Our commander-in-chief has made a serious miscalculation. He seems to think the U.S. government is like a reality television show he once ran, where you get great results and top-flight ratings by firing people.
If President Donald Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey to impede the increasingly intense investigation of the Kremlin's meddling in the 2016 election, that act could someday be construed as an obstruction of justice and an impeachable offense.
That may seem a harsh judgment. But the only precedent we have is – you guessed it – Richard Nixon and Watergate. Nixon's deliberate attempts to obstruct the FBI's investigation of the White House formed a key part of the first article of impeachment approved by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. Nixon resigned weeks later.
We seem to be watching Watergate in fast-forward. Trump has been in office 110 days, and he's already fired his acting attorney general, his national security adviser, and now the head of the FBI, all of whom have played key roles in the Russia imbroglio. But it's Comey's dismissal that will accelerate the political consequences for Trump, even if it might threaten to slow the pace of the FBI's probe.
It's clear that, until Tuesday, the investigation was growing in size and scope. Last week, Comey reportedly asked the Justice Department for more money and more agents to be devoted to an already expanding case (a claim the DOJ denies). Federal prosecutors in Virginia have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of the dismissed national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn, who had a troubling discussion with FBI agents in the first days of the Trump administration.
But it seems to me the last straw came on March 20, when Comey testified in public as part of the House Intelligence Committee hearing. He affirmed that the Bureau was in the midst of a massive investigation into Russia’s deliberate attack on American electoral politics, that the aim of that attack was to defeat Clinton and elect Trump – and that Americans may have aided and abetted that assault on democracy.
And in passing, Comey all but called Trump a liar for asserting that President Barack Obama had spied on him by tapping his telephones during the campaign.
If Trump, as he keeps saying, thinks the Russia case is a hoax, and that he can make it vanish by canning Comey, he’s wrong. The FBI is a powerful machine, with thousands of agents, and the ones I know, both active-duty and retired, think Trump’s derision of the investigation was an insult to the institution. They believe that the rule of law is the true rudder for the ship of state; the president cannot reverse its course with a wave of his hand. And his attorney general, the FBI’s immediate overseer, has recused himself from the Russia investigation.
That means this investigation is going to continue, unless a concerted conspiracy to obstruct justice is afoot.
It’s bad news for the president that Republicans in Congress were taken aback by his bold and brusque action. They are his last line of defense against the formation of a full-fledged bipartisan independent investigative commission in Congress – on the order of the Iran-Contra committee created three decades ago – a development that could be politically disastrous for Trump
Senator John McCain, who heads the Armed Services Committee, and is no admirer of Vladimir Putin, defended Comey as an honorable man and called the firing “unprecedented,” which is true. No president has fired an FBI director who was investigating the White House. Not even Nixon had the temerity to do that.
"This scandal is going to go on. I’ve seen it before,” McCain told a security conference meeting in Munich. “I guarantee you there will be more shoes to drop, I can just guarantee it. There’s just too much information that we don’t have that will be coming out.”
Here’s Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina, who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee. “
If Congress moves toward an independent commission this summer, which seems possible in the wake of Comey’s dismissal, those same two Senators will be among a handful to lead the way. The FBI will provide crucial support to congressional investigators, and the press will keep digging deeper into this story.
And if Trump continues to alienate Congress and the citizenry with intemperate decisions – he’s now the least popular newly elected president in modern history – it’s going to be an interesting time when the next election rolls around. Imagine what a real congressional investigation of Russiagate might look like if Republicans aren’t holding all the gavels.
Tim Weiner is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. His books include "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA."