The firing of FBI Director James Comey, widely thought to be the result of Comey’s handling of L’Affaire Russe, would have been scandalous on its own. What we now know is that it was more than an isolated abuse; it was a window into how President Donald Trump understands the role of federal law enforcement—and a template for how he would wage war on the apolitical application of the law.
The firing seems to have proceeded from a genuine befuddlement on Trump’s part at the expectation that anyone in power might not use his position—as Polemarchus says to Socrates about the nature of justice—to reward friends and punish enemies. Within the FBI, the action was considered so extreme that it triggered a counterintelligence investigation of whether the president himself was working on behalf of Russian interests. But Trump, for his part, appears to find it downright odd that he is not supposed to use the Justice Department and the FBI to go after his political foes and protect himself from scrutiny. When he’s not actively chafing at the restrictions, he’s made almost wistful by the powerful instrument he has but cannot use. In one 2017 interview, when asked “what’s stopping the Justice Department” from investigating Hillary Clinton, Trump told a radio talk show: “You know, the saddest thing is, because I am the president of the United States, I am not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department. I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI. I’m not supposed to be doing the kind of things I would love to be doing, and I am very frustrated by it.” Trump asked of the department, “Why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with her dossier, and the kind of money? … It’s very discouraging to me. I’ll be honest, I’m very unhappy with it.”
It was a statement of remarkable candor: Trump declared it “the saddest thing” that he could not call up an investigation of his political opponent. He said he would “love to be doing” things with the Justice Department that defy political norms, and he declared himself “very frustrated” and “very unhappy” that he can’t manage to do them. He said with bold frankness that he would like to be able to interfere with ongoing investigations. He declared himself a corrupt actor who believes that the FBI and the Justice Department should be at his beck and call for political purposes.
Whether Trump’s conduct in firing Comey was legally an obstruction of justice or constituted a national-security threat, as the FBI worried, the attitude that found its initial vivid expression in the Comey firing is the true danger of the episode. It is the attitude that persisted in the threats against Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein, the bullying of Andrew McCabe and Jeff Sessions, the dangling of pardons before potential witnesses against the president, and the installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general. It is this unapologetically authoritarian stance toward law enforcement, which merges the enforcement interests of the country with the personal interests of its leader, and not the firing itself, that represents the true, scandalous breach of conduct. The Comey firing was just Trump’s coming-out party.