Politics is a game where appearances matter. Government officials, like Caesar's wife, must be above suspicion. Last week, President Donald Trump removed FBI Director James Comey from office. In doing so, Trump created confusion, sowed doubt about his motives and tweeted what seems to be a threat to Comey. Once again, Trump reinforced the widely held perception of his being self-contradictory and having much to hide from the public.
When the president removed Comey, he first said he had received letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General recommending Comey's dismissal. Later, it came out that Trump ordered the letters to be written and he had already made up his mind to fire Comey. This gave the appearance that Trump wanted those letters just to give him political cover for his action. Only two days before he was axed, Comey asked for additional resources to expand the FBI investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. Firing Comey just gave the appearance that Trump was trying to cover up that interference. Trump's tweet, "Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media…" only added to the impression. So did Trump's firing acting Attorney General Sally Yates less than 48 hours after she told the White House that General Michael Flynn was vulnerable to being blackmailed by — you know who.
Trump changed his tune on the impact Russian investigation had on his decision. Kellyanne Conway told the news media, "This has nothing to do with Russia." Two days later: "When I decided to do it, I said to myself, 'Trump and Russia is a made-up story.' " His statement made it appear that Conway is not a credible spokesperson. It also reinforced the image that the Department of Justice was being manipulated for Trump's political benefit. ABC News reported that Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein was on the verge of quitting after Trump used his letter to justify firing Comey.
The firings and denial that Russia had anything to do with the election drew comparisons to another president and another scandal, Richard Nixon and Watergate. Trump's tweeted threat, "James Comey better hope that there are no 'tapes' of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!" brought to mind images of Nixon's tape recordings, the notorious 28-minute gap, and "I am not a crook." The optics of Nixon's Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Trump sitting together in the White House only strengthened the similarities between the two presidents. But even more damaging was the impression the tweet gave, that Trump is trying to suppress the truth. If Trump does, in fact, have recorded conversations of a meeting Comey did or did not request, where Trump either did or did not pressure the FBI chief to pledge personal loyalty to him, or Comey did or did not say Trump was the target of an investigation, then it's impossible to escape the conclusion that the president was pressuring Comey with threats of reprisals for pursuing the truth.
Comey earned his reputation for iron-clad integrity by refusing to cave in to political pressure from President George W. Bush. Comey put principle over politics, threatening to resign if the president went forward with what he thought was unlawful spying on Americans. His reputation took a hit when, in 2016, he heavy-handedly went public, first with his announcement that there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute Hillary Clinton, and then days before the election, with a second announcement that the FBI was reopening its investigation, and finally, just two days before the election, he said, in essence, never mind.
Trump absolutely adored Comey when his public announcements were harmful to Clinton's campaign; when the announcements were less favorable to Trump, he absolutely despised Comey. In Trump's world, if you aren't completely for him, you're completely against him. The president is incapable of seeing shades of gray. In his black-or-white way of seeing the world, you're a loyal asset or you're out. His way of seeing the world polarizes it. Trump pours gasoline on the flames of partisanship and disunity. And the way he handled Comey's dismissal and possible ties to Russia paint that picture in vivid colors.
Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.