This Week in Trump: You’re Fired
President Trump fired FBI director James Comey Tuesday, dramatically breaking with precedent and setting off a firestorm in Washington. The White House claimed Comey was let go for his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email breaches—but that explanation seemed less than credible, since candidate Trump had vociferously praised Comey’s Clinton probe. Comey was heading an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Trump sent a letter of dismissal to FBI headquarters with his personal bodyguard. Comey was in Los Angeles at the time and learned of the decision from a TV news report. That letter cited a missive from Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommending Comey’s ouster and a memo by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that criticized Comey’s handled the Clinton email scandal. Sessions had recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe but is now nonetheless implicated in deposing the official in charge of it. Rosenstein evidently didn’t want to be credited with canning Comey and threatened to resign, according to an anonymous source cited in the Washington Post.
Shortly thereafter, Trump talked to NBC and said he had intended to fire Comey regardless of Sessions’s and Rosenstein’s recommendations, citing the Russia investigation as a reason: “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.’”
The administration was surprised by the political upheaval that followed Comey’s firing, and on Twitter the president characterized Democrats as hypocrites who had blasted Comey until Trump decided to get rid of him. Some say the president actually expected Democrats to take his reasoning at face value.
The Russia Connection
It soon emerged that Comey had met with Rosenstein to request more money and personnel for the investigation into Trump’s possible ties to Russia, and had recently started receiving daily rather than weekly briefings on the issue. The president had been growing “increasingly agitated” at the probe and “had long questioned Comey’s loyalty and judgment.” Trump was especially angry that Comey had contradicted the president’s claims that he had been wiretapped by the Obama administration, and that he never put resources into investigating leaks from within the Trump White House.
The final straw seems to have been Comey’s refusal to give the White House a preview of what he was going to say at a much anticipated May 3 hearing, which the president and his team interpreted as an act of insubordination.
At least a dozen Republicans in Congress expressed concern at Comey’s firing, but none joined Democrats in calling for a special prosecutor to take over the Russia probe. Comey’s firing now seems poised to take over the congressional agenda, and thus distract from other priorities, including the long-stated plan to repeal and replace Obamacare. The Senate intelligence committee has invited Comey to testify next week.
The Nixon parallels
Many observers drew a parallel with Richard Nixon and the so-called Saturday Night Massacre of 1973—the last time a sitting president fired an official who was investigating him. (The Richard Nixon Library was quick to point out that Nixon fired a special prosecutor rather than the FBI director.)
Thanks to Republican control of Congress, we may never find out how far the parallel goes, as Nixon biographer John A. Farrell told Slate’s Isaac Chotiner:
The actions that the president and his staff have taken, their behavior, mirrors that of Nixon and his staff when they were frantically trying to cover up felonious behavior, including in the president’s case, obstruction of justice. But up to this point, we don’t have any clear proof or evidence that this is something more than just politics—that it is a matter of law. So it would seem to me that the logical thing to do to restore confidence in the integrity of the government would be to have a Select Committee with the Democrats having real influence, or having Attorney General Sessions appoint a special counsel, as he has the power to do, to investigate whether this is Trump being Trump or Nixonian.
The New York Times reported that the president twice asked the FBI chief to pledge his loyalty shortly after taking office. Comey declined. Trump fired back via Twitter the next morning, saying “Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!” Spicer later refused to deny Trump records conversations.
After commentators pointed out inconsistency in the various accounts emerging from the White House, Trump threatened to do away with news briefings, saying his surrogates can’t be expected “to stand at podium with perfect accuracy.”
Comey’s firing came days after revelations that former President Obama warned Trump not to hire Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. The Obama administration had already fired Flynn in 2014.
Obama wasn’t alone. Less than a week after he had taken office, then-acting attorney general Sally Yates warned the president that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow. Flynn remained in office for 18 days. Questions about why Trump didn’t get rid of Flynn sooner are likely to get louder now, notes the Washington Post’s David Ignatius:
After Comey’s dismissal, critics are likely to examine more sharp-edged theories of the Flynn case and other Russia matters. One obvious possibility is that Trump didn’t take action earlier because he already knew about Flynn’s Dec. 29 discussion with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about sanctions, and knew that Flynn had misrepresented the Kislyak call to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
The Russian investigation could also intensify, notes The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos:
Firing Comey may have accelerated the fire, not extinguished it. It’s easy to compare Trump to Richard Nixon, but another apt comparison lies in the path that brought Bill Clinton to impeachment. The lesson: one investigation leads to another.
All the President’s Jargon
According to the transcript of an interview with The Economist, the president believes he made up the phrase “priming the pump,” which has been used since 1932 to refer to fiscal stimulus:
But beyond that it’s OK if the tax plan increases the deficit?
It is OK, because it won’t increase it for long. You may have two years where you’ll … you understand the expression “prime the pump”?
We have to prime the pump.
It’s very Keynesian.
We’re the highest-taxed nation in the world. Have you heard that expression before, for this particular type of an event?
Priming the pump?
Yeah, have you heard it?
Have you heard that expression used before? Because I haven’t heard it. I mean, I just … I came up with it a couple of days ago and I thought it was good. It’s what you have to do.