When President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey two weeks ago the White House’s official reason was that President Trump no longer had confidence in Comey and that it felt he was being insubordinate. The list of insubordinations was long, it included such acts as not giving the White House a preview of Comey’s upcoming testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Comey’s support of former Obama officials including ex-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
In the wake of the firing, top figures in the Democratic Party as well as media commentators nearly lost their minds, calling for a special prosecutor for accusations Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia and grumbling about how Trump could possibly be removed under the fourth section of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. Perhaps in an effort to appease Congressional lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that a special prosecutor in the form of former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been appointed to look into the Russia-related matters.
Most threatening for the president is that former Director Comey is now saying that Trump asked him to stand down from investigating ex-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn as well as asking if, as president, he was under personal investigation himself. According to Comey’s recollection, Trump said to him regarding Flynn, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go… He is a good guy… I hope you can let this go.” If Comey is right, and Trump did, in fact, utter these words, the Democrats could have a case of obstruction of justice.
But according to President Trump, he made no such suggestion. (“No, no, next question,” Trump recently answered when pointedly asked about the matter by a reporter.) Without a recording of the instances of this request made of Comey, it comes down to a “He said, he said” accusation on both sides.
While many judges and officials might be inclined to believe a former director of the FBI over a president who at one point or another has been known to slightly exaggerate, even a Congressional committee investigating these issue may be hard-pressed to recommend charges against the president since many of the members of such a committee would be Republicans and Trump’s denial adds a sliver of reasonable doubt to the case. On the other hand, if a recording of Trump’s words exists, it becomes a whole other ballgame.
The fact of the matter is that Democrats would love for this to be Trump’s Bill Clinton-“I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” a Monica Lewinsky moment. But the reality is that without a tape or any other incriminating evidence, this matter likely falls just short of the mark needed to begin impeachment proceedings against Trump, which Democratic Congressman Al Green of Texas has called for on the floor of the House of Representatives. President Trump likely is aware of this and should be expected to double down on his statements in the coming weeks and months.
In the meantime, amidst the brouhaha made by Mueller’s appointment, it hasn’t helped matters any that during a meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the president was accused of revealing classified intelligence secrets.
Here again, the president has issued denials, which both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster were quick to back up. Still, this incident has only emboldened the Democrats and makes more of a case that Trump has helped Russia in the past and was trying to squash any potential investigation into Russian collusion.
But the truth is that the meeting with the Russian ambassador was a completely unrelated matter (although to be honest, it was probably ill-advised for the president to meet him at all) and is only smoke, as opposed to a fire source that the Democrats could use for impeachment proceedings and/or character assassination of Trump in the press (which they’re heavily engaging in anyway).
To be clear, in the end, both of these incidents are smoke, and not a fire. The smoke may be thick and billowing, but without a “gun” for it to be issuing from, the Democrats are left only with sputtering accusations.
Special prosecutors can take months or even years to build their cases, and it’s an open question whether Mueller’s investigation will end up hampering Congress’ own (it’s possible that certain key witnesses may testify only to Mueller or that Mueller could withhold information from Congress until his investigation is complete. This raises another slight possibility — that Trump actually recommended the appointment of a special prosecutor in order to take some of the heat from Congress off himself, but the likelihood of this scenario is low).
In short, yes, the firing of Comey was a big deal. But the truth is that Trump should have done it much earlier — he should have done it on Inauguration Day, so he could have avoided the accusation that Comey’s termination was payback for any specific action of the director at the Bureau while Trump was in office.
As some in the media have argued, an astute Washington politician would have recognized this risk and eliminated Comey just as other Obama holdovers (such as U.S. attorneys) were let go shortly after Trump was sworn in.
But the FBI Director is appointed to a 10-year term, so Trump would have had to come up with some kind of excuse at the time for the firing. It appears that Trump wanted to give Comey the benefit of the doubt as far as partisan loyalties, but in hindsight, this appears to have been a giant mistake. Leaving Comey in place gave the Democrats a quasi-inside man who could work against the White House while giving the outward appearance that he was a loyal servant. If Trump is guilty of any crime, it’s of not knowing how Washington games are played and underestimating how badly the Democrats want to see him gone.
For conservatives’ sake, readers can only hope that Trump is learning powerful lessons from this affair and will take much more care in what he says to department heads and the chiefs of government agencies in the future. Sometimes knowing when not to speak or what not to say can be just as important as trying to make friends with bureaucrats or ask for political favors.
This affair is far from over, and if it proceeds down too dark a path, it could end in Trump’s impeachment or forced resignation. Even if he’s completely innocent, Trump may not wish to undergo the brutal scrutiny and browbeating the press and Congress is likely to give him over these matters.
Trump has already referred to the appointment of Mueller as “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history” that can only “hurt the country.” “I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things,” said the president. “There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can always speak for myself and the Russians — Zero,” he said.