It’s obvious that firing Comey was a way for Trump to protect himself against the investigation into his ties with Russia. But that negative, defensive reason for getting rid of Comey doesn’t exclude the possibility that Trump might have been getting a twofer. He may also want someone who will do his bidding as Director of the FBI, and Comey wasn’t that someone, so he had to go to make room. Trump may be looking for a positive, aggressive benefit from having a loyalist as head of the Bureau.
The Firing Could Just Be Random Flailing
That’s a possibility you have to consider when talking about anything Trump says or does. The point is that the man does, and especially says, seemingly demented and/or insane things so often, that at some point, it makes sense to stop looking for some underlying strategy to what he says and does, and just accept the surface appearance as the only reality. There is no strategy he is pursuing, he’s just demented and/or insane, and his actions are random. He fired Comey because he was watching Fox one night last week and just a got a wild hair over something Comey said or did on the TV screen. End of story.
That possibility should by now be a commonplace, so obvious that you don’t have to mention it anymore when talking about any possible strategy behind Trump’s actions. It’s almost a given. I only mention it now to point out that it really is convenient for Trump that he has put us all into the position of having to become a conspiracy theorist just to start down the path of building any rational explanation for anything he does. You almost have to be crazy yourself to see any strategy guiding the actions of this obviously crazy person.
I can’t pass up this opportunity to remind a wider and younger audience about Vincent “The Chin” Gigante. He was one of the late period NY mob bosses, on the tail end of NY mob bossery. The Feds were after him, closing in on him, and he knew it. So he took to wandering around his neighborhood at all hours in his pajamas and flip-flops, saying random and often completely incoherent things to the neighbors he encountered on the street. This actually seems to have delayed his prosecution for years, because the case against a mob boss isn’t made up of having his fingerprints on murder weapons, but of having the testimony of underlings that your defendant is some criminal mastermind. How do you convince a jury that a guy who wanders around the neighborhood in his pajamas babbling randomly is a criminal mastermind?
How could this 4AM rage tweeting Trump be a political, much less criminal, mastermind? He’s got us all having to get over that hurdle before we can even start to build a case that he’s up to anything, anything good or no good.
It’s unfortunate that The Chin’s name does not lend itself to any snazzy handle we could put on this tactic, pretending to be so demented and disorganized that you couldn’t possibly be planning anything nefarious. The Chin Effect doesn’t do it for me, and doesn’t really reference back to Gigante. Gigantism is already taken, the name of a physical medical condition. But handy label or not, you have to consider that the seeming randomness, the flailing, might itself be a tactic. He hides not just what he’s up to, but even whether he has the capacity to be up to anything.
Firing Comey As A Defensive Measure
This is, as I say, the obvious reason for Trump to have fired Comey, especially to have fired him now, when Comey’s FBI is investigating his ties to Russia. Whether you think of him as a tower of integrity or an officious prick, Comey does at least seem to have been serious about pursuing the Russia probe. Picking a replacement for Comey with zero inclination to pursue the investigation is within Trump’s power, and even if he has to compromise on that ideal a bit for purposes of public relations or Senate relations, he could hardly fail to do better than Comey in terms of the zeal with which the investigation is pursued.
One aspect of this defensive benefit that I haven’t seen talked about is that taking out the FBI, or legal, contribution to the investigation has an extra, synergistic, benefit that exceeds its direct benefit.
Taking action against a sitting president is not an easy undertaking. They have quite a bit of power and at least the office gets quite a bit of respect and deference. To take Watergate as an example, despite the clear evidence early on that Nixon was guilty as sin of crimes anyone would consider impeachable, it took literally years of siege warfare to get him out of the White House. It perhaps looks straightforward in retrospect, if studied as history, but at the time, living through it as it happened, it was slow, tortuous and the way through to conviction on impeachment never seemed assured until the final week or so. There was the political arm of the siege, the House and Senate committee hearings, and there was the legal arm, the investigations by Cox and then Jaworski, in Judge Sirica’s Federal District Court, and then of course the journalistic arm, the earliest and most persistent. All three proceeded slowly, covering each other’s flanks as the process ground forward. But it kept making progress because each arm would use material uncovered by the others to cover its own further advance from attacks by the president’s many defenders. It was the conventional wisdom at the time that it wouldn’t have worked, Nixon would have served out his term, if any of the three arms had faltered. That’s why Nixon was driven to the desperate measure of firing Cox, because he gambled that that would eliminate that arm of the siege, and the other two would be stymied by that loss of synergistic effect. But he made that move too late, and he was forced by public and political pressure to let Jaworski push on with Cox’s work.
The analogy here is that Trump is doing his Saturday Night Massacre early enough to succeed at eliminating the legal arm of the investigation. He, or his handlers, calculate that they will be able to ride out the storm of criticism, that they have taken out the legal arm of the investigation and won’t be forced to replace Comey with an FBI Director nearly as much of a tower of integrity or a prick, or with any sort of independent counsel with similar qualities. In this case of the Russia-Trump ties, a synergistic effect between separate the political and legal arms might be even more important than it was for Watergate, because the Russia investigation more directly and centrally involves classified material. Our culture of official secrecy, in addition to the many other pathologies it encourages, provides an excellent weapon for the Executive to defend itself against investigation. The president’s men can criminalize the release of damning evidence of their wrong-doing simply by classifying such information. Having the FBI on the inside free to look at such classified evidence, then lateral it to the political or journalistic arms for release to the public, could end up being crucial to the success of the effort to stop Trump.
As a side note, perhaps this last consideration, of classified information potentially being crucial to how this all turns out, explains why Comey was fired the way he was fired. Sure, doing it when Comey was off in California, and sending the Trump organization’s chef of security to hand Comey his pink slip, may just have been the random acts of a petulant crazy man. But perhaps they didn’t want to give Comey any lead time to prepare a set of information to take with him into his forced retirement. You have to wonder if Trump sent his personal security chief to get Comey to hand over any electronic devices on him out in California.
Picking A New FBI Director As An Offensive Measure
This possibility does not conflict with the defensive benefits of firing Comey. Thinking about the firing in terms of what positive benefit Trump might plan to get from Comey’s replacement doesn’t have to be premised on any idea that the negative benefits, getting rid of the threat of the Russia investigation, don’t exist, or are trivial.
Maybe Trump would like to have an enforcer in the job of FBI Director.
To see what I mean by that, consider his AG pick, Jeff Sessions. He may have been mostly just furniture during his time in the Senate, but he got his start as a legal enforcer. He’s most notorious for his legal career as a prosecutor oppressing blacks. That’s what got him nixed for appointment to the Supreme Court. But even earlier in his career, his specialty was putting Democratic politicians in Alabama in jail.
It’s one thing, a nice thing if you’re a Republican, to be able to toss black and brown people in jail. But how much nicer, and perhaps, as the heat on Trump grows, necessary, to be able to toss uppity legislators, and journalists, and ex-FBI Directors in jail. Just being able to credibly threaten jail would mostly do the trick. The prosecutor arm of that legal enforcer team, the AG, is already in place. But you need a matching set, you need synergy in federal law enforcement, to get the full benefit of intimidation possible to someone who controls the executive branch. Trump needs an enforcer as FBI Director.
This doesn’t even have to be terribly overt enforcement to be effective, perhaps even decisive. For example, many people are now saying that they expect Comey to unload on the people who fired him. He was fired because he was getting too close to ugly truths, and presumably has much he could share with the surviving arms of the anti-Trump effort. But I’m not so sure that Comey is terribly free to unload much, even if he would want to. There actually are perhaps some legitimate security concerns against him revealing everything he might know. But depending on how ruthless the federal police and prosecutors threaten to be, his scope for saying anything, even to Congress, could shrink to zero.
It’s true that’s just an example of a good offense being the best defense. But the two are inextricably linked. If Trump did plan to go in for a career of high stakes, high pressure political moves to beat Congress into submission — as an example, by holding the funding bills hostage as Mulvaney keeps talking about — his unconventional approach to politics would make him vulnerable to removal by a coalition of conventional politicians of both parties. So far he’s safe from removal because he hasn’t made any high stakes moves, just displayed a bizarre personal style, and conventional politicians won’t be roused to anything as unconventional as ousting a president until and unless he forces a crisis. Right now Trump is protected from removal by inertia, but if he tries anything dramatic, if he goes kinetic, he will need something else to protect him from Pence and the House and Senate. Fear seems the most likely candidate for insuring Trump security. Fear of aggressive FBI investigation and DoJ prosecution seems the handiest fear available to Trump. He’s already got his man at DoJ for that, now he needs his man at FBI.
If Trump does plan to ever be aggressive, to stop just padding around the neighborhood in his pajamas and flip flops punching rage tweets into his personal electronic device, if he wants instead to play politics with Congress and the courts and win, he needs a good defense to be able to make bold moves that would put him in danger of impeachment or the 25th if he didn’t have that aggressive defense. He needs ruthless enforcers bringing the full weight of the federal govt down on the opposition.