What last week means

The pres­i­dent’s men­ac­ing be­hav­ior sul­lies key in­sti­tu­tions of Amer­i­can democ­racy.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - EDITORIALS

THE NEWS last week emerged in such fits and starts, and with such shift­ing ex­pla­na­tions, that its grave im­pli­ca­tions may not have sunk in for many Amer­i­cans. It is worth re­view­ing what we know: (1) Pres­i­dent Trump fired the direc­tor of the FBI, in the fourth year of his 10-year term, be­cause the pres­i­dent was up­set that Mr. Comey was lead­ing an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion of pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign in 2016. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion was gain­ing mo­men­tum as Mr. Trump struck.

(2) Mr. Trump ini­tially mis­rep­re­sented the rea­son for the fir­ing and al­lowed other mem­bers of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, in­clud­ing Vice Pres­i­dent Pence, to grossly mis­in­form Congress and the pub­lic. Mr. Trump’s ini­tial let­ter gave the im­pres­sion that he was act­ing on a rec­om­men­da­tion from the Jus­tice Depart­ment and that Mr. Comey was fired for mis­han­dling the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails. “It was all him,” spokesman Sean Spicer said, re­fer­ring to Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein. “That was a DOJ [Depart­ment of Jus­tice] de­ci­sion,” he said. Mr. Pence por­trayed Mr. Rosen­stein as ini­ti­at­ing the ac­tion — he “came to work, sat down and made the rec­om­men­da­tion” — and Mr. Trump as sim­ply “ac­cept­ing” it.

By Thurs­day, in his in­ter­view with NBC’s Lester Holt, Mr. Trump was ac­knowl­edg­ing that he de­cided to fire Mr. Comey be­fore so­lic­it­ing and re­ceiv­ing any rec­om­men­da­tions and that the Clin­ton emails were not his mo­ti­va­tion. “When I de­cided to just do it, I said to my­self, I said, you know, this Rus­sia thing with Trump and Rus­sia is a made-up story.”

(3) In Jan­uary, ac­cord­ing to Mr. Trump, the pres­i­dent dined pri­vately with Mr. Comey at Mr. Comey’s re­quest and asked the FBI direc­tor to tell him whether he was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. That would be trou­bling. In a more trou­bling — and, in our view, more plau­si­ble — ver­sion pro­vided by Mr. Comey’s as­so­ci­ates, the pres­i­dent ini­ti­ated the din­ner and used the oc­ca­sion to de­mand the FBI direc­tor’s “loy­alty.”

(4) On Fri­day, as the con­tra­dic­tory ver­sions of that din­ner added to Mr. Trump’s po­lit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties, he is­sued a men­ac­ing tweet — “James Comey bet­ter hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations be­fore he starts leak­ing to the press!” — and threat­ened to can­cel the daily press brief­ings through which pres­i­dents nor­mally com­mu­ni­cate their plans and poli­cies to the Amer­i­can peo­ple.

Some of what we learned from this se­ries of events is only a mat­ter of re­learn­ing. Mr. Trump’s in­con­stant fidelity to truth, for one ex­am­ple: Just think back to the thou­sands of Mus­lims he claimed to see cel­e­brat­ing the 9/11 at­tacks. His breezy con­tempt for the rule of law, for another: Re­call his at­tacks on Judge Gon­zalo P. Curiel dur­ing the cam­paign and on the “so-called” judge who blocked his visa ban. His per­son­al­iza­tion of ev­ery is­sue is hardly news ei­ther.

But last week he wielded these traits in a man­ner that threat­ened the in­de­pen­dence of fed­eral law en­force­ment and sul­lied key in­sti­tu­tions of U.S. democ­racy. The White House Coun­sel’s Of­fice, which is meant to de­fend the pres­i­dency and not just the pres­i­dent, failed to rise to the oc­ca­sion. A half-dozen ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials know­ingly or un­wit­tingly spoke false­hoods. The at­tor­ney gen­eral ar­guably vi­o­lated his pledge to re­cuse him­self from all mat­ters re­lated to Rus­sia and the elec­tion, and the newly in­stalled deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral found him­self com­pro­mised. The pres­i­dent in­jected him­self into an in­ves­ti­ga­tion where he has ab­so­lutely no right to in­ter­fere.

We have said for months that that in­ves­ti­ga­tion — into Rus­sian med­dling in the U.S. elec­tion — must be a pri­or­ity for both the ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branches. We need to know what the Rus­sians did and take steps to pre­vent a re­cur­rence. To that ur­gent in­quiry now must be added an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the events and dis­clo­sures of last week. Congress and the Amer­i­can peo­ple must hear from Mr. Comey and Mr. Rosen­stein, and Congress must en­sure that the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tions pro­ceed, un­fet­tered.

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