Monday, May 15, 2017
Trump's Comey-Phobia: Symptom of a Bigger Disease
Trump's decision to fire Comey is indicative of a far bigger issue. Here is Steve's take on a week that should make us all very concerned indeed.
Have you noticed the interesting new pattern that has emerged in the Trump White House? Sean Spicer is deemed capable of handling the routine flow of day-to-day obfuscation and misinformation, but when Trump needs to sell a truly weapons-grade deception, he pulls Kellyanne Conway out of the closet and goes factually alternative, freeing her to open fire with her bullshit howitzer.
So when Kellyanne was all over the full spectrum of flavored news channels on Wednesday, you knew the White House needed to spin their explanation of the Comey firing at speeds only previously achieved at the Bern nuclear particle accelerator. Conway is capable of not only arguing that day is night and black is white, but with her Cruella De Vil sneering contempt, she conveys that the only reason you think day is day is because you are just another prisoner of left wing propaganda. Most people, she assures you, agree with President Trump, who believes it is night. Next question.
But last week, even Conway couldn’t keep things straight in the White House mall of mirrors. At the outset, Comey was fired only because Trump was acquiescing to the opinions offered by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Do read Rosenstein’s letter: it is an excellent articulation of how Comey exercised appalling judgment in his public handling of the Clinton email investigation.
At a superficial level (that is, normative cruising altitude for this president), Rosenstein’s letter could be seen as a masterstroke: how could Democrats object to firing Comey if the rationale was something the Democrats themselves passionately believed?
Unfortunately for the President, once this rationale was exposed to the dense atmosphere of objective scrutiny that lies beyond the logic vacuum inside the Trump bubble, it appeared to be little more than covering a turd with a Kleenex and believing no one would smell it.
For starters, no sentient being in this solar system was going to believe that Donald Trump fired James Comey because his actions had a negative impact on Hillary Clinton. On the campaign trail, Trump was mad that Comey hadn’t indicted Clinton as he bathed in the reflected glow of entire stadiums chanting “lock her up.” Yet with Rosenstein’s epistle we were asked to believe that Comey’s treatment of Clinton was so unfair that it should be the sole reason for his dismissal.
Most press accounts focused on the seismic implausibility of this rationale as the main story. No one seemed to point out the far more striking problem baked into the Rosenstein letter, which was that it appeared to be a full-on endorsement for one of the two arguments that Trump’s opponents offer for asserting that Trump’s election was tainted. Nothing makes Trump angrier than press stories that question the legitimacy of his election… and yet in this instance, Trump had Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein release a letter that effectively promoted the theory that Comey had inappropriately tried to sway the election toward Trump. Somehow nobody at the White House could see this profoundly self-defeating logic.
Of course, the President himself punctured his own particular hot air balloon in the actual termination letter to Comey, in which he took a contortionist’s twist to mention that Comey had supposedly told Trump “three times” that the President was not the subject of investigation. Thou doth protest not merely too much, Mr. President, but in ridiculous excess.
The tissue-paper thin rationale for firing Comey was ripped to shreds by reporters, Democrats, and even the first crocuses of Republican outrage. There is a word that is to Republicans what Voldemort is to Harry Potter: “Nixonian.” The firing triggered a gusher of comparisons with Nixon’s Constitution-curdling “Saturday Night Massacre,” as in both cases, a sitting president ordered the firing of an individual who was currently conducting an investigation into possible impeachable offenses by the President. By the time the prime time news shows aired, the Rosenstein letter was a punchline and pundits were in a fever of speculation that Comey’s Russian investigation must be closing in on Trump. There was no other possible explanation for the firing.
No dosage of Kellyanne Conway was powerful enough this time. In clinging to the Rosenstein version of the rationale, his surrogates were simply actively fanning the flames of public incredulity. So Trump stepped in and offered an entirely different explanation, undercutting and humiliating his press people – and even the administration’s ranking spin doctor, V.P. Mike Pence. Trump, who demands absolute and unflinching loyalty from his staffers, was now flinging his people under so many buses that you’d have thought he was standing outside the Port Authority.
Changing the story on the rationale for the Comey firing may well prove to be a far more significant blow to Trump than the myriad of criticisms that dogged his first hundred days in office, which could be generally categorized into legislative failure, operational ineptitude, and diplomatic tone-deafness. In the Comey firing, however, Donald Trump violated one of the defining elements of his campaign brand: a supposed willingness to “tell it like it is” and a loathing for posturing and “political correctness.” When a guy who promises to tell it like it is suddenly starts telling it like it is not, he is taking a sledge hammer to his own brand. He is betraying the brand promise he made to his most ardent supporters. He looks exactly like the people in the swamp that he promised to clear.
However, the changing story adds fissionable nuclear fuel to the speculation that Donald Trump was deeply Comey-phobic: he was terrified that Comey’s investigation was beginning to gather powerful momentum and may have already been close to revealing smoking guns. By handling the Comey firing in this flagrantly disingenuous way, he let the world know that he was fearful of what the FBI would find out. He created added new support to those in Congress demanding a special prosecutor. Most significantly, be put the Russia collusion investigation back on the nation’s front burner.
By Friday, Trump had gone full-Nixon, appearing to threaten Comey with the existence of a taping system in the Oval Office. Good news: this time we won’t need an Alexander Butterfield to reveal the existence of the damming evidence that can bring a President down.
All in all, it was a pretty terrible week for Trump and for his White House staff. But it was actually a far worse week for the United States of America.
This specific incident pointed to a far more grave concern.
In his treatment of Comey, we learned the chilling reality of exactly how Donald Trump intends to deal with persons who he perceives to be a personal threat.
This president did not simply have an issue with James Comey, he suffers from a broader disorder. Let’s call if “Comey Phobia” in honor of its most obvious victim. “Comey Phobia” is being terrified of people whom he perceives as threats to his office and his legitimacy. To be “Comey Phobic” means that Trump will attempt to stretch his executive powers to deal with threats and individuals who challenge his authority and who threaten his presidency. The firing of Comey may simply have been a first test of what he can get away with.
Make no mistake: Donald Trump had the right and the authority to fire the director of the FBI. But many Americans may be learning the hard way that there is a difference between that which is law and that which has been merely time-honored custom. Before last week, the only time a President had fired a Director of the FBI was when Bill Clinton removed William A. Sessions, who had been proven to have serially abused his position for personal gain. The custom had been to never remove the FBI Director, largely out of concern that it would be perceived as a partisan act. Donald Trump, in his seedy, shifting rationale, revealed that his purpose was partisan and even personal. He perceived James Comey’s investigation as a threat to his office, and so he got rid of the threat.
Is that an isolated act? Or are there other “Comeys” out there, threatening Trump, and inspiring him to further test the limits of his power to bring enemies down?
Here’s a very plausible example. Let’s say that Donald Trump continues to be agitated and angry that Stephen Colbert’s ratings soar to new heights as the late night comedian continues to increase the volume and bite of his relentless attacks on the President. Perhaps the next time Colbert delivers a particularly savage monologue, this President decides that enough is enough. Citing whatever grounds he may invent, Donald Trump could push hard on the limits of his power by ordering that CBS’s FCC license be revoked unless they take Colbert off the air. Do you think that is alarmist?
Or just the next logical step?
There is a school of thought that democracies begin to erode due to a series of lesser compromises that demonstrate that the citizens are inattentive and cavalier about the strength of their government. The small abdications are then often followed by a sudden major event. Authoritarians invent justifications to seize additional power in small increments, and then may concoct an alleged threat to the sovereignty of the state as a rationale to seize power in martial law.
That is to say, authoritarian rulers have no problem inventing a bogus rationale in order to justify a grab for power. Thanks for your contribution to Trump’s cause, Mr. Rosenstein. Thus emboldened, authoritarians keep going, grabbing more and more power, if no one stops them.
Then, one day, they arrive at the point where no one can stop them. And that is how democracy dies.
It is time to consider the possibility that when Trump, the candidate, was constantly screaming about how “our government doesn’t work,” he may have been referring to the part that we generally call democracy.
Most Americans, it seems, do not appear to understand that democracies in other nations and at other times in history have indeed ceased to exist, and that authoritarian rulers have stolen democratic rights and principles away from their citizenry. Many Americans seem to particularly reject the possibility that it actually could happen here.
Most seem to view the threat posed by Donald Trump as a distant abstraction, and view those who warn about that threat to be shrill alarmists who scare too easily.
It is time to begin seriously reflecting on what is at stake. This time, Trump has fired the head of the FBI, solely because he represents a direct threat to Trump.
Tomorrow, Trump’s target could be Stephen Colbert. It also could be Politico, CNN, or The New York Times. Adam Schiff. Chuck Schumer. Corey Booker. The list goes on and on.
All for the exact same reason.
And the day after that, his target could well be democracy itself.
For the exact same reason.
It is time to get serious about just how vulnerable a democracy is if left undefended by the citizens it represents. It is time to report for duty.
Stop pretending that it couldn’t happen here. It’s happening right this minute.
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