There is a simple fact that makes analysis of the firing of FBI Director James Comey difficult: he deserved to be fired. At any point over the past nine months, prominent members of both parties have contended that Comey had to go. It is far easier to advance a convincing argument that Comey’s behavior over that time represented the wrong course for the FBI Director to take in every single instance, from his decision to hold his press conference, his decision not to recommend indictment, his decision to publicly continue to talk both on and off the record about these matters, his decision to publicly reopen the case in the manner he did, his decision to rely upon a laughable dossier constructed by the President’s political opponents, and his continued decisions regarding what he says in public and private, and what he implies about current investigations. The overall appearance he creates as the head of the FBI has seen an utter collapse in that time from that of a respected independent career official to someone who is viewed fundamentally as a political actor who cares more about his personal image than the department he leads. At every juncture, Comey might have been better off adopting George Costanza’s approach: just do the opposite, and see what happens.
So here is the problem: James Comey deserved to be fired. But the timing of his firing lends itself to questions about the Russia investigation and conspiracy theories that threaten to send talking heads rocketing into the atmosphere like a thousand wide-eyed Yuri Gagarins. Talk of a coup or a constitutional crisis or comparisons to Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre overwhelmed the airwaves yesterday, as did utterly unjustified claims from the likes of Jeffrey Toobin that Comey was fired because he somehow had the goods on the President and that the White House intends to replace him with a stooge who will shut down existing investigations into campaign associates.
The New York Times editorial page claimed: “Mr. Comey was fired because he was leading an active investigation that could bring down a president.” That is a very bold claim – no such claim appears in The Wall Street Journal or USA Today editorials, who view the dismissal as deserved. The comparisons to a despot rolled in, while the whiplash from the announcement had its best representation in the crowd at the taping of Stephen Colbert, which erupted in hoots and applause at the news of the firing, only to be chided for wrongthink. No, see, you have been sitting here in the studio and not watching CNN, so you do not know this is wrong now.
The stated justification for firing Comey is laid out by the new Deputy Attorney General. The justification here is true on the merits: Comey did take actions he should not have last year and lost the faith of many in the bureau because of it. Today you will likely hear a lot about FBI agents in tears as news of Comey’s firing spread. What you will not hear about are the agents who viewed Comey as a grandstanding showhorse with a messianic complex and a tendency to blow oxygen at brush fires with every interview, a view several members of the Senate came to share. Just yesterday the FBI had to clean up Comey’s sloppily inaccurate testimony about Huma Abedin’s emails, and this was not the first time. There is something about public figures who emphasize their holier than thou love of Reinhold Niebuhr too much, as if it grants a kind of Mr. Smith-style political sainthood merely by the mention. But that is a subject for another day.
So again, James Comey deserved to be fired. He should’ve been fired months ago. There is little question in my mind that President Trump would’ve preferred to fire him much earlier. But at the time of the transition and Trump’s rise to the presidency, Trump was actually in a much weaker position politically than he is today. It is hard to imagine a situation where Trump’s knifing of the FBI Director in his first week in office would be greeted with approval by Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, Chuck Grassley and others. Now that they’ve had time to see Comey’s continued activity and get used to Trump’s approach to office, they endorsed the move. That is telling.
Of course, the stated justification here is not the real justification for Trump’s decision. Trump’s frustrations here are obvious, stated clearly in the letter sent to Comey himself: he claims to be told by Comey on repeated occasions that he was not under investigation for personally colluding with the Russians. But that was not the tune Comey sung in front of the cameras, and Trump pays attention to what you say in front of the cameras. That Trump’s frustration, and not Comey’s incompetence, were the driving issue here is troubling – but the result is the same. And considering how long the various investigations into Trump’s associates have been running, the same argument could’ve been made had Trump fired Comey on day one.