The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. James Comey states publicly that the FBI is investigating the same collusion between a foreign adversary and the Trump presidential campaign. Comey briefs Congress on requests for funding he has made to pursue this investigation. Without notifying the Justice Department, any officials in the FBI, or many of his own aides, the President fires Comey.
You do not have to be bright understand this fact pattern looks bad. For all we know, the Trump campaign may have come into incidental contact with Russian intelligence — there may have been no collusion at all. And given the shear volume of agency and White House leaks over the last 111 days, it’s possible that if there was hard evidence, it would have come out. But none of that matters. The President just fired someone actively investigating him. He, of course, has the legal authority to — but that’s not the point. There are plenty of things the President has the legal authority to do that a good and competent president would not do. For instance, the President can order the passport of a US citizen be revoked. Presidents can order missile strikes that kill civilians. They can destabilize markets by threatening to withdraw from trade agreements. They can leave empty entire executive departments because they find them uninteresting. None of the above is unlawful, but most of it isn’t very smart, either.
There is no shortage of commentary on the Comey firing. But this incident raises issues about the Trump presidency that seem to become more clear by the day. I teach a class on the presidency. The problem with judging presidential performance is that most seem to maximize. By that, I mean that for any given situation, they do their best. They behave strategically. They consider their options. When they can’t do this themselves, they have advisors who are experts who help them think through problems. They set up a decision-making apparatus that produces predictable behavior. All make mistakes — and there are history books to be written about those mistakes — but all take reasonably measured actions. So in the end, they all come out looking like victims of circumstance. Some presided over successful wars, good economic times, or had lots of co-partisans in Congress to help them move their agenda forward.
Even at day 111, it is clear the Trump presidency is showing us something different, and the Comey firing is a perfect example. The President wants the Russian thing to go away. His supporters are tired of it. His allies in Congress are tired of it. The President screams at the TV when coverage of it is not favorable. The President and Congress have a lot of things to do. They have promised overhauls of healthcare, immigration, the tax code, and an infrastructure stimulus. Over the last few weeks — despite the Comey testimony — the Russia story has calmed down. It has been crowded out of the news cycle by Republicans’ successful effort to pass legislation in the House that has already died in the Senate. But that wouldn’t matter, Senators would re-write the bill — and some version may have even passed. The President’s advisors began promising an infrastructure program that would force the hand of congressional Democrats. The tide seemed to be turning.
Then came the President. He watched Comey’s testimony. He was upset over Comey’s repeated refusals to confirm Trump’s twitter-constructed conspiracy about the former president wiretapping his phones. He was looking for a reason to fire him. The Deputy Attorney General gave him a scathing memo — that did not recommend dismissal — but was all the justification Trump needed. So he fired Comey — no strategy, no forethought, no warning. The Russia story has been revived, once again — and this time, there are nearly a dozen Republican Senators who could not stomach defending the decision. All that would be required to generate an independent investigation is three.
I have no illusions about this single event leading to the removal of the President. Suggestions that this is the beginning of some kind of downfall are, I think, pre-mature. But, in my opinion, what we have now is something worse. The leader of the free world is an incompetent. He lacks even the basic self-control that would be required for him to achieve his own stated goals. Some of his goals are the goals of people who elected him. That means he is costing them wins. What’s worse is that most of the functions of the presidency do not necessitate zero-sum games between ideologues. Everyone benefits from having a good president in office. So he is costing everyone wins.
I do not know what this particular event will lead to — and it is difficult to imagine any scenario that would lead to as exceptional a historical event as an impeachment and removal would be. But I would like to believe that reasonable people will realize (even if slowly) that the current president is establishing a baseline of what it looks like when a country is governed by someone who makes bad decisions by habit — and that they will start to wonder what wins they are missing out on.
Note: There’s a fun article by Jon Bond and Manny Teodoro about “presidential sabermetrics.” Their article isn’t normative — I’m borrowing the baseball analogy, not the analysis — but anyone who reads this might head their way.