By Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow for US Defence and Editor of Strategic Comments
The striking revelation that in February US President Donald Trump asked then-FBI director James Comey to kill the FBI’s investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s Russia ties – which had just forced Flynn’s resignation – has sent the White House into near-meltdown. This information, based on Comey’s contemporaneous internal memorandum of the conversation, further strengthens the conclusion that Trump’s primary motivation for firing Comey last week was to head off the FBI’s investigation of possible Trump-campaign collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The administration’s purported explanation for the firing was that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, guided by his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, had concluded that Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server – including Comey’s pre-election revelation that the FBI had discovered new emails possibly related to the investigation, and his recent inaccurate Senate testimony about the nature of those emails – had irreparably damaged Comey’s credibility, and that Trump was acting upon their recommendation in order to restore the FBI’s public image. Yet even without Comey’s memo, for the administration to exculpate Clinton and inculpate Comey was so arch as to be laughable – think Captain Renault shutting down Rick’s Café for illicit gambling – given Trump’s public history of doing just the opposite. To make the episode still more ridiculous, Comey’s dismissal immediately followed his request for more resources for the Russia investigation.
Republican lawmakers nevertheless appeared initially willing to swallow the Clinton-email justification; some said that Democrats shouldn’t complain, since they themselves had been appalled by Comey’s pre-election intervention. In the event, as new official explanations replaced earlier ones willy-nilly, Trump himself conceded to NBC News’s Lester Holt that ‘this Russia thing’ had been on his mind in getting rid of Comey – close to an admission that he intended to obstruct justice.
Before his dismissal, Comey appeared to be on a mission of sorts. He had earned a reputation for integrity in 2004, as deputy attorney general, by thwarting the efforts of then-president George W. Bush’s White House counsel to inveigle a hospitalised and sedated attorney general John Ashcroft into approving a surveillance programme that Comey and his staff had determined was unlawful. In congressional hearings, he seemed to acknowledge that his October surprise had tainted that reputation, finding the notion that he might have affected the election’s results ‘mildly nauseous’. Comey’s doggedness in the pursuit of the truth about the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia thus potentially served two purposes: diverting blame for Trump’s victory from Comey himself and, in any case, rehabilitating his status as a law-enforcement official. Trump, for his part, was offended that Comey had implied that his victory was unmerited, and outraged at his assertion that, contrary to Trump’s claims, the Obama administration had not authorised or executed any wiretaps on Trump. But what must have really scared the president was that for Comey the rule of law overrode personal loyalty to Trump – in short, that Comey would put his country first.
While a number of Republican legislators have been critical of Trump’s performance as president, few have been willing to back up words with deeds – for instance, by voting against his appointments or the bills he supports. The Comey firing, however, constitutes a new level of egregiousness, and could become a tipping point for popular and official frustration with presidential abuses. To be sure, 80% of Republican voters still support Trump, and his base has continued to express firm loyalty. But Republican Senators Burr, Collins, Corker, Flake, Graham, Heller, Lee, McCain, Sasse and Toomey, among others, have expressed grave concerns about Trump’s recent conduct, and Republicans are increasingly calling for an independent investigation of the connections between Trump’s team and Russia. On Tuesday, McCain commented that Trump’s conduct had grown to ‘Watergate size and scale’, as some Democrats began to raise the possibility of impeachment explicitly. Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s stonewalling support may be cracking, as he has pleaded for ‘less drama’ from the White House for the sake of the Republicans’ legislative agenda. And according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday, a 59% majority of Americans – 79% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans – favour an independent investigation. In dumping Comey, Trump might have sacrificed long-term political security for short-term bureaucratic insulation.
The United States may now be in a low-simmering constitutional crisis. Even so, analogies with Watergate – and the trigger effect that President Richard Nixon’s firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox (the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’) had – tend to be too pat. The United States was not as polarised in the early 1970s as it is now, and Nixon faced a Democratic Congress. Trump, however, may have under-estimated the degree of bureaucratic as well as congressional pushback he is courting. Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe has directly contradicted Trump administration claims that Comey had lost the confidence of the FBI rank-and-file. Comey’s unceremonious termination appears only to have redoubled his own determination to save his reputation: he has indicated that he would testify publicly before Congress about the Russia investigation and related matters. If, as is rumoured, Flynn and Paul Manafort, Trump’s ex-campaign chairman, are indicted, they could be induced to provide testimony that damages Trump.
Especially in light of Comey’s memo about the Flynn inquiry, disgust within the FBI could produce a new ‘Deep Throat’, whose revelations could intensify public opinion against Trump and galvanise more substantial bipartisan opposition in Congress. Indeed, several significant leakers have already emerged. It remains somewhat unlikely that inside disclosures would give rise to impeachment under the present Republican-dominated Congress. But, combined with Trump’s poor domestic performance, his increasingly evident psychological and intellectual unsuitability for his job, and his consequently cascading infelicities, they could erode enough Trump voter support to flip Congress to the Democrats at the midterm elections in 2018. In that case, impeachment – or removal by other means – would become more than a merely theoretical possibility.