The most remarkable aspect of President Donald Trump’s lying is not how much he lies but that he does not even bother to lie well.
So, of course, when Trump announced that he had fired FBI Director James Comey — only the second FBI director ever terminated — the White House provided a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein offering the preposterous explanation that Comey was being dismissed for his ill treatment of Hillary Clinton.
“We do not hold press conferences to release derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” Rosenstein wrote, regarding Comey’s July 5 press conference in which he criticized Clinton’s handling of classified information, for which the FBI did not recommend that she be indicted. “Derogatory information sometimes is disclosed in the course of criminal investigations and prosecutions, but we never release it gratuitously.”
Is it possible this is the real reason Trump decided Comey had to go? Well, consider what Trump tweeted just a week ago:
The New York Times is reporting that White House officials had been working on firing Comey for days and had instructed Attorney General Jeff Sessions to come up with a pretext for doing so. That the administration chose a pretext so obviously pretextual is just a screw-you to anyone who expects it to offer an explanation other than that it wishes to shut down investigations that are inconvenient to the White House and prioritize a leak-hunt instead.
The tell is right in the second paragraph of the president’s letter firing Comey: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.”
While Comey’s firing under these circumstances and for these reasons is indefensible, I’m less alarmed by it than some people because I do not think Trump is going to be successful in asserting control over the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the election — let alone successful in getting the public to pay less attention to his associations with Russia.
Firing the director does not make the investigation go away. The FBI is now run by an acting director who, like Comey, precedes Trump. The FBI bureaucracy remains in place and, if Politico’s reporting is any indication, it’s an FBI bureaucracy that’s shocked and upset about Comey’s firing.
CNN is reporting that grand jury subpoenas have been issued in recent weeks to associates of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, one of the most important figures in the Russia investigation. According to CNN, those subpoenas were issued by US Attorney Dana Boente, the man Trump chose to serve as acting attorney general after he fired Sally Yates — and one of just two Obama-era US attorneys Trump chose to hold over despite his mass firing of the others.
Democrats in Congress are outraged, and many Republicans are uncomfortable. If Trump thought this move would turn down the temperature on the Russia story, he is mistaken. This is fuel for increased public outrage and for retribution from an FBI that, as we have learned over the past year, is extremely leaky.
Trump will eventually nominate a replacement FBI director — though, given the way this administration does appointments, he might wait months — and we’ll see then whether the nominee is a serious and independent figure or the sort of stooge Trump might send in to ensure the FBI serves the political ends of the White House. And we’ll see whether Republican senators roll over and confirm such a nominee.
I would not assume there was any grand strategy here that Trump was implementing to stop the FBI from reaching a smoking gun. I realize David Frum is alarmed, but I keep sticking on this paragraph in his column in The Atlantic explaining why (emphasis mine):
“Trump is impulsive and arrogant. His narcissistic ego needs to believe he won a great electoral victory by his own exertions, not that he was tipped into office by a lucky foreign espionage operation. He could well resent the search for truth, even without being particularly guilty of anything heinously bad. But we all now must take seriously the heightened possibility of guilt, either personal or on the part of people near him — and of guilt of some of the very worst imaginable crimes in the political lexicon.”
I think Trump was mad that Comey was pursuing an investigation that was inconvenient to him, mad that Comey was resisting administration pressure to prioritize prosecutions of leakers, and mad that Comey was talking publicly about matters that Trump finds embarrassing. I think Trump was sick of seeing Comey on television so much.
Trump wanted to take revenge and show dominance, and he did. In doing so, Trump took an action that is likely to increase scrutiny of his ties to Russia, not relieve such scrutiny.