It did not work for Richard Nixon and it will not work for Donald Trump.
President Trump is a lousy student of American history, so it is likely that he failed to appreciate the dark historic precedent Tuesday when he fired FBI Director James Comey. Even more likely, Trump failed to appreciate how that precedent played out, with an angry public backlash leading to President Nixon’s humiliation and resignation.
In 1973, in the infamous Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon dismissed Archibald Cox, a special prosecutor looking into the president’s Watergate crimes. It was an ham-handed effort by Nixon to derail Cox’ investigation and nobody was fooled.
Now, in 2017, Trump is up to the same game, firing Comey for the blatantly obvious purpose of derailing the FBI’s investigation into the Trump presidential campaign’s ties to Russia.
A Tuesday Night Massacre? That might overstating the significance of the moment. But the American people should not be fooled. They should be outraged. And every member of Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats, should finally put partisan politics aside and call Trump out.
Or will the president’s apologists on Capitol Hill continue to betray their principles?
In dismissing Comey, the Trump administration claimed the president was troubled by the FBI director’s fumbled handling of the problem of Hillary Clinton’s emails, which inappropriately touched on classified information, days before the November presidential election. But candidate Trump was pretty untroubled by Comey’s actions at the time, benefiting greatly from the FBI director’s actions and declaring that the man had “guts.”
Several steps should be taken immediately:
- All evidence collected by the FBI should be gathered up and safeguarded. That’s a given, but with this White House it cannot be taken for granted. It was reportedly Attorney General Jeff Sessions who most forcefully pressed Trump to dismiss Comey. Nobody should feel confident that Sessions, so closely tied himself to the Trump campaign last year, won’t take this opportunity to deep-six the FBI probe.
- A new FBI director must be appointed who, by anybody’s reckoning, is above partisan politics and unbeholden to Trump.
- Now more than ever, Congress should appoint a tough special prosecutor to launch an independent investigation into the Trump administration and campaign’s ties to Russia. An ongoing investigation by the House lost much of its credibility when the Republican chairman of the investigative committee, Devin Nunes — who has since recused himself — was found to be working back channels of the White House to tip Trump to confidential information. And now the integrity of the FBI probe will be called into question.
The news of Comey’s firing hit hard and fast Tuesday evening. The ramifications will take time to sort out. But our own first thought upon hearing the news was pretty simple: Trump thinks the American people are stupid. Time and again, the president trots out false facts and dubious assertions to explain away reality, and he’s doing so again.
The White House said Comey was dismissed because of the bumbling way in which he handled the matter of Hillary Clinton’s email server. But Trump’s true problem with Comey — the FBI chief’s annoyingly independent streak in investigating any Russian connections — was transparent in Trump’s own dismissal letter to Comey:
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
This has nothing to do with the Russian investigation, Trump is saying, but thanks for saying I’m not under investigation, and we both know I probably am or soon will be. So, Mr. Comey, go away.
When Nixon fired Cox, Americans flooded the White House with angry telegrams. More than ever, they felt sure their president was covering something up.
More than ever, we’re feeling the same about President Trump.