken aback”, ignored his sound advice. Shortly after the firing was announced, Schumer was in front of reporters doing exactly what any moderately politically savvy person would have predicted: suggesting a cover up and calling for a special prosecutor.
Comey, meanwhile, apparently learned that he’d been sacked from the television, while visiting an FBI office out of town. This flagrant gesture of contempt will ensure that the FBI is really thoroughly enraged as they settle down to investigating the president’s campaign.
In theory, of course, our law enforcement is splendidly unbiased, interested only in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In reality, of course, it is run by human beings, who cannot help but have human emotions when they are abused. Which is why we all know the foolishness of making cops gratuitously angry during a traffic stop. And why the president should have known better than to make open war on the FBI — if not out of respect for America’s civic traditions, then out of simple self-interest.
This is an ugly moment in America’s political history. And yet I suspect it will end up being somewhat soothing for those who fear that Trump will mark the end of American democracy and the beginnings of an authoritarian regime. Not because the president’s actions are benign: like many other commentators morning, I see this move as betraying exactly the sort of authoritarian instincts, precisely the disrespect for American civic norms, of which his critics accuse him. But rather, because I doubt it’s going to work — even if the Republican party rolls over, and even if they help him appoint a more pliant successor. There are a lot of sources of political power in the American system, and those civic institutions will fiercely resist any attempt to remake them into hand-crafted tools of Dear Leader’s whims.
I can certainly see futures in which America betrays its heritage and abandons its ideals. But carrying it out would likely require a stealth attack by someone of political genius and strategic cunning, not this ham-handed, thumb-fingered, thoroughly inept assault on an institution that was, until now, probably considerably more Trump-friendly than most of the federal bureaucracy. The brazen violation of our civic norms should worry everyone. But the stunning incompetence of it should give us hope that our worries won’t become reality.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”