Woonsocket Call

Maybe Trump isn’t authoritar­ian; just incompeten­t

- Megan McArdle Bloomberg View McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist, and founded the blog Asymmetric­al Informatio­n. She is the author of "The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the

What happened to James Comey is not particular­ly unusual in Washington: When a political scandal explodes at your agency, you are expected to protect the president by risking your own reputation and, possibly, your job. And yet, the particular­s of the case make it deeply troubling.

Start with the reason Comey was fired. Coming from the man who basked in chants of "Lock her up!" at his campaign rallies, firing someone for mishandlin­g the investigat­ion into Hillary Clinton's emails does no more than provoke helpless laughter, liberally mixed with tears. Politico's reporting offers a much more plausible explanatio­n: Trump was frustrated by the investigat­ion into his campaign's Russia connection­s, and wants it to go away. So he fired the guy at the head of the agency that's conducting it.

This is not the behavior of an American president; it is the behavior of a tinpot autocrat who thinks that the government exists to serve him, rather than the country. And it's almost as troubling that Trump seems unaware that he is not a tinpot autocrat; he is the head of a state with a long (if perhaps somewhat checkered) democratic tradition.

This is also the behavior of an ineffectiv­e president, since the best way to ensure that this investigat­ion grinds along to its inexorable conclusion is to summarily fire the man in charge of it. Comey's replacemen­t will not dare to shut it down, for fear of looking like the president's water-carrier. And if that replacemen­t, incredibly, actually does try to interfere, he is likely to face open revolt from the FBI's rank and file, who are, unsurprisi­ngly, already quite unhappy about what was done to Comey.

Had Trump put more effort into preparing himself for the job of president, he might have learned about an old adage, one dating to Watergate: "It's not the crime, it's the coverup." The investigat­ion into Russian connection­s has made for some bad news cycles for the president, but my expectatio­n had been that eventually it would wind up with nothing very damaging — perhaps tainting a few advisers who could be thrown off the back of the sled to feed the wolves running behind. Now, however, Trump has made sure that the FBI will pursue this thing to the last lead, the press will keep it pinned to the front pages, and a lot of voters will ask themselves why the president was so desperate to suppress it.

If all this weren't sufficient­ly troubling, there's also the way the firing was carried out. Perhaps if he hadn't been so secretive about intending to fire Comey, Trump's advisers would have had time to explain that this was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea. According to Politico's reporting, at least one person did try to explain this: Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York. Trump, "taken aback", ignored his sound advice. Shortly after the firing was announced, Schumer was in front of reporters doing exactly what any moderately politicall­y savvy person would have predicted: suggesting a cover- up and calling for a special prosecutor.

Comey, meanwhile, apparently learned that he'd been sacked from the television, while visiting an FBI office out of town. This flagrant gesture of contempt will ensure that the FBI is really thoroughly enraged as they settle down to investigat­ing the president's campaign.

In theory, of course, our law enforcemen­t is splendidly unbiased, interested only in the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In reality, of course, it is run by human beings, who cannot help but have human emotions when they are abused. Which is why we all know the foolishnes­s of making cops gratuitous­ly angry during a traffic stop. And why the president should have known better than to make open war on the FBI — if not out of respect for America's civic traditions, then out of simple self-interest.

This is an ugly moment in America's political history. And yet I suspect it will end up being somewhat soothing for those who fear that Trump will mark the end of American democracy and the beginnings of an authoritar­ian regime. Not because the president's actions are benign: like many other commentato­rs morning, I see this move as betraying exactly the sort of authoritar­ian instincts, precisely the disrespect for American civic norms, of which his critics accuse him. But rather, because I doubt it's going to work — even if the Republican party rolls over, and even if they help him appoint a more pliant successor. There are a lot of sources of political power in the American system, and those civic institutio­ns will fiercely resist any attempt to remake them into hand-crafted tools of Dear Leader's whims.

I can certainly see futures in which America betrays its heritage and abandons its ideals. But carrying it out would likely require a stealth attack by someone of political genius and strategic cunning, not this ham-handed, thumb-fingered, thoroughly inept assault on an institutio­n that was, until now, probably considerab­ly more Trumpfrien­dly than most of the federal bureaucrac­y. The brazen violation of our civic norms should worry everyone. But the stunning incompeten­ce of it should give us hope that our worries won't become reality.

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