Democrats blamed James Comey for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Now, Trump’s forced them to come to his defense.
President Donald Trump’s stunning axing of FBI Director James Comey might just be his most audacious political act yet. He had to know it would expose him to charges of a cover-up, to accusations that he fired Comey to rid himself of the person leading the investigation into whether his 2016 campaign colluded with Russia. He had to anticipate the amplified calls for an independent prosecutor as a result of the firing, and perhaps even the comparisons to President Richard Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre.” He must’ve weighed that the story could envelop his presidency for weeks, if not longer, potentially crippling momentum for his domestic legislative agenda and his overseas ambitions. And yet, Trump, the most irregular and unpredictable American political leader in modern times, did it anyway. It’s a grand political play that’s as risky as it is rare – an FBI chief hasn’t been removed by a president in 24 years. It’s vintage Trump – acting against political norms, moving on a quick whim and without any warning.
But it’s also a prime piece of political jiujitsu. For months, Democrats – from lowly first-time staffers all the way up to the party’s presidential nominee – have blamed Comey for Trump’s victory. They complained his intervention twice into the campaign with pronouncements about an investigation into Clinton’s email practices soiled her reputation with enough voters to swing the election’s outcome. In November, Senate Minority Leader-in-waiting Chuck Schumer said he was appalled by Comey’s decision to send a letter to lawmakers 11 days before the election, notifying them of newly discovered and potentially relevant Clinton emails. “I do not have confidence in him any longer,” Schumer declared.
With this move, Trump flipped the calculus, terminating the great Democratic boogeyman of 2016 and immediately forcing the opposition party to defend maintaining an appointee they have long trashed and viewed as tarnished. “Isn’t it ironic that the man that Democrats despised last year, particularly in October, the man they hated, is now the man that they’re using as an excuse to say we need to have a special prosecutor?” Republican strategist Karl Rove said Tuesday on Fox News. What’s particularly galling for Democrats is not that Comey is gone, but the timing of the dismissal and the reason Trump is using for it. The administration’s rationale that Comey should be canned due to how poorly he handled Clinton’s email investigation is curious, if not humorous, given how Trump reveled in Clinton’s email troubles as a candidate. “It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made in light of the kind of opposition he had,” Trump said on the trail in Michigan just eight days prior to the election. Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal analyst, could barely contain his disbelief of that explanation on the air. “The FBI is running an investigation of Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia and apparently it’s getting too close for comfort. That’s the only rational conclusion you can draw from his firing,” he said. Toobin posited that this will allow Trump to eventually appoint “a stooge who will shut down this investigation … maybe Chris Christie, someone who will do his bidding.” The integrity of the ongoing investigation will surely be questioned, but the probe won’t end. It will be up to Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a career officer whose wife ran for a state office as a Democrat, to show independence and continuity as the White House begins the search for a permanent replacement.
“If Hillary Clinton had won … Director Comey would have been fired immediately and the same Democrats that are criticizing the president’s decision today would be dancing in the streets,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday night on Fox.
But on Comey, Trump forced Democrats into a vice. While they loathed his impact on Clinton, some eventually came to see him as a steady bulwark in the Russia investigation.
That conundrum was clear when Schumer addressed reporters Tuesday and called for an independent special prosecutor to pick up the pieces of an investigation that’s been rocked. When pressed on his opinion of Comey, Schumer said, “I never called on the president to fire Director Comey. I had a lot of questions about how he handled himself.” Trump knows that to many Americans, Democrats will look hypocritical defending Comey now after trashing him so incessantly. In less than four months, this president has fired the acting attorney general, a prominent U.S. attorney in New York and the FBI director. In his prior life, “you’re fired” was a dramatic line to cap a reality television show. Now, Trump is employing it at the highest possible levels to reshape his presidency – and possibly history.
U.S. News & World Report