The White House has alternative facts and explanations for the firings. Yates was not sacked for warning that Trump’s choice for national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, was vulnerable to Russian blackmail, it says, she was dismissed for failing to carry out Trump’s ban on immigrants from several Muslim lands. Former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was not fired for investigating Trump and his aides, the White House insists, he was let go from his New York posting in the traditional patronage shuffle of a change of administrations.
But if these two explanations are plausible, the reason given for Comey’s dismissal is not. Does anyone believe that Comey was fired for his own clumsy intervention, which favored Trump, in the 2016 election? Until yesterday, it was Democrats who wanted the FBI director’s head for reviving the issue of Hillary Clinton’s emails last fall—which, as she has argued in recent days, was a contributing cause to her defeat.
There are two more likely possibilities.
The first is that Trump is acting like Richard Nixon, who took similar actions in his frantic attempts to evade prosecution in the Watergate scandal.
Nixon knew that he was guilty of obstructing justice and sought to secure the evidence of his crime—contained on the White House tapes—by dismissing special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and forcing the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, in October 1973. What followed was a political firestorm, and came to be known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
The other possibility, which cannot be dismissed, is that Trump is merely being Trump: Barking out an order without thinking through the consequences.
The continuing questioning of his legitimacy as president, and the resultant dilution of his authority, must be profoundly irritating to a man who has shown—in his ongoing demeaning of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and his weird insistence that his election victory, or Inauguration Day crowds, were bigger and more imposing than they actually were—such sensitivity to criticism, and to challenges of his power.
John Ehrlichman, an aide to Nixon, used to compare his boss to the Queen of Hearts (“Off with their heads!”) from Alice’s adventures in Wonderland. Nixon was always spouting orders—foreign lands to be bombed, aides to be fired, universities and newspapers to be punished—as a form of restorative, beneficial venting. Aides like Ehrlichman knew when to take him seriously—or when to let the matter simmer for a day or two, and determine if Nixon was really serious. Nixon, in a 1969 memo, explicitly delegated that responsibility to his top advisers: Trump may be wise to do so as well. The Comey firing reeked of “punishment first—rationale later.”
Nixon was stunned when the Saturday Night Massacre ended so badly for him. A new special prosecutor—Leon Jaworski—was named to the job, and carried on as ruthlessly as Cox. And, within days, Democratic Majority Leader Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was announcing that the House would open impeachment proceedings. He had not realized, he said in his memoirs, how deep the acid of Watergate had corroded his political standing. Trump seems to be stung, as well.