The firing of FBI Director James Comey was long overdue. Comey deserved to be fired. But President Trump was wrong to do it now. Rants to the contrary notwithstanding, this is not the Saturday Night Massacre. Not by a long shot. But President Trump’s decision is yet the latest example of poor judgment – very poor judgment. Poor presidential judgment jeopardizes a President’s ability to effectively lead. The nation becomes weaker in the eyes of friends and foe alike. The subsequent need to show decisiveness and leadership grows, as is the risk of making follow-on poor judgments. This is the underlying risk of President Trump’s decision, and it cannot be understated.
Poor Judgment All the Way Around
It’s all about judgment, which is lacking everywhere. Comey’s leadership and judgment has been horrible. The parade of poor judgment started with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. She reached the mystifying decision to meet with President Clinton during a pending investigation of his wife. It was an astounding decision, though she apparently thought the meeting would go undetected. Then, incredibly, she allowed decision-making control over the Hillary investigation to pass to the FBI Director, and not to her Assistant Attorney General.
Comey, in turn, foolishly accepted that authority. To our knowledge no FBI Director had ever done such a thing. Comey should never have agreed to assume the Attorney General’s prosecutorial discretion. He should never have rendered a verdict on Hillary Clinton. The FBI’s role is to investigate. The Justice Department’s role is to prosecute. An FBI Director should never cross that line. A dangerous, horrible precedent. A colossal misjudgment. For that reason alone, Comey’s removal was appropriate.
Comey’s subsequent Keystone Cops bungling of the Hillary investigation is well known. None of his major judgments was correct. Each was likely to immeasurably impact the presidential election, which he knew or should have known. No FBI Director should ever be in that position, not to mention voluntarily place himself in that position. The captain of that ship should go. Indeed, he must go.
So there are reasons aplenty for new leadership at the FBI, where we understand agent morale has been dismal since last summer. Who could really argue. Democrats lost confidence in him long ago. Republicans more recently. And but for the timing of his dismissal, his departure is one of the few recent matters that would receive bipartisan support.
Comey Deserved to be Fired – But the President’s Judgment Was Terrible
But that leads us to the latest, and most profound, example of terrible judgment – President Trump’s decision to fire Comey now. Was there any collusion between President Trump and the Russian government? We seriously doubt it. With the sieve that is the intelligence community, evidence of Trump-Russia collusion would have surfaced long ago.
And we are even more sanguine in the face of disclosed efforts of the prior Administration’s representatives to leak as much Russia-Trump “collusion” information (rather, inferences) as possible. They controlled the executive branch through January 19, 2017. They had access to everything. Yet no evidence of Trump collusion surfaced, probably because there isn’t any. This generation of Washington incumbents, years from now in their quiet moments, will look back at their actions with embarrassment. History may judge that their own short-sighted and foolish partisan agendas placed themselves before the country. But, alas, probably not, because like most in Washington they conflate their partisan interests with the country’s.
But all of that is beside the point. The Russian chimera remains. It’s grown larger today, much large, than it was last week. The President has only himself to blame. He’s not very good at this Washington game.
Yes, Comey deserved it. But who would question that Trump’s best course was to let it play out – under this FBI Director. There’s nothing there, and the President, of all people, knows it. Perhaps the President was deeply disturbed, if not distraught, that the investigatory focus is on him and not on the intelligence leaks. Perhaps he is even right.
Appearances Matter Greatly to a Presidency – President Trump Doesn’t Get It
But President Trump was apparently unable to discern that Comey’s firing creates the appearance of Presidential interference in the ongoing investigation of his campaign. He was apparently unable to appreciate the country’s essential need that a President must be seen as subject to the same rules and processes of investigation as other citizens. No President can long hold the moral suasion of the Presidency otherwise. The firing of the FBI Director during the pendency of this investigation creates that appearance. And who would argue it?
One can only wonder which geniuses in the President’s inner circle thought this was a good idea. Did anyone raise a voice against it? Colossal misjudgment by the gang that just can’t shoot straight. This collective failure is enough for anyone who hasn’t already lost confidence in this President’s decision-making to surrender all hope.
It’s not that the facts surrounding Trump’s decision are similar to those behind the Saturday Night Massacre – they are not. But the judgment within Trump’s firing decision is similar to the judgment within Nixon’s. They are both characterized by a failure to understand that the needs of the country supersede the needs of the President.
Yes, President Trump, we need a criminal investigation about intelligence leaks. Those leaks do hurt the country. But within this context, at this time, that is a secondary concern. Clearly so. Appearances do matter. They matter a lot. Yes, Comey deserved to be fired. But you were wrong to do it now. Your judgment was poor, yet again. You have weakened your presidency, yet again, and perhaps forever so.