Shock­waves from fir­ing

Edmonton Journal - - FRONT PAGE - An­drew Coyne

Among the many chal­lenges Don­ald Trump presents is sim­ple com­pre­hen­sion. His un­fit­ness for of­fice is so com­plete, his fail­ings as a man so pro­found, it is dif­fi­cult to take it all in. The mind re­sists: the con­stant temp­ta­tion is to think he can’t be as bad as all that, or to seek refuge in some imag­ined prece­dent. We have known, af­ter all, pres­i­dents who were liars, or cor­rupt, or in­com­pe­tent, or er­ratic. But we have never seen a pres­i­dent like this, who com­bines all of these qual­i­ties — in spades — and more: among them bot­tom­less ig­no­rance, child­like im­petu­ous­ness, and a rag­ing, non-stop, all-con­sum­ing nar­cis­sism.

Above all, we have never seen any­one rise to such high of­fice so un­bound by any of the usual norms of be­hav­iour, per­sonal, po­lit­i­cal or pres­i­den­tial, of which the past three months-plus have been a daily tu­to­rial. The fir­ing of James Comey, the FBI di­rec­tor, is of a piece with this. For a pres­i­dent, sev­eral of whose as­so­ciates are un­der crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, to fire the per­son at the head of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion is, of course, out­side ev­ery norm of con­sti­tu­tional gov­ern­ment and de­fies ev­ery un­der­stand­ing of the rule of law.

And yet the temp­ta­tion, even now, is to ra­tio­nal­ize: to as­sume, at the very least, there must be some method in his mad­ness. There is no ev­i­dence of this. The of­fi­cial ex­pla­na­tion for the fir­ing — that the pres­i­dent had sud­denly be­come dis­pleased with Comey’s han­dling of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Hil­lary Clin­ton’s emails he had ear­lier pub­licly praised — is trans­par­ently, clown­ishly false. There has been am­ple re­port­ing from in­side the White House that the de­ci­sion to fire Comey had been in the works for days, if not weeks; that it was mo­ti­vated by the pres­i­dent’s ir­ri­ta­tion at the FBI’s con­tin­u­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion into var­i­ous Trump as­so­ciates’ al­leged col­lu­sion with the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment to throw the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to Trump.

But even with­out the tor­rent of leaks from within, Trump’s mo­tives would be com­i­cally ob­vi­ous: wit­ness that bizarre aside, in his let­ter to Comey, to the ef­fect that Comey had “on three sep­a­rate oc­ca­sions” in­formed him that he was not per­son­ally un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

To pre­tend the de­ci­sion was based on the ad­vice of Jeff Ses­sions, his at­tor­ney gen­eral, not­with­stand­ing the lat­ter’s ear­lier re­cusal from any in­volve­ment in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter he was found to have lied about his own deal­ings with the Rus­sians; to have all this break hours be­fore he was to meet with the Rus­sian for­eign minister; to com­pound the Nixon-era as­so­ci­a­tions with a photo op with Henry Kissinger — these are not the ac­tions of a strate­gic ge­nius.

But if Trump’s ev­ery move sug­gests he has some­thing to hide, that does not mean fir­ing Comey will have no im­pact on the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Trump need not in­stall a more com­pli­ant di­rec­tor to fur­ther slow its progress. He can, as David Frum has sug­gested, sim­ply leave the of­fice va­cant for months on end, as he has hun­dreds of oth­ers. Nei­ther should Comey’s fir­ing be seen in iso­la­tion: this is the third se­nior le­gal officer Trump has dis­missed, af­ter act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Sally Yates and New York fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Preet Bharara. All three were re­spon­si­ble for var­i­ous as­pects of the Trump-Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

As crude and ob­vi­ous as Trump’s ob­struc­tion of jus­tice may ap­pear, in other words, that does not make it any less ob­struc­tive, or less de­fi­ant of a foun­da­tional prin­ci­ple of any law-based state: that no one, no mat­ter how pow­er­ful, is above the law. Those fine minds who think the re­ally es­sen­tial point to make at this mo­ment is that it is “per­fectly le­gal” for Trump to fire the FBI di­rec­tor, or that the Democrats didn’t care much for Comey ei­ther, might wish to con­sider how they be­came so blind to con­text. What­ever Trump’s pow­ers, what­ever Comey’s mis­takes, for the pres­i­dent to fire the FBI di­rec­tor in the very mid­dle of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his ad­min­is­tra­tion — an in­ves­ti­ga­tion that, what­ever his protes­ta­tions, is very likely to touch upon the pres­i­dent him­self — is self-ev­i­dently un­ac­cept­able.

The im­me­di­ate im­per­a­tive is to see that Trump does not suc­ceed in the at­tempt: to carry on with the var­i­ous con­gres­sional in­quiries into the af­fair; to ap­point a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor to over­see any crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion; and so on. But the im­pli­ca­tions of what has just hap­pened go well beyond the specifics of the case.

The com­fort­ing sup­po­si­tion that Trump, what­ever dan­ger his pres­i­dency might present, could be con­tained by the checks and bal­ances built into the U.S. sys­tem, is now very much in doubt. For ul­ti­mately checks and bal­ances


de­pend upon a will­ing­ness of the pres­i­dent to be so checked and bal­anced — the very kind of norm that Trump has shown at ev­ery turn he is un­will­ing to ob­serve.

We have been given a pic­ture of the next four years, in which the best-case scenario is that the U.S. con­tin­ues to drift — dis­tracted, par­a­lyzed, con­sumed by scan­dals, with no pol­icy di­rec­tion but the whims of an in­creas­ingly para­noid pres­i­dent and which­ever side is as­cen­dant in the con­stant civil wars within his ad­min­is­tra­tion. And the worst case? Oh, how about nu­clear war in Korea?

The ques­tion is whether this prospect can safely be en­dured. And the an­swer, it is now clear, is no. If sense pre­vailed, the wheels would al­ready be in mo­tion to re­move him from of­fice. Alas, po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions on both sides of the aisle may con­spire to leave him there: the Repub­li­cans, in dread of the tur­moil his re­moval would un­leash among their base; the Democrats, be­cause he may help de­liver them the Congress, as early as 2018.

They should think again. The risk is too great, not just to the repub­lic, but to the world.


U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump meets with Rus­sian For­eign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Rus­sian Am­bas­sador to the U.S. Sergei Kislyak on Wed­nes­day., a day af­ter Trump fired the FBI chief who was look­ing into ties be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and Rus­sia...


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