For a host of reasons, I was pretty skeptical of calls to impeach Trump. For one, it’s highly unlikely to happen—even advocating it seems like a distraction from more productive political activism. For another, I think it hard to understate the risks of impeachment in an era of intense polarization. Although I think Trump’s call, during the campaign, for Russia to hack Clinton was sufficient collusion to discredit him, I also do not believe that it constitutes an impeachable offense. Indeed, as horrible as Trump is on a personal and political level, impeachment should absolutely not be a tool for enacting a constitutional coup. The Republicans tried this with Bill Clinton, and I think we underestimate, at our peril, the long-term damage done by that effort.
Despite the title of this post, I’m still not fully on the bandwagon. But if this John Dawsey story in Politico is accurate—and that’s a big if—I suspect we’ve crossed if not the Rubicon, then a significant line of some kind.
[Trump] had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.
The news stunned Comey, who saw his dismissal on TV while speaking inside the FBI office in Los Angeles. It startled all but the uppermost ring of White House advisers, who said grumbling about Comey hadn’t dominated their own morning senior staff meetings. Other top officials learned just before it happened and were unaware he was considering firing Comey. “Nobody really knew,” one senior White House official said. “Our phones all buzzed and people said, What?”
By ousting the FBI director investigating his campaign and associates, Trump may have added more fuel to the fire he is furiously trying to contain — and he was quickly criticized by a chorus of Republicans and Democrats. “The timing of this firing was very troubling,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican.
Trump had grown angry with the Russia investigation — particularly Comey admitting in front of the Senate that the FBI was investigating his campaign — and that the FBI director wouldn’t support his claims that President Barack Obama had tapped his phones in Trump Tower [my emphasis].
This, and similar accounts, seem consistent with my prior post. Trump was angry at Comey for disrespecting him, not affirming his fact-free accusations against the Obama Administration, and, more generally, for not carrying Trump’s water on the Russia investigation. There are two sweeping implications. None are, sadly, surprising. But they now take on new urgency.
First, Trump is basically unhinged. In more technical language, he’s unfit to serve. I’m sure many presidents felt similarly about investigations against them—but Trump actually fired the head of the nation’s most important law-enforcement agency for falling to supporting an alternative reality. This is, in the terms laid out by Jacob Levy, the mark of an authoritarian—driven, perhaps, by temperamental deficiencies that raise serious doubts about Trump’s continued status as President of the United States.
Some of our past presidents have suffered from their own deficiencies and impairments, but few have surrounded himself with such a circle of charlatans, incompetents, ideologues, family members, and enablers. The exceptions to this parade of people who have no business near government include a handful of people at the NSC, the Department of Defense, Rick Perry at Energy—who, whatever his flaws, appears to take governance seriously—and a few others. Rosenstein, per Benjamin Wittes, was supposed to be one of the adults. But he has disgraced himself by crafting a transparently post-hoc rationalization for Comey’s removal.
Second, and more important, if Trump fired Comey for failing to toe the line on FBI investigations—into, one the one hand, collusion between the Trump administration and Russia and, on the other hand, his accusations concerning Obama administration wiretappings—then he has used the power of his office to interfere with law-enforcement activity directly implicating himself. This is a profound abuse of power for personal benefit—one that throws us into a constitutional crisis.
Yes, Trump had every right to fire Comey. Nixon had every right to fire Archibald Cox. Both actions, however, demonstrate the unwillingness of the highest elected official in the United States to make his administration accountable to the rule of law. Even if there is no ‘there there’ to the Russia-Trump investigation, the Trump administration faces a host of other collisions with the rule of law and norms of democratic governance—many involving financial conflicts of interest implicating Trump’s own family. We can no longer pretend to have any confidence that Trump will allow other ongoing or future investigations to unfold in an orderly and proper manner.
This is far from the first, and likely far from the last, defining moment for Republican elected officials. I do not envy them. They tread dangerous and difficult ground. But we rightly judge the integrity of men and women by how they behave in such moments. It is time for genuinely independent and bipartisan investigations into the Trump administration—ones carried out with the clear knowledge that grounds for an impeachment are a plausible outcome.