Could Comey's dismissal mark the beginning of Trump's end?

Could Comey's dismissal mark the beginning of Trump's end?
Comment: Comey's dismissal is shocking, but as the White House becomes more opaque, and the media goes into overdrive, the real issues facing Americans are being neglected, writes Andrew Leber.
6 min read
12 May, 2017
White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway displays the dismissal letter Trump sent FBI Director Comey [Getty]

Donald Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey this week sums up everything we have come to expect - and can likely continue to expect - from his presidency. If the tragedy of the Nixon presidency's denouement - the only one thus far to end in resignation - is repeating itself as farce, it is a dark and mentally exhausting farce indeed.

There was the brutal speed of the deeply political move, with Comey's dismissal letter hand-delivered to his office by Trump's personal bodyguard while the director was off giving a talk in LA. True, FBI directors do serve "at the pleasure of the president" - though only one director has ever been dismissed before, and even then not for obvious political gain.

Just another of the norms of presidential behaviour that helps to keep our rickety mashup of 18th to early 20th century institutions running, tossed away at the drop of a hat.

There was the president's egotistical need even in the letter firing Comey, to stress that the director had allegedly told Trump three times - three times! - that he was not under any investigation. Surely this assertion, along with a certified letter he obtained from a Washington DC law firm, - like a schoolboy after a doctor's note excusing him from gym class - should be enough to dispel any suspicions of unsavoury ties between the president and unsavoury characters?

There was the immediate call by Democratic officials, concerned citizens, and critical observers to rein in Trump's actions and, predictably, there was also the mixture of concerned hand-wringing - but ultimately the stark refusal to take meaningful action among Republican ranks.

A few Republican Senators might be slightly more tiffed than normal, though I would not recommend holding your breath for any substantive change. 

[This is] an administration seeking maximal political advantage with minimal accountability

There was the inevitable succession of self-contradictory explanations and excuses offered by an administration seeking maximal political advantage with minimal accountability. Comey had exceeded his authority in side-stepping the Department of Justice during his investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email server. Or rather he had failed to quash leaks from the FBI and the administration, and had misspoken during testimony to Congress.

There was Mike Pence trying to make it seem like there was a measure of professionalism at work behind closed doors in the White House, painting a picture of a concerned Department of Justice recommending Comey's dismissal in the interest of the American people, and Trump accepting their recommendation.

Subsequently, there was the administration swiftly throwing Pence under the bus, in Trump stating unequivocally, that he had given the order for Trump to be fired whether or not the Attorney-General recommended it.

There was a competent journalist - in this case, Lester Holt for NBC - who valiantly tried, but failed, to get a clear answer from the president in direct questioning. Given Trump's disregard for speaking in coherent sentences, his mention that "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story" is less an explanation for Mr Comey being fired - or an admission of guilt - and more a means to steer the conversation back to the only topic Trump ever wants to talk about - winning the 2016 election.

There was the abject failure or willful unwillingness to consider the optics of anything, with President Trump meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Oval Office the day after Comey was fired. With all journalists barred - well, aside from Russia's official photographer-cum-state media photojournalist. And Henry Kissinger - Richard Nixon's National Security Advisor and Secretary of State - inexplicably present in the aftermath.

Just for good measure, there was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes on the grounds of the White House to avoid questions from reporters

Just for good measure, there was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes on the grounds of the White House to avoid questions from reporters, with his deputy Sarah Huckabee Sanders describing Comey's missteps as "atrocities".

Oh, and then there's the deluge of analyses and thinkpieces that will spill yet another small ocean of digital ink trying to outdo themselves in reminding Americans of the danger that Trump and his coterie of hangers-on pose to our country's institutions and way of life.

Yet unless these reasoned analyses or their readers can persuade or cajole into submission a select few key figures - namely Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or the head of the Senate's Russian meddling investigation Richard Burr - we are unlikely to see the kind of momentum needed to trigger a meaningful political check on Trump's actions.

Our courts cannot act on everything, yet the president's partisans in Congress by and large view themselves as anything but a check on executive authority.

We are unlikely to see the kind of momentum needed to trigger a meaningful political check on Trump's actions

Clearly I'm not the only one who feels that the US domestic news cycle has been kicked into overdrive, with no apparent "off" switch. I count no fewer than four articles published in recent weeks urging American news junkies to take a few days or a week off the endless scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, or Google News that accompanies each new outburst, outrage, overly emphatic Tweet or executive action from our dear leader.

For consumers of American media, stories on the Trump administration are quite literally crowding out most other international current affairs.

Too obsessive a focus on events in Washington - or Mar-a-Lago - is no doubt unhealthy and a distraction from meaningful political and social work closer to home. Our nation's problems continue to unfold whether any federal officials take the lead on solutions.

Young black men are still being shot by the police in murky circumstances with uncertain accountability. The Dakota Access Pipeline is forging ahead, and has already sprung a leak. Insurer defections from state healthcare exchanges chip away at what good the Affordable Care Act managed to achieve, egged on by the uncertainty of haphazard Republican attempts to ram through a replacement.

It looks like the drama is going to get darker before it gets lighter

Flint, Michigan, isn't the only city with lead in its water.

Many Americans are likely turned off by the political media circus, and are far beyond being convinced of the details of who violated which norms and principles of the Republic.

Still, high drama commands high ratings, as President Trump is no doubt aware - and, to paraphrase the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, it looks like the drama is going to get darker before it gets lighter.

An independent investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government would require Congressional approval, and thus will not be forthcoming unless something truly explosive and conclusive finds its way into the hands of the press.

And this, I feel, is the most likely long-term effect of Comey being fired - if the Trump administration truly did sack the director in a bid to clamp down on leaks, its likely there will be an awful lot more dismissals, as agents realise they have, at best, a fair-weather ally in the man elected to lead them.

Sceptical as I am that anything will end the Trump presidency before 2020 (save perhaps Trump himself growing tired of "more work than in my previous life") this is the one way I see that Comey's firing could lead - however indirectly - to Trump's undoing.

Until then… forward the Republic.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student in the department of government at Harvard University.

Follow him on Twitter: @AndrewMLeber

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.