There are many alarming aspects of Trump’s sudden dismissal of FBI Director James Comey. But among the most disturbing is how blindsided he claims to be by the backlash. Trump’s reported failure to anticipate that firing the person overseeing the investigation into his campaign would be met with outrage demonstrates that he neither understands nor cares that America’s system of government is supposed to place limits on his power.
Trump expects Americans to believe he fired Comey because of the FBI director’s unfair treatment of Hillary Clinton. White House officials initially claimed Trump accepted the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy AG Rod J. Rosenstein. In a three-page memo to Sessions, Rosenstein made some valid criticisms of Comey, but the idea that Trump fired the FBI director for mishandling the Clinton matter never passed the laugh test: Trump spent his entire campaign thrilling “Lock her up!”-chanting supporters with pronouncements of Clinton’s guilt, despite the lack of evidence she broke any law.
Based on reports that have come out in the wake of Comey’s firing, and basic common sense, it’s obvious Trump fired the FBI director to derail the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties. The White House’s story was nonsense. And Trump doesn’t seem terribly concerned that everyone knows it.
Trump seems to feel no obligation to address the fact that the firing followed Comey requesting more resources for the Russia investigation, nor the fact that investigators recently subpoenaed associates of disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, nor the fact that Comey angered Trump by refusing to back up his absurd claims that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
Instead, Trump and his officials are expressing (or feigning) surprise that anyone is questioning the decision to fire Comey, given that the FBI head had been the target of strong criticism from both sides of the aisle. Sure, it’s possible that anonymous White House officials telling reporters they didn’t expect the fallout were just playing dumb to downplay the scandalousness of the move. But Trump’s unhinged reaction on Twitter, and his reportedly being “taken aback” when House Minority Leader Chuck Schumer told him firing Comey would be a “big mistake,” suggest he was genuinely surprised.
That surprise is in keeping with Trump’s general refusal to accept that there are laws and norms that govern the president’s actions. Trump doesn’t seem to understand that he isn’t a king or dictator who can just disappear anyone who threatens to uncover unsavory things about him – nor that he should be held to account by the public, Congress and the courts. Trump thinks he should be able to roll like Putin, Erdogan or Duterte and tell anyone who crosses him, “You’re fired!” He thinks it’s his prerogative to lie with impunity. He thinks Americans have to accept his bald-faced lies because he’s the president, and he doesn’t owe them any explanation. It’s none of their business if he or his associates colluded with Russia – he’s operating on the Nixonian theory that “when the president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” or even wrong.
Trump believes those who question him should be discharged for disloyalty or dismissed as “fake news.” He thinks he’s a strongman who can justify his actions by saying “because I said so.” But he’s wrong. While the law allows Trump to fire the FBI director, neither his oath of office nor the law permit him to deliberately obstruct an investigation into how Russia tried to undermine U.S. democracy. And if Republicans keep looking the other way, Trump will continue consolidating power and growing into the authoritarian ruler he already believes he’s entitled to be.
Watch Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and other senators react to FBI Director James Comey’s firing.