Why Trump Was Surprised by the Comey Backlash

Given the president’s feelings on personal pique, he might have expected Democrats to welcome the firing of a man they felt cost them the White House.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

One of the more intriguing bits to emerge from the Comey canning are the widespread reports that Donald Trump assumed that his kicking the FBI director to the curb would be met with cheers—or at least shrugs—across the political spectrum.

While the narratives coming out of the White House have been muddled and contradictory to the point of near-incoherence, administration officials have been leaking all over town that Trump was taken aback by the fury of the blowback. Most notably, he seemed perplexed as to why Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was so miffed to see the FBI director, hardly beloved by Democrats, receive his comeuppance.

Instead, since Tuesday’s explosion, lawmakers from both teams have been proclaiming themselves deeply troubled (though not Republican leadership, mind you), the phrase “constitutional crisis” keeps trending, and you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a pundit musing about Watergate. White House aides, meanwhile, are busy anonymously savaging one another over why no one foresaw—much less prepared to defend against—the ferocity of this firestorm.

(Trump is said to be particularly irate with his communications team for bungling the response. Some might point out that Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s people were reportedly given a mere hour’s warning of the coming chaos. Still, the president feels what he feels. So those participating in who-will-Trump-axe-next office pools may want to shift your money to poor Sean.)

The question of “What was Trump thinking?” is one that pretty much all of the political world is now puzzling over (even many inside Trumpland). Did the president and his inner circle really fail to fathom the epic fallout that would result from ousting the man in charge of investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia? Did the president simply not care? If the latter, why weren’t his front-line troops better outfitted for battle so that the entire operation didn’t come off looking like an out-of-control clown car? To steal a line from the 1988 comedy A Fish Called Wanda one typically aims to avoid this sort of high-profile meltdown “unless you’re congenitally insane or irretrievably stupid.”

Trump is neither of those things. (This is, I realize, a subject of increasingly hot debate in some circles.) What the president undeniably is, however, is pathologically myopic in his view of the world and how it operates. For him, everything is personal. Period. Ideology, partisanship, institutional norms, law, ethics, morality—none of these seems to mean much to this president. Or rather, none means as much to Trump as do his gut feelings about another individual, which are themselves heavily determined by whether Trump feels as though that individual has displeased and/or disrespected Trump. (Recall Trump’s self-proclaimed rule of thumb for dealing with Vladimir Putin: “If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him.”)

Trump had soured on Comey. As all those leaking administration officials tell it, Trump saw the FBI director as too focused on the actual Russia investigation and not nearly focused enough on who had leaked embarrassing information about Trump. Plus, Comey had waved off Trump’s wild-hair claims that President Obama had wire-tapped him. This level of disrespect was intolerable. Trump lost faith in both Comey’s judgment and his loyalty. And so the FBI chief had to go, political and legal considerations be damned.

Viewed through this lens, of course Trump expected even Democrats to more or less accept Comey’s firing. After all, many Dems regard Comey as having cost their team the White House with his October 28 letter to Congress regarding the Hillary email probe. As the president has been defensively tweeting this week, Chuck Schumer is far from the only Democrat to have taken multiple slaps at Comey for his little October surprise.

To a president for whom personal pique is so central, it was natural to assume that Democrats’ burning resentment of Comey would translate into smug delight at his firing—especially with Team Trump asserting that said firing stemmed from Comey’s mistreatment of Hillary.

Admittedly, someone in the White House perhaps should have anticipated that Democrats would gag on the claim that, after months of loudly praising Comey’s rough handling of Hillary, Trump had suddenly undergone a 180-degree change of heart. But, hey, Trump’s inner circle includes few seasoned political pros. And promoting “alternative facts” has been working more or less okay for the team thus far.

More importantly, the president’s brain trust should have considered the possibility that Democrats would set aside their personal animus toward Comey the second it smelled like Trump was meddling in the FBI’s investigation of his campaign. Schumer et al may very well have fantasized about slathering Comey with molasses and staking him out on a fire-ant hill, but there’s no way they would overlook a Trump move so eyebrow-raising that even many GOP lawmakers have pronounced themselves “concerned.” (Not everyone has Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s reptilian disregard for public outrage.)

Donald Trump is button-poppingly proud of not knowing—or caring—a fig about how Washington works. But someone close to him really should explain that the cliche “all politics is personal” isn’t meant to be a literal blueprint for narcissistic decision-making.