You’re the president, and you’ve decided to fire the head of an agency investigating whether your presidential campaign colluded with the Russians to help tilt the election your way.
How do you handle that?
Do you confer with senior White House advisers who have experience in these matters, asking them about the propriety of meddling in a high-profile probe overshadowing your administration?
Do you confer with a few trusted members of Congress, soliciting their perspectives about how the U.S. government functions, the need for checks and balances, and longstanding traditions around the separation of powers?
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Or do you huddle with a couple of law enforcement officials who may or may not be interested for their own reasons in dumping the same guy you want to dump and see what they say? And then, after deciding to go ahead, tell hardly anyone on your team what you’re up to, stick your former bodyguard into a car at the White House and give him an envelope containing the letter firing the guy you’ve targeted, and then have him deliver the pink slip instead of you – but without checking whether the guy you’re firing is actually going to be in the office when your former bodyguard gets there?
As we all know by now, President Trump followed that third route when he decided to fire FBI Director James Comey Tuesday night. Comey, caught unawares, found out he was fired from TV screens carrying the news while he was addressing FBI staffers in the bureau’s Los Angeles office. Many Trump advisers, and most of Washington, also caught unawares, scrambled to figure out what it all meant and whether the president had plunged the country into a constitutional crisis.
This isn’t a constitutional crisis. It is, however, an assault on the notion that we live in a nation of laws and that no one, including the president, is above them.
Justice Department officials recommended that Trump fire Comey because of how the FBI director handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email. So there’s that. But in his letter notifying Comey that he had been fired, the president went out of his way to say – without any apparent proof – that Comey told him “on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation” in the FBI’s Russia probe.
Comey’s dismissal has also elevated the stakes in the investigation of possible Russian collusion with Team Trump. CNN reported Tuesday that federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas to former associates of Trump’s fired national security advisor, Michael Flynn, for business records just hours before Comey was fired.
Trump himself has clearly been feeling the heat from the Russia investigation. A Politico report said he had pondered firing Comey for a week, that he had “grown enraged by the Russia investigation,” didn’t understand why he couldn’t control it and would occasionally “scream at television clips about the probe.” He has also spent several weeks routinely criticizing the investigation on his Twitter feed – in tweets like this on May 8:
“The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
Trump has also sought legal advice outside the White House to handle some of his concerns. During a press conference Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that Trump asked a “leading law firm in Washington” to respond to remarks by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, that he wants to look more deeply into possible business dealings the president has had with Russia.
Spicer made sure to point out that even though the president hired a lawyer to contact Graham, he was “fine” with Graham asking questions about his ties to Russia. “He has no business in Russia,” Spicer said. “So he welcomes that.”
To cap off this thrilling Washington joyride, the White House hosted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday morning to chat about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Syrian civil war. During a brief news appearance with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Lavrov joked about Comey: “He was fired? You’re kidding.” That was funny.
Trump’s beheading of Comey has led to the latest round of speculation about the president’s motives and actions. That’s been a rather constant pair of queries over the last 18 months or so.
Remember Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was presiding over fraud litigation involving Trump University? Trump attacked the judge and his Mexican heritage over several months last year as an avenue toward explaining why he thought Curiel should be removed from a case that had continually and ultimately turned against the for-profit college.
Remember the three-judge panel from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals who ruled against Trump’s executive order seeking to ban U.S. travel for citizens from mostly-Muslim countries? After claiming, incorrectly, that the circuit had also ruled against another of his executive orders targeting “sanctuary” cities, Trump said he wanted to “break up” the Ninth.
If Trump could have unilaterally unseated Curiel, he would have. If Trump could have unilaterally unseated an entire federal circuit court, he would have. He was able to unilaterally unseat Comey, and he did.
One danger in trying to analyze Trump’s motives and actions is that rational, long-term thinking hasn’t been his hallmark. He wants approval, adoration, great ratings. And he really doesn’t care about policy or process. So searching for “strategy” or “deal-making prowess” in the president is usually a fool’s errand.
What drives Trump today, and what has always driven him, are twin forces: self-aggrandizement and self-preservation. Most of his public actions can be understood as a reflection of one or both of those needs.
And Donald Trump firing James Comey was all about self-preservation.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine.