President Donald Trump views public life as a contest between dominant people and those they humiliate. The fact that he won the presidency under extraordinary circumstances, and without the popular vote, lingers in his mind because the question of who dominated whom remains ambiguous.
Every reminder that a stench of illegitimacy hovers over Trump’s administration has the capacity to unglue him. The need to resolve that ambiguity in his favor has consumed his presidency. This may turn out to be his undoing, but in the meantime it leaves the nation and the world vulnerable to the whims of an alarmingly unstable individual.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post places the firing of FBI Director James Comey in the context of Trump’s obsession with his inaugural crowd size, his obsession with imaginary voter fraud, and other self-destructive outbursts, where it fits seamlessly.
The Comey letter to Congress about Clinton’s newly discovered emails is widely believed to have helped Trump win; Comey tacitly conceded that this might be true. The Russia probe continues to feed the sense that a foreign power helped tip the election to him; Comey won’t make it disappear. And, of course, there are lingering questions around the fact that Trump fired Comey right after he asked for more resources to prosecute that investigation, which of course would only further feed the sense that the Russian intervention mattered to the outcome.
What makes this analysis enticing is that it does not compete with other reported or plausible explanations for Trump’s decision—Comey’s unwillingness to submit loyally to Trump; his increasingly aggressive investigation of the Russia-Trump nexus; a coverup—or with Trump’s larger winners-and-losers worldview. Rather, they all reinforce one another.
What makes it so unsettling, meanwhile, is how profoundly it indicts Trump’s faculties. In his desperation to cast away the clouds that linger over his presidency, he has severely darkened them. Obstructing Comey’s investigation, and meddling in it repeatedly, has only compounded the suspicion that his campaign may have collaborated with Russian intelligence agents to sabotage the Clinton campaign. The president doth protest too much.
When Trump sought to neutralize the notion that malign actors tilted the campaign playing field against Hillary Clinton by alleging an Obama administration conspiracy to wiretap Trump tower, Comey told confidants that Trump was “outside the realm of normal,” even “crazy,” according to The New York Times. A Times story on Thursday, citing Comey associates, reported that Trump sought a loyalty pledge from the FBI director during a January dinner at the White House. And on Friday morning, Trump tweeted:
The intelligence community works for the president, and as a leader of the intelligence community, Comey found himself in the dual-hatted role of serving Trump and investigating members of his inner circle. It should go without saying that the president’s madness added an uncomfortable twist to an already uncomfortable situation, but it also raises a weighty and troubling question: What is the ultimate obligation of people sworn to defend the constitution, and the national security of the United States, when they believe the person they’re working for is a threat to either?
Whatever the correct answer is, vague, anonymous, tit-for-tat leaks by Comey associates can’t be it.
A similar question arose shortly after the election, when Trump compared members of the intelligence community to Nazis. The conventional wisdom at the time held that Trump was being foolhardy—that the intelligence community might have the last laugh, at his expense—which invited the obvious rejoinder that if intelligence professionals can so easily bring about the destruction of elected leaders for revenge, democracy is in a frail state.
That objection applies in full force to anyone at the FBI who wants to avenge Comey’s firing simply out of loyalty to Comey. But it doesn’t necessarily apply if the motive is the basic security of the country rather than revenge.
When then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates convened an emergency meeting with White House Counsel Don McGahn in January to inform him that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn may have committed crimes, and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, her apparent objective was to sever his access to the government’s top secrets—to seal a major breach. When that failed, someone leaked the details of his conversations with the Russian ambassador, and of the Justice Department’s blackmail concerns, to the press.
The leaks had their intended effect—Flynn was fired days later—but also entailed lawbreaking. The alternative would have been to brief key members of Congress who, in turn, would have had it in their power to get Flynn deposed through lawful channels. In either case, extraordinary steps were necessary, because the risks of not taking them were also extraordinary.
There is no benign explanation for Trump’s decision to fire Comey. To the contrary, all of the plausible explanations should disquiet even the fiercest partisans. Perhaps Trump believes the FBI should view casework as a tool to ease his narcissistic injuries. Perhaps he was trying to decapitate the Russia probe, because there is real and dangerous wrongdoing at the bottom of it. Perhaps he believes the FBI director should pledge loyalty to him. Perhaps all three things are true. But whatever the truth, and through whatever means, Comey needs to tell us what he knows.