Comey's dismissal may turn the anti-Trump wave into a tsunami
by Dana Milbank
May 9, 2017
This will not stand.
The sacking brought immediate outrage and obvious comparisons to President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, when the scandal-engulfed president ordered the Watergate prosecutor fired in a doomed attempt to keep that probe from ensnaring him. Trump, like Nixon, will fail, for a simple reasons: The institutions he is assaulting daily are stronger than he thinks. His autocratic instincts have been checked every step of the way. Trump will, inevitably, be spanked again.
He attempted a variant of the “Muslim ban” he spoke of during the campaign, ordering a halt to travel by people from certain Muslim-majority nations. He was shot down in court.
He ominously questioned the legitimacy of “so-called” judges because of the ruling and said they should be blamed for terrorist attacks, while his White House said his authority “will not be questioned.” The courts begged to differ; his revised travel ban, too, is snarled in court.
He recklessly escalated tensions with North Korea and with Iran and snubbed a key ally in Germany’s Angela Merkel. But cooler heads in the Pentagon and the State Department have calmed jittery allies and restored some measure of stability, conveying to them that Trump is not really in charge.
He injected himself into the French presidential elections with his praise for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen — and French voters rejected her by 2-to-1, following Dutch voters’ rejection of another far-right populist in the Trump mold.
He released a budget that slashed major government functions and domestic programs. But American public opinion has turned sharply against Trump, making it easier for Democrats to oppose him. In the spending bill that Congress passed last week, Democrats successfully repelled Trump’s border wall, deportation force and cuts to Planned Parenthood, the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and more.
The plain truth is Trump’s clumsy assaults on democratic norms are being resoundingly rejected. The Cook Political Report is already talking about the possibility of a “midterm wave” against Republicans, and it shifted ratings in 20 House races — all in Democrats’ direction. At town-hall meetings, House Republicans who were badgered by the White House into voting for “Trumpcare” last week are already backpedaling.
At Monday’s hearing on the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, only six Republicans spoke (versus nine Democrats) and not one of them attempted a real defense of the president’s actions on disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the panel’s chairman, openly mocked Trump’s claims that the election hacking might not have been done by Russia but by a “400-pound guy sitting on a bed or any other country.”
Many of us feared during the campaign that Trump would be a threat to democracy, operating outside the Constitution, using demagoguery to turn white Americans against immigrants and religious and racial minorities. That hasn’t happened, though not for lack of trying on Trump’s part. His instincts are authoritarian, but the Trump presidency has been one pratfall after another. He has proved to be a blundering bully and an inept autocrat.
At a single White House briefing Monday, the questioning revealed all manner of disarray. Conservatives, one questioner noted, were worried that the White House is “woefully behind” in filling administration posts and judicial vacancies. The education secretary and other senior administration officials weren’t even aware of a signing statement Trump issued on historically black colleges. Trump’s political website had, until this week, called the travel ban a “Muslim” ban even as the administration insisted it wasn’t. And 30 days into the 90-day period Trump’s opioid commission has to issue a report, no members of the commission have been named.
Now we may have the clumsiest moment yet of this presidency. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who had a sterling reputation when he was confirmed two weeks ago, instantly turned himself into a Trump stooge — Trump’s Robert Bork, to continue the Nixonian parallel — Tuesday evening. Questions about Comey’s performance are legitimate, but the timing of the firing, a day after a damaging hearing about Trump’s Russia ties, left the clear impression this was all about killing the FBI’s Russia probe.
Rosenstein has one chance to rehabilitate his reputation: He can name a special prosecutor to continue the probe. If he doesn’t, the wave of rebellion against Trump so far will become a tsunami, and it will swamp Trump’s protectors in the polls.
This president may think himself unassailable, but Americans are seeing him for what he is: a tin-pot tyrant.
Donald Trump's Firing of James Comey
by the editorial board
The New York Times
May 9, 2017
The American people — not to mention the credibility of the world’s oldest democracy — require a thorough, impartial investigation into the extent of Russia’s meddling with the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump and, crucially, whether high-ranking members of Mr. Trump’s campaign colluded in that effort.
By firing the F.B.I. director, James Comey, late Tuesday afternoon, President Trump has cast grave doubt on the viability of any further investigation into what could be one of the biggest political scandals in the country’s history.
The explanation for this shocking move — that Mr. Comey’s bungling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server violated longstanding Justice Department policy and profoundly damaged public trust in the agency — is impossible to take at face value. Certainly Mr. Comey deserves all the criticism heaped upon him for his repeated missteps in that case, but just as certainly, that’s not the reason Mr. Trump fired him.
Mr. Trump had nothing but praise for Mr. Comey when, in the final days of the presidential campaign, he informed Congress that the bureau was reopening the investigation into Mrs. Clinton’s emails. “He brought back his reputation,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “It took a lot of guts.”
Of course, if Mr. Trump truly believed, as he said in his letter of dismissal, that Mr. Comey had undermined “public trust and confidence” in the agency, he could just as well have fired him on his first day in office.
Mr. Comey was fired because he was leading an active investigation that could bring down a president. Though compromised by his own poor judgment, Mr. Comey’s agency has been pursuing ties between the Russian government and Mr. Trump and his associates, with potentially ruinous consequences for the administration.
With congressional Republicans continuing to resist any serious investigation, Mr. Comey’s inquiry was the only aggressive effort to get to the bottom of Russia’s ties to the Trump campaign. So far, the scandal has engulfed Paul Manafort, one of Mr. Trump’s campaign managers; Roger Stone, a longtime confidant; Carter Page, one of the campaign’s early foreign-policy advisers; Michael Flynn, who was forced out as national security adviser; and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself in March from the Russia inquiry after failing to disclose during his confirmation hearings that he had met twice during the campaign with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
We have said that Mr. Comey’s atrocious handling of the Clinton email investigation, which arguably tipped the election to Mr. Trump, proved that he could not be trusted to be neutral, and that the only credible course of action would be the appointment of a special prosecutor. Given all that has happened — the firing of the F.B.I. director, on top of Mr. Trump’s firing of the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, and his dismissal of nearly all United States attorneys — the need for such a prosecutor is plainer than ever. Because Mr. Sessions is recused, the decision to name a special prosecutor falls to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, whose memo, along with a separate one by Mr. Sessions, provided Mr. Trump with the pretense to fire Mr. Comey.
This is a tense and uncertain time in the nation’s history. The president of the United States, who is no more above the law than any other citizen, has now decisively crippled the F.B.I.’s ability to carry out an investigation of him and his associates. There is no guarantee that Mr. Comey’s replacement, who will be chosen by Mr. Trump, will continue that investigation; in fact, there are already hints to the contrary.
The obvious historical parallel to Mr. Trump’s action was the so-called Saturday Night Massacre in October 1973, when President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor investigating Watergate, prompting the principled resignations of the attorney general and his deputy. But now, there is no special prosecutor in place to determine whether the public trust has been violated, and whether the presidency was effectively stolen by a hostile foreign power. For that reason, the country has reached an even more perilous moment.
Is This Donald Trump's Saturday Night Massacre?
By Issac Chotiner
May 9, 2017
On Tuesday, President Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI, whose agency is overseeing an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. To discuss Trump’s decision, and whether it has Nixonian parallels, I spoke by phone with historian John A. Farrell, the author of the new book Richard Nixon: A Life. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the details of the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s mental state during the Watergate scandal, and the importance of bipartisanship to keeping the executive branch in check.
Isaac Chotiner: As a historian of Nixon, what do you make of the comparisons we have been hearing today to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre?
John A. Farrell: There are two big differences. One is that Trump is Trump, and this could just be Trump being Trump. And the other is that the House and the Senate are controlled by the Republican Party, and so we may never find out what happened. The actions that the president and his staff have taken, their behavior, mirrors that of Nixon and his staff when they were frantically trying to cover up felonious behavior, including in the president’s case, obstruction of justice. But up to this point, we don’t have any clear proof or evidence that this is something more than just politics—that it is a matter of law. So it would seem to me that the logical thing to do to restore confidence in the integrity of the government would be to have a Select Committee with the Democrats having real influence, or having Attorney General Sessions appoint a special counsel, as he has the power to do, to investigate whether this is Trump being Trump or Nixonian.
Tell me a bit more about the specifics about how the Saturday Night Massacre went down.
One of the interesting things about the Saturday Night Massacre is that both Alexander Haig, the president’s chief of staff, and Elliot Richardson, the attorney general, thought they had reached an agreement. And in fact, the bones of one agreement were submitted to Howard Baker and Sam Ervin of the Watergate Committee and were OK’d by them. The idea was something along the lines of having a judge or a senator listen to the Watergate tapes and decide whether or not they were incriminating and whether to go forward with them.
Behind all of that, however, was this burning desire by the president to dismiss [special prosecutor] Archibald Cox, because Cox had gone into areas that ranged far beyond the Watergate break-in. He was going into Nixon’s business relations and looking at the use of funds on Nixon’s properties. He was going into the Republican Party’s use of campaign funds. Nixon was as outraged as subsequent presidents would be by the way independent counsels took their brief and expanded it to find any kind of a crime to justify their existence. So in some ways the grounds for a compromise seemed to be available, and in other ways Nixon’s behavior made a compromise impossible.
What is the biggest difference between Washington in 1973 and Washington today?
I think there is far more cynicism now. The fact that you can have presidents blatantly lying the way Trump does. Nixon had to craft his lies in a way that Americans would believe it. Trump just says whatever he believes his base will find somewhat logical or believable or can hang their hat on. Everyone treats the system with incredible cynicism. You also had people then like Lowell Weicker and Howard Baker on the Republican side, and several members of the House Judiciary Committee who saw a duty to government and not to “our team is the good guys and your team is the bad guys and screw you.”
How would you describe Nixon’s mental state at the time of the massacre? Was he being paranoid and crazy, or behaving as a rational actor pursuing his only route of self-preservation left?
By the accounts of Kissinger and some of the telephone transcripts that have survived, it is clear that Nixon by October of 1973 was in a very stressed-out state and in fact had a series of crises: Spiro Agnew resigning to escape prison, the Yom Kippur War and the Soviets’ use of that to expand their toehold in the Middle East, and then the firing of Cox and the firestorm which came after it. And then the series of revelations that were as damaging as the massacre, including the gap in the tapes and whether he was using federal funds on his homes. There is ample evidence. Kissinger talks about Nixon being loaded and calling him sounding semi-hysterical and saying essentially, “They are out to kill the president and I may physically die.” You have Brezhnev in Washington saying they should pull back, because the president is going off the deep end and we don’t want to start a war. Even real Nixon defenders like his daughter Julie, and Billy Graham, concede Nixon was drinking more. There is a recent study where they examined Nixon’s calendar and found that he was becoming more and more remote from the job. There was definitely aberrational behavior from the president of the United States.
Looking back on the reaction in 1973 to the massacre, what are hopeful signs, going forward, that we live in a healthy society?
I think you would have to see Mitch McConnell and enough members of his caucus—and I am not sure if this is possible—come out and stand at a press conference with [Chuck] Schumer and appoint a select committee with Democrats which had subpoena power and staff. This isn’t just about Comey; this is about whether the 2016 election was somehow tainted. This is serious baseline stuff, and it needs to be looked at. It’s frustrating and astonishing that you don’t have a serious, independent look at it.
Comey's firing was Trump's nuclear option on Russia probe
by Julian Zelizer
May 10, 2017
(CNN)President Trump dropped a bombshell Tuesday with the announcement that he had fired FBI Director James Comey -- just days after Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about, among other things, the bureau's investigation into Russian meddling in the election that propelled Trump to the presidency.
Trump has stunned the political world once again by issuing the orders to remove one of the most important figures in this entire investigation.
Ironically, the announcement comes at a time when former secretary of state and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has been telling audiences that Comey was a key factor behind her loss in November. His infamous announcement in late October that the FBI was looking into new emails revived the specter of the earlier probe into Clinton's emails just before voters went to the polls. Many experts agree that the announcement cost her points with voters.
But then Comey turned into a problem for President Trump. The Russia investigation has hung over Trump like a dark cloud since his first days in office. Even as congressional committees have stumbled over partisanship in their own probes of Russia's interference, the FBI seems to have been driving forward at an aggressive pace, continuing to give strong indications about evidence that Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian officials during the campaign.
While Trump has continually denied any collusion and has lobbed accusations of his own, the FBI appears to have been keeping its eye on the ball.
President Trump's decision to fire Comey is the second such dismissal to rock the administration. When the President announced the resignation of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates in January for refusing to implement the administration's refugee ban, the comparison to President Richard Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" instantly lit up the headlines.
In that 1973 event, Nixon fired independent prosecutor Archibald Cox for his aggressive inquiry into Watergate. It turns out that was nothing, compared with the firing of Comey in the middle of this inquiry. It is a stunning blow to any attempt to obtain legitimate, non-partisan information about what went wrong in the campaign and why.
The justification provided in the administration's memorandum on the firing -- that it came in response to Comey's mishandling of the Clinton investigation -- doesn't pass the laugh test.
While it is true that candidate Trump has complained that Comey gave Clinton "a free pass" in his decision not to bring criminal charges against her, Trump and his surrogates capitalized on that investigation more than anyone else. The President refused to take any action on that front until now. This is not about Hillary Clinton.
There is no reason that the public should trust the congressional committees to do the job any longer. Indeed the House investigation completely broke down when it became clear that the chair of the committee, Congressman Devin Nunes, displayed more loyalty to the party and President than to finding out the truth.
The Senate committee then stalled and delayed until criticism finally pushed it toward doing its job. But the power of partisanship remains strong, and many observers are skeptical that Senate Republicans, like Texas' Ted Cruz, are willing to go where the facts take them.
From the start, President Trump has showed little interest in finding out what happened during the election. This has been one of the most suspicious aspects of his response. He has attacked President Barack Obama with false allegations of wiretapping, he has dismissed all the evidence and accusations coming out about campaign officials, and he has taken a strident stand against all the institutions that show any sign of standing up to him.
The reason that the Saturday Night Massacre stung President Nixon so badly was because the firing proved to the public that the President really was frightened that the truth would come out. He was unwilling to let the institutions of government do their job, and the decision to get rid of Archibald Cox demonstrated that the President would do anything to protect his interests.
This part of the Watergate cover-up, and, even worse, the effort to actively fight the investigation, turned public opinion against him.
The question now is whether Trump has enough Teflon support from his base to keep even this from hurting his standing. His public approval ratings are low; it's unclear how much lower they can sink. But there are several other ways in which he is vulnerable.
Firing Comey could begin to make a dent in the strong support that he has enjoyed among Republicans, who will recognize this as a blatant effort to circumvent the law and cover up the truth. The firing will also put Congress -- both parties -- on notice that this is a President who will do almost anything to protect himself. Today's firing could encourage the leaders of both parties to double down with their investigations.
More than anything else thus far, this announcement fuels the perception that President Trump is scared about something. There was no obvious reason for the administration to take this step and it's hard not to be skeptical about the reasons for it to be taken at this moment.
From the day he stepped into the White House, President Trump has raised concerns that he does not adequately respect the boundaries of power. He has dismissed concerns about the conflicts of interest with his family business, he has openly attacked judges and Congress as illegitimate, and he has attempted to use executive power in an aggressive fashion.
Firing James Comey right in the middle of the Russia debate looks like President Trump's nuclear option to dealing with an investigation into the very foundations of his power.
The Senate has a big job to do, and Senate Republicans will need to insist, through the power of confirmation, that President Trump appoint someone of the highest standing to replace James Comey and to see that this investigation is allowed to go wherever it might take the agency.
Senate Republicans must show that they are more loyal to the nation than their party. Democrats, who have little love for Comey after his pronouncements about Clinton before the election, need to show that they can work with the GOP on this issue to make sure someone strong takes over the job. Better yet would be to take up Senator Chuck Schumer's plan to appoint a special prosecutor, which is now the only way to move forward with a serious investigation.
Without such action, the legitimacy of the 2016 election and the legitimacy of this President will remain a question. Congress must rectifying this imperial act -- or the health of our democracy will continue to hang in the balance.