|MARK PETERSON / REDUX FOR THE NEW YORKER|
When you think that you're the smartest person in the room, you believe you can get away with anything. And so in firing FBI Director James Comey for what otherwise would be justifiable cause, Donald Trump thought he could distract attention from the real reason -- the FBI's investigation into ties between the president, his associates and Russia to undermine the very foundations of American democracy was becoming a little too close for comfort.
The transparent deceit of Trump's action is likely to have the opposite effect since it has been obvious for some time that he had been shopping for a reason to get rid of Comey, and the FBI director's not-by-the-book handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which has otherwise yugely benefitted the president, was the perfect cover.
Trump's feint is bound to backfire badly, as did the cloak-and-dagger Devin Nunes charade, the White House's other attempt to derail the quest for the smoking gun that will confirm what most of us suspect to be true: That the Trump campaign, if not the man himself, colluded with the Russians in the Vladimir Putin-orchestrated cyberattacks to sabotage Clinton and hand the presidency to his pal Trump.
Nunes was the designated sap in trying to prove the unprovable -- Trump's obsessive view that President Obama had personally ordered the phones at Trump Tower be tapped. Unprovable because it never happened, although the comedic caper did distract us from the Russia scandal for a day or two.
The Comey caper is considerably less amusing and will be a considerably larger and longer distraction, but the heat on Trump and his minions will now be turned up even more.
Summarily firing Comey is an assault on American democracy. It may trigger a constitutional crisis as did the Watergate scandal in 1973, and we have to hope that calls for a special prosecutor will grow louder, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee will dig deeper, and the voices of the majority of Americans who believe that Trump colluded with Moscow will grow louder.
The Russia scandal investigations, of which the FBI's was the most aggressive, seem to have been moving at a glacial pace with many -- but significantly not all -- Republicans opposing them and the White House trying to obstruct them at every turn.
But the investigations already have engulfed Paul Manafort, one of Trump's campaign managers; longtime confidante and dirty trickster Roger Stone; campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and most significantly Michael Flynn, whom Trump named as his national security adviser despite being repeatedly warned that Flynn was toxic, far too sympathetic to the Putin regime, had committed prosecutable offenses, and was vulnerable to being blackmailed.
Flynn is now gone, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself for failing to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, and Nunes and the feeble House Intelligence Committee probe he led have parted ways.
Donald Trump, of course, is not the smartest person in the room, or any room, for that matter. To no one's surprise, he has parlayed a business career built on corruption, deceit and repeated bankruptcies into the worst presidency in U.S. history.§
For Trump, being presidency has been all about himself. He has a pathological obsession with his carefully-crafted image and a continuing if futile search for approval beyond his relatively small base. His authoritarian instincts are frightening, while his craziness has indelibly colored our lives, country and culture. He demands that his words be taken seriously, but they are so twisted or outright false that his spokespeople, for whom damage-control has become a full time job, and his lawyers, in the course of fighting court injunctions blocking draconian diktats like the Muslim ban and sanctuary cities witch hunt, have had to plead that he should not be taken literally.
None of this is to forgive James Comey, who was caught flat-footed and learned of his very public firing from a television news report while speaking with FBI agents in Los Angeles.
"The way this was done, I think was done to send a message to the FBI agents left behind," a senior FBI official told NBC News. "It's not just remove him -- it's the way they did it in the most thuggish and humiliating way possible . . . I think that was designed to send a message: Cut this shit out, or this will happen to you. This is like a horse head in a bed."
The White House said Comey was fired on the recommendation of AG Sessions and his new deputy, Rod J. Rosenstein, because they had concluded that he had violated Justice Department principles and procedures last year by publicly discussing the investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server.
Deputy AG Rosenstein wrote the dismissal letter although he had been in the job only two weeks, certainly not enough time for a serious review, and it is obvious once Trump had made up his mind that an after-the-fact paper trail had to be created, a feat of reverse engineering that recalls George W. Bush asking his Justice Department for legal justifications for using torture after the CIA and Pentagon had begun torturing suspected enemy combatants.
Intriguingly, Comey met with Rosenstein last week to request a substantial increasing in funding and personnel so the FBI's Russia investigation could be expanded, fueling speculation that it was that request that sent Trump over the top.
An FBI director's 10-year term is deliberately designed to cross presidential terms, helping to insulate the desirably independent and nonpartisan head of American's lead domestic investigative agency. But Comey's dismissal begs the question of why Trump did not give him the heave-ho immediately after taking office if, as opposed to the president's statements of praise and support in the course of the Clinton investigations, he really didn't trust him.
What has changed since Inauguration Day?
Well, the footsteps Trump is hearing from Russia scandal investigators are growing louder, he has had an enormous case of the ass that Comey dismissed his Obama wiretapping fantasy out of hand, and in testifying before Congress on March 20 had essentially called him a liar.
Note also that Trump targeted the one person in government capable of bringing down his presidency, and as if on cue White House spokesmouth Sarah Huckabee Sanders went on Fox News on Tuesday night to say it really was time to move on from this sucky Russia thing, while Kellyanne Conway helpfully told CNN it was "inappropriate" to question the timing of the firing.
Trump himself defended the firing in an early morning tweetstorm that was part word salad and part Drudge Report retweets, singling out Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer specifically and congressional Democrats in general for being hypocrites since they had previously called for Comey's dismissal.
And so the publicly stated reason for the putsch is implausible, but then so was the reason given for Flynn's firing in February as national security director after 24 days when he should not have been appointed in the first place. Note also that the Get Comey order was submitted by Sessions, who having had to recuse himself from the Russia probe ended up recommending firing the person who was leading it.
It also is notable that Trump continues to insist that the Russia scandal still is "fake news" and in his brief dismissal letter tried to yet again wish away questions about his possible collusion with Moscow by declaring that the FBI director had told him three times that he was not under investigation, which painfully recalls President Nixon's pathetic "I am not a crook" plea. The White House is unable to provide evidence to back up that assertion, but it is further evidence that the firing has less to do with Comey's misconduct than Trump being deeply worried that the full extent of his own misconduct may become known.
The firing of Comey is the third time Trump has removed a Justice Department official for questionable reasons.
Early in Trump's term, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates got the hook after she declared that Justice would not enforce the deeply unconstitutional Muslim ban. Yates also happened to have the beans on Flynn, which she began spilling this week in testimony before Congress. Then Preet Bharara, the aggressive U.S. attorney for Manhattan, was fired for refusing to resign. Bharara may have been a little too aggressive for Trump because he had been prosecuting, among others, a Turkish-Iranian businessman represented by presidential pal Rudy Giuliani who faces federal charges for violating Obama administration sanctions against Iran. Bharara also may have had a hand in one of the Russia investigation tentacles.
The naming of a special prosecutor to continue the Russia investigation will be key to where we go from here. Senator John McCain and Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, are among the small handful of Republicans endorsing such a move.
If Deputy AG Rosenstein shucks his highly regarded principles and refuses to name a prosecutor, it will leave us feeling more than mildly nauseous. It also will seal electoral defeat for many Republicans in the 2018 elections and hasten calls for Trump's removal.
The Comey bloodletting inevitably provoked Nixonian comparisons and brought to mind the 1973 Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate scandal. Those firings generated a firestorm against the embattled president and were a major step toward eventual impeachment proceedings and his resignation.
Will history repeat itself?