This Is Not a Drill

The firing of FBI director James Comey poses a question: Will the law answer to the president, or the president to the law?

Susan Walsh / AP

Who can sincerely believe that President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey for any reason other than to thwart an investigation of serious crimes? Which crimes—and how serious—we can only guess.

The suggestion that Comey was fired to punish him for overzealously mishandling the Clinton email investigation appears laughable: Just this morning, Trump’s social media director Dan Scavino gleefully proposed to release video of Hillary Clinton’s concession call in order to hurt and humiliate her—and top Trump aide Kellyanne Conway laughed along with him.

No, this appears to be an attack on the integrity—not just of law enforcement—but of our defense against a foreign cyberattack on the processes of American democracy. The FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian espionage. Trump’s firing of Comey is an apparent attempt to shut that investigation down.

Whether that exactly counts as a confession of wrongdoing is a question that still deserves some withholding of judgment. Trump is impulsive and arrogant. His narcissistic ego needs to believe he won a great electoral victory by his own exertions, not that he was tipped into office by a lucky foreign espionage operation. He could well resent the search for truth, even without being particularly guilty of anything heinously bad. But we all now must take seriously the heightened possibility of guilt, either personal or on the part of people near him—and of guilt of some of the very worst imaginable crimes in the political lexicon.

Now comes the hour of testing. Will the American system resist? Or will it be suborned?

The question has to be asked searchingly of the Republican members of Congress: Will you allow a president of your party to attack the integrity of the FBI? You impeached Bill Clinton for lying about sex. Will you now condone and protect a Republican administration lying about espionage?

Where are you? Who are you?

The question has to be asked of every Trump law-enforcement appointee: In 1973, Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire the investigator of presidential wrongdoing. Why are you still on your job? Where are your resignations?

The question has to be asked of every national-security official: It’s a lot more probable today than it was yesterday that the chain of command is compromised and beholden in some way to a hostile foreign power. If you know more of the truth than the rest of us, why are you keeping it secret? Your oath is to the Constitution, not the person of this compromised president.

The question has to be asked of all the rest of us: Perhaps the worst fears for the integrity of the U.S. government and U.S. institutions are being fulfilled. If this firing stands—and if Trump dares to announce a pliable replacement—the rule of law begins to shake and break. The law will answer to the president, not the president to the law.

Will you accept that?