The firing of James Comey has restarted a conversation about the vulnerability of public institutions in America that had gone largely dormant.
Before Tuesday, one of the most remarkable things about Donald Trump’s presidency was how sturdy it had shown competitor institutions, and the larger system of checks and balances, to be. Courts have beat back his power grabs; media, for all its flaws, has been more skeptical of the claims and actions of the Trump administration than of any administration in recent history. Civil society organizations have flourished, and a vital protest movement has both slowed the GOP legislative agenda, and forced some Republicans in Congress to expect a measure of accountability from the White House.
For those who were relieved by this, Comey’s firing should be a frightful awakening from complacency.
The immediate threat of the Trump presidency wasn’t that he would sap the public of its civic-mindedness, or intimidate judges and reporters into submission with his tweets. It was to the institutions under his control—the ones within the executive branch—and particularly those with meaningful independence from political actors in the White House. Because the path to neutralizing or coopting external institutions runs through corrupting internal ones.
In his first weeks as president, Trump appeared to lack both the aptitude and the dedication required to do this. Yes, he corrupted the government, but it was through laziness and greed, so the effect was limited. Trump was satisfied with a bargain whereby Republicans in Congress set most policy, and in return they turned a blind eye to his self-enrichment.
Firing Comey changes the terms of the bargain, but in a perverse way it also makes the bargain harder for Republicans in Congress to abrogate.
The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel wrote a practically minute-by-minute account of how the Fox News reaction to the firing progressed from confusion to elation within 12 hours. House Speaker Paul Ryan went 24 hours without saying a word about Comey’s firing, before telling Fox News that “it is entirely within the president’s role and authority to relieve him and that’s what he did.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose bad faith glows in the dark, celebrated the news and chalked the Democratic clamor for answers and accountability up to partisanship. (The fact that Democrats have been forced to resort to obstructive maneuvers suggests that McConnell isn’t budging, even in private.)
It is true that people of integrity would want to get to the bottom of this, whereas Ryan and McConnell see it as a useful smokescreen for dismantling the safety net. But this has become about more than a tax cut and a rollback of the Affordable Care Act. It is about whether Republicans in Congress want to be on the fun end of entrenched power, or on the receiving end of its blunt force.
If Trump gets away with firing Comey—if Republicans let him nominate any director he wants; if they resist the pressure to insist on appointing a special prosecutor, or to convene an investigative body; if they squash inquiries into the firing itself—he will read it as permission to run amok. As The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein wrote, Trump’s “appetite for shattering democratic constraints is only likely to grow.”
Absent consequences, Trump will rightly feel liberated to appoint whomever he wants to run the IRS when the current commissioner’s term expires later this year. More alarmingly, he will know that he can get away with ordering a crackdown on voting rights or investigations of his political enemies. And, perversely, these are the reasons he is more likely to prevail. How many Republicans who entered the devil’s bargain with Trump for policy victories wouldn’t expand the terms to encompass electoral ones? Friends of Trump win elections and everyone else is at his mercy. Trump was reportedly upset that Comey did not pledge loyalty to him, and was charging ahead with an investigation that Trump finds threatening. When loyalty and corruption become job qualifications for political appointees, the president will have the power he needs to stifle protest leaders, judges, the free press, and political rivals. He won’t even have to make threats.
We haven’t reached that point yet, and the outcome is in no way inescapable, but the path between here and there has never been better lit.