Firing Comey: Abuse of a Kingly Prerogative or Draining the Swamp?

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee yesterday occurred when former FBI Director James Comey was being questioned on his interactions with President Donald Trump by Senator Angus King (I-Maine). The precise matter being addressed was whether the President had ordered Comey to stop investigating former Presidential advisor General Michael Flynn. Comey testified that Mr. Trump and he had both agreed that Flynn was “a good guy,” and Comey suggested that Trump expressed his hope that the investigation of Flynn could be ended. Comey testified that Mr. Trump had said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Comey is now taking the position that he understood Mr. Trump to be suggesting that Comey end his investigation of Flynn, and the clear implication (as it is now being trumpeted in various organs of the media) is that Trump was engaged in an attempt to obstruct justice, a criminal offense which quite possibly could be grounds for impeachment.

He and Senator King, examining Mr. Trump’s suggestion about Flynn likened it to the purported comment of the English monarch, Henry II, who was mired in controversy with the famous Archbishop Thomas a Beckett. Henry asked several of his courtiers, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” and, almost immediately thereafter, some of the King’s henchmen assassinated the churchman.

Most striking here is the implied assertion that President Trump (again, by implication acting illegally), was asserting kingly prerogatives (like Henry II), and expecting other governmental officials (here Comey) to carry them out. An equally plausible interpretation of Mr. Trump’s comments about Flynn, of course, now being brought forward by Mr. Trump’s defenders, is that this was not an order to Comey, but, simply the expression of a desire that someone (Flynn) whom the President believed to be a good man, and one who, in his opinion, had done nothing wrong, would not be further tormented.

Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., has indicated that his father doesn’t work by indirection, and that if he was giving a direct order to Mr. Comey it would have been much clearer. Given Mr. Trump’s penchant for pithy tweets, and for his directness on the stump, it does seem quite plausible that when he wants to make something plain, he does. How then can one explain Mr. Comey’s interpretation, and, further, Mr. Comey’s repeated assertion during his Senate testimony that the President is a liar, and cannot be trusted?

One thought, floated by another Senator, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), is that Trump is speaking the language of a businessman, and Comey was not. This was in the context of Mr. Trump’s query to Mr. Comey whether he, the President, could depend on his loyalty. This is apparently an assertion sought by Mr. Trump from all of his cabinet members, and one that any sensible Chief Executive would want from those working under him or her. As Lankford explained, “I think Comey sees this differently than the president did. The president sees him [Comey] as another part of the team. Comey seems to see it as hey, we’re very independent, which the FBI has historically been, very independent.”

Whether our first businessman President and his former Director of the FBI speak different languages, it is clear that they now hold disparaging views of each other. Mr. Comey repeated called the President a liar, and the President reportedly has said of Mr. Comey that he is a “nut job,” and a “showboat.” Not only do they differ on the interpretation to be put on the request for a pledge of loyalty and the comments about Mr. Flynn, then, but they have very different views of each other and how the government ought to be conducted. Mr. Comey has demonstrated that he believes in a special role for the FBI, and that, he Comey, as its director, had a special responsibility to act, to make public statements (and we learned yesterday, to leak contents of at least one official memo to a friendly reporter, in order to question the motives of the President, and make it more likely that a Special Counsel would be appointed to investigate Mr. Trump’s actions).

Can Comey’s account be trusted? Who should be believed here? Comey now maintains that Mr. Trump fired him because Mr. Trump wished to quash the investigation of Mr. Trump’s campaign’s possible involvement with Russian government officials (no evidence of such involvement has yet surfaced). Yet Mr. Comey also made clear in his testimony that the investigation continues to this day, and that it was likely that Mr. Trump knew when he fired Mr. Comey that firing the FBI Director would not stop an ongoing investigation. Forgotten in yesterday’s hearing was the litany of misconduct (principally involving Mr. Comey’s actions related to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s unsecured e-mail server) which Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein listed in his recommendation to President Trump that Mr. Comey be terminated. There were, in other words, perfectly sensible grounds for letting Mr. Comey go apart from the Russian imbroglio. It is clear that for Mr. Comey, being Director of the FBI was something he cherished, and also clear that he believes that it was wrong of the President to terminate him. Still, even he acknowledges that the President has the power to fire the FBI Director for any reason, or for no reason at all.

Mr. Trump’s actions could be those of a man sincerely trying to do the job he was elected to do, and those of an executive trained in the business world attempting to bring the government and the country back to a more economically-successful position, aided by a cadre of like-minded professionals he could trust. Mr. Comey has painted his own actions as those of a concerned and selfless public servant, but it seems equally possible that his recent actions are those of a personally frustrated bureaucrat. Supporters of Mr. Trump might properly conclude that Mr. Comey’s dismissal was simply a part of draining the swamp.

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