There is a lot we still don't know about the strange, sudden firing of FBI director James Comey by Donald Trump. The most important thing we don't know is whether any White House officials—including the president himself—have anything to fear from the FBI's investigation into supposed links between Russia and the Trump campaign. If Comey was fired as part of a cover-up, it would be a remarkably clumsy cover-up, since it got everyone talking about whether it was, in fact, a cover-up. Comey's departure doesn't end the ongoing investigation (yet), nor the parallel investigations being conducted in Congress; it also inspired renewed calls (even some from Republicans) for an independent prosecutor or panel to look into the Trump-Russia allegations.
So let's put the most malevolent interpretation of Trump's motives to one side for the moment. And let's ignore the official explanation that Comey was fired for mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails last year, because it's unclear why that would inspire such abrupt action months later. Why fire Comey now?
If a Politico account of the president's decision-making process can be believed, Trump wanted Comey gone because the FBI director went on TV so much without backing Trump's (bizarre) claim that Barack Obama had wiretapped his phones, and because he was really sick of hearing about the Russia investigation. If we want to be more charitable, maybe Trump was also upset about how Comey publicly disclosed information about the email case before the election. Though Trump praised Comey for those disclosures at the time, maybe he changed his mind once he got into office. Or maybe Trump realized that Comey might also make information about the Russia investigation public down the line.
Even with that exceedingly friendly interpretation of Trump's motives, the Comey firing was a disaster from start to finish that underscores the basic truth of the Trump administration so far: These people are really, really bad at the whole presidency thing.
There was a right way to fire Comey. It would have likely involved waiting for the results of an ongoing internal review of how the FBI handled the Clinton email investigation, using those conclusions to establish that Comey had screwed up and then getting the entire Republican Party (and hopefully some Democrats) on the Fire Comey bandwagon. Firing an FBI director is a big deal, obviously: The only other time it happened, in 1993, an investigation had found that Director William Sessions engaged in some comically corrupt practices like going on "business trips" to hang out with relatives.
This time around, however, the process seemed rushed and haphazard, like so much of what Trump has done. A week ago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president had confidence in Comey. It's unclear what changed his mind, but on Tuesday evening, when Trump made calls to senators to see if they'd support his firing Comey, Democratic Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer advised against it. When the decision was announced, to predictable blowback, the White House was uncertain about how to explain the thinking behind it. Spicer seemed to tell the press—in a hastily organized press conference in a dark garden—that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's memo outlining Comey's failures in the Clinton email case was the decisive factor. But it wasn't clear when Rosenstein had been ordered to review Comey's action or why Trump decided to act so suddenly on information about events that had happened months ago.
The White House also failed to keep Republicans in Congress in the loop, resulting in many of them finding out about Comey on the news. They didn't know enough about Trump's reasoning to get on the same page—even as Democrats almost unanimously decried the firing—and some Republicans, like Arizona senator Jeff Flake, wound up denouncing it. No one at the FBI appears to have known about the firing beforehand either. As of Wednesday, morale at the bureau had reportedly plummeted.
At a stroke, Trump gave his opposition yet another cause to rally around, caught his Republican allies off-guard, and likely created more problems by alienating FBI employees who can hurt Trump through leaks. Already on Wednesday, a Comey ally—presumably someone also close to the FBI—told CNN Comey was fired because the Russia investigation was going somewhere. But there's more:
This hugely controversial decision will probably distract the Senate, as will the process to confirm a new FBI director. That could make it more difficult to come up with a Senate version of the healthcare bill, the current Republican legislative priority. Thanks to some fairly arcane procedural rules, Republicans probably have to pass a healthcare bill before moving on to tax reform. In other words, Trump has manufactured a controversy that threatens to stall his agenda—and why? To temporarily derail an FBI investigation? To punish Comey for not being on his side?
To date, Trump has been a remarkably ineffective president: unpopular, inexperienced, easily ignored by Congress. The Comey firing is a great example of how this administration fucks up over and over and over again. It started a major political fight seemingly out of the blue, didn't sufficiently prepare to argue its position, and made a set of statements that didn't make sense. Trump's decision to fire Comey distracted Congress from legislation to no purpose and made everyone more convinced than ever that he was hiding something.
Comey's firing, in other words, will probably wind up being bad for Trump. But the fact that he was so incompetent or so willing to ignore consequences that he fired the FBI director in the middle of an investigation into Trump's own campaign demonstrates that before Trump goes down, he's more than capable of doing a lot of damage.
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