“This is Nixonian” was the reaction of Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, to the news that President Trump had fired FBI director James Comey.
Casey, echoed by fellow Democrats, was referring to the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, when President Richard Nixon fired the special prosecutor and attorney general who were leading the Watergate investigation. The massacre did not derail the probe. It only fueled calls for Nixon’s impeachment.
We know that President Trump has a stunning ignorance of history. He recently flubbed the basics of the causes of the civil war and seemed to think the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive and “doing a great job.” It’s certainly possible that President Trump doesn’t know the lessons of Watergate.
The most famous lesson is that the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
We don’t yet know the full story of Russia’s meddling in the election, but the abrupt firing of the FBI director, who was leading an investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, certainly reeks of a cover-up.
The firings did not save Richard Nixon from impeachment in the Watergate scandal and getting rid of Comey won’t save Donald Trump from the flames of the Russia scandal.
Comey’s abrupt removal as FBI director only brought calls for an independent prosecutor to a fever pitch. Senate minority leader Charles Schumer said unless such a prosecutor is appointed, “everyone will suspect cover-up.”
Republican claims on cable television on Tuesday night that the president fired Comey for his improper handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation is absurd at face value, a cynical ploy. California representative Eric Swalwell, the ranking member of the CIA subcommittee of the House permanent select committee on Intelligence, one of the congressional panels digging into the Russia mess, called the firing “Trump’s ‘Tuesday Afternoon Massacre.”
In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton has said Comey cost her the White House with his election-eve letter re-opening the email probe. At the time, presidential candidate Trump said the devastating letter redeemed Comey’s reputation.
He had blasted Comey as a Hillary apologist for his earlier decision not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton. Many Democratic and Republican lawyers said Comey’s unusual public comments, calling Clinton “extremely careless” without charging her, amounted to prosecutorial misconduct. The White House suggested on Tuesday night that this is what fueled the decision to dump Comey.
But this makes no sense. If Comey’s showboating nine months ago provoked his abrupt dismissal, why now? Surely, if this was the reason, the president would have acted much earlier, perhaps immediately on taking office.
More likely to have provoked the president was Comey’s recent congressional testimony, in which he said that it made him nauseous to think his actions affected the election results. This remark likely hit President Trump’s most sensitive nerve. Anything that strikes at the legitimacy of his election is destabilizing to the president. He is insecure and seems to feel that his hold on his office is tenuous. That’s why reminders that he lost the popular vote make him apoplectic.
It’s also relevant that he fired the FBI director just as the Russia scandal was heating up again following Sally Yates’ testimony on Monday. Yates’s head had already rolled, but Comey continued to stand at the white-hot center of this investigation. With the house and senate Russia investigations barely off the ground, derailing Comey now could help send the FBI’s probe off the tracks, too.
If the immediate reactions were any indication, it had the opposite effect. The calls for an independent prosecutor became a thunderous chorus in a matter of hours.
So did the Nixon parallels. But during Watergate, Democrats and Republicans actually joined arms to save the country from a corrupt White House. That kind of bipartisan sanity is not possible today.
The country deserves to know what transpired between the Trump campaign and Russia. The Congress can’t be trusted to get to the bottom of the possible collusion. Russian meddling struck at the heart of democracy. There are few things more serious than a powerful foreign nation trying to influence the American vote.
Now the FBI is under a dark cloud. If the new director finds nothing on Russia, he will surely be suspected of a whitewash. The agency’s credibility and reputation for keeping out of politics was already badly damaged by Comey during the campaign.
Public trust in institutions in Washington is at a low. Comey’s firing will only fuel the cynicism. An independent prosecutor is both necessary and inevitable now.