Donald Trump fired universally maligned FBI director James Comey on Tuesday. The White House has provided three statements about the decision, which are nested like Russian dolls. Trump’s statement says that the firing was on the recommendation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’s statement directs readers to read the statement from his deputy, Rod Rosenstein. That third statement has the meat.
As a simple matter of policy, there can be no question that showing Comey the door is the right move. Read naively, the rationale Rosenstein offers for firing Comey is eminently reasonable and entirely plausible. Comey’s erratic behavior in the investigation into … [sigh] Hillary Clinton’s emails managed to lose him the trust of the leadership from both major political parties. And of course it is in the country’s best interests that the political establishment and the country at large be able to invest a measure of trust in the FBI. Since the director serves at the pleasure of the White House, the logical decision is to let him go.
Whether we should swallow Trump’s reasoning is another question entirely. I will return to that in a moment; let’s talk about politics for a second instead.
This is an uncharacteristically canny political move from a presidential administration that has up to this point been low on those. Democrats and their allies have been criticizing James Comey as incompetent at best and compromised at worst for six months, and lain Clinton’s defeat at his doorstep. It’s certainly possible that Trump is firing Comey to squash his investigation into the Trump/Russia connection, but my guess is that it’s for Democrats to convince the public that it’s suspicious to fire someone who should be fired.
Comey is either a partisan hack and loose cannon, or he isn’t. Should we believe that Trump is making a principled decision to repair the integrity of the FBI? We won’t truly know the answer until he nominates Comey’s replacement — whether he is a respected figure free from entanglements with the White House or an obsequious Trump toadie will tell the whole tale. But I think we can make a provisional conclusion, based on President Trump’s entire political career to date, that the decision is not based on principle. It seems rather unlikely to me that Trump is actually concerned about the integrity and reputation of American institutions So, I think we should be worried. Trump’s malevolence has been, so far, checked by poor execution. But if Trump has begun to combine his bad intentions with political competence? That is another monster entirely.