The James Comey firing is not normal. The President of the United States fired the man tasked with investigating him for crimes. The importance and weight of that sentence cannot be overstated.
Comparisons to Nixon have been floating around since the news came out. Nixon, in his Saturday Night Massacre, asked his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor who was assigned to investigating Watergate. Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than comply, thus yielding Department of Justice authority to his Deputy AG, William Ruckleshaus, who also resigned for the same reason. Finally authority of the DOJ fell to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, who then (finally) fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.
The problem was that Nixon had ordered Cox fired because Cox was getting too close to honing in on Nixon for crimes related to Watergate. Instead of facing up to these crimes, Nixon abused his executive power and ordered Cox fired. Two acting Attorneys General chose to resign instead of follow this order because it was just that – an abuse of executive power. While Comey was not a special prosecutor, and thus there could have been any number of reasons to fire him – in a democracy, you cannot fire the person tasked with investigating you.
Well, actually, you can. It is within the powers of the President of the United States to fire the FBI Director. Investigations are carried out by the executive branch, and the President runs the executive branch. The reason I say you “can’t” do this is because it is an abuse of power. At this point it is up to Congress to hold the President accountable for these actions. But our current Congress is controlled by the Republican party, and Mitch McConnell as the Senate Majority Leader already shut this down, speaking of it as if it is no big deal, and as if we should all just move on.
McConnell has been very good at making extremes and abuses of power seem normal. He has made historic obstruction of government seem normal, even denying the sitting President from nominating a Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia for a full year. Now he’s even making it seem normal for the President, whose campaign is under investigation for its ties to Russia and the Russian hacking of the 2016 election, to fire the FBI Director who is leading this investigation. He does this by brushing it aside, and moving onto other topics of discussion, thus nullifying any opposition or press narratives as time, and the news cycle, passes.
[T]he outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired.
And the spin machine is now running on full blast. Fox News has been trying to disarm the criticism with a lot of Whataboutisms from the start, and Trump has been throwing confusion into the narratives to get people arguing. Trump has been masterful at this for years now, and it is a major reason why he’s President today. The letter he wrote to fire Comey even stated that Trump had been informed by Comey on “three separate occasions” that he was not under investigation, even hinting that these conversations were recorded in a tweet yesterday. Which is bizarre, not only because it was brought up at all, but because Comey isn’t worried about any such tapes. This didn’t stop the press from running with the story, feeling the need to give legitimacy to these remarks, and thus the narrative is effectively mucked. Our divided country is once again divided along party lines on this issue.
Those defending these actions will have arguments like, “Comey needed to go for politicizing the Bureau, and Democrats are only up in arms about this because of partisan politics.” There is some semblance of truth to that. I agree that Comey overly politicized the FBI, both with his letter to Congress last November about the Clinton email case that probably turned the election in Trump’s favor, as well as constantly being in front of the camera and making news. However, the outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired. And the White House narratives to explain that don’t add up (especially since Trump and Sessions, who made the decision to fire Comey, constantly praised his handling of the Clinton email case until last week).
The more likely conclusion people are drawing is that he was fired for investigating the Trump campaign.
If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how you’d feel if Obama fired Comey last year when Hillary Clinton’s email investigation was still ongoing. Let’s even say he had some other reason for doing it. Wouldn’t you find it suspicious? Would you take the President at his word?
The Democrats are in a tough spot. On one hand, if they blow this up and grandstand about it, half of the country will think it’s all just partisan politics and the criticisms will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, however, if they don’t do enough then they are rolling over in the face of an abuse of executive power. Especially since so few congressional Republicans have joined in the criticism, the onus falls on the Democrats.
One option, as Adam Jentleson described, is to use every opportunity they have in the Senate to question Republicans about their denial of this abuse of power. Republicans can choose not to comment when asked by the press, they can hide from town halls, but hiding from the Senate floor is much more difficult. Mitch McConnell hopes this will go away with time (as it usually does), but the Democrats need to decide if this is a big enough problem to use all of the power at their disposal to resist.
And most of all – maybe the only way to truly ensure Congress acts as a check on the Executive – people need to vote. Vote for candidates who pledge to hold the White House accountable for their actions, in 2018 and always. Turn up the electoral pressure on those who refuse to acknowledge these problems, and all of a sudden we will see their attitudes – or their seats – flip.