A Response to Conservative Reactions to Comey’s Firing

Conservatives—in particular, Fox News and Breitbart, which are carrying the administration’s water these days—were quick to dismiss the rest of the country’s shock at Comey’s firing. Their talking points are generally unified and fall into one of three categories.

Democrats were calling for Comey’s head in October, but now they’re upset he was fired!

 The accusation is that Democrats are being inconsistent and unprincipled. They’re against Comey when he does things they dislike, but they like Comey when he does things they like.

It’s true that, after Comey sent a letter to the House Intelligence Committee in October 2016 (which chairman Jason Chaffetz gleefully posted online) “reopening” the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Democrats were outraged. People within the Obama administration wanted him fired after that, and some Democrats did call for Comey to be fired.

But he wasn’t, and the current administration didn’t fire him, either. In fact, candidate Trump praised Comey, and president-elect Trump praised him again. Bizarrely, however, the documentation supporting Comey’s ouster relied on mismanagement of the Hillary email investigation! (Notably, the letter which did the actual firing, signed by Trump, makes no mention of the Hillary email investigation, but does take time to thank Comey for exonerating Trump on three different occasions, with respect to the Russia investigation.)

The proper response to this conservative talking point is that we don’t believe the administration’s stated reason for firing Comey. Why would Trump praise Comey, then fire him seven months after the event that allegedly triggered the firing? It’s not unprincipled to point out that Comey made a mistake in October, and to also point out that the Trump administration seemed fine with that mistake until very recently, despite no change in the status of the Hillary email investigation in the meantime.

This Russia investigation has to stop. It’s a witch hunt. The American people don’t care. There’s been no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

First of all, whether the American people care is largely irrelevant. The American people don’t care about things that are objectively important, and do care about things that aren’t objectively important. The American people didn’t care about the repeated, redundant investigations into Benghazi, but that didn’t stop Trey Gowdy for continuing its investigation long after it overstayed its welcome and ceased providing any actual information. Furthermore, a lot of things happen that the American people don’t want, like TrumpCare, and a lot of things they do want don’t happen, like reforming gun control laws. The conservative response is not an argument.

Second, TrumpWorld has managed to obfuscate the purpose of the investigation, creating a straw man it can point to and say, “Nothing to see here.” The House and Senate investigations were never started with the purpose of demonstrating that Trump and Russia actively colluded to sway the election; indeed, the post-election intelligence report itself stated there was no evidence of that. What there was evidence of, however, was a Russian propaganda operation designed to sway the election in Trump’s favor. However, president-elect Trump—and later President Trump—denied the truth of this intelligence report.

Of course, the more the House has investigated, the more it’s discovered suspicious ties between Russia and TrumpWorld, whether in the form of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, or Carter Page. Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation because he lied to the Senate about meeting Russian officials during the campaign. Moreover, the investigation quickly changed course because Trump himself committed the unforced error of claiming Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. Finally, Devin Nunes had to step aside from the House investigation because, bizarrely, he decided it would be a good idea to engage in a P.R. stunt on Trump’s behalf.

Due to the continued revelations, unforced errors, strange cover-ups, and apparent inability of many people in TrumpWorld to remember anything, it’s far from clear the investigation is over simply because a question it never set out to answer (and indeed, was answered before it began) has been decided in Trump’s favor.

The FBI Director serves at the pleasure of the president, so Trump’s perfectly within his rights to fire Comey.

The FBI Director does serve at the pleasure of the president, but the reason for Comey’s dismissal, as explained above, is dubious. Nothing relevant to the stated reasons for firing Comey—mishandling the Hillary email investigation—occurred in the weeks prior to Comey’s firing. And, on the other hand, it appeared Comey was ramping up his investigation into the Trump/Russia connection (again, not related to active collusion, but increasingly suspicious ties). This is circumstantial evidence that we’re not being told the truth. The Trump administration has a well-documented history of lying—as in, stating things it knows to be factually untrue—and therefore, it’s long ago lost any claim to a benefit of the doubt. Going forward, this administration will have to overcome a presumption that it’s not telling the truth. This isn’t vindictive; it’s a bed of their own making. If they didn’t want to be seen as liars, they shouldn’t have lied.

As far as history goes, this is, quite literally, unprecedented. As in, without precedent. Only one previous FBI Director has been fired—Bill Clinton’s FBI Director, William Sessions—and it was for fairly good reasons. The New York Times reports: “Mr. Sessions had been cited for ethical lapses, including taking free trips on F.B.I. aircraft and using government money to build a $10,000 fence at his home. Mr. Sessions was asked to resign, and was fired when he refused to do so.” The Comey situation is different: there was no claim of ethical lapse, and notably, the administration was the target of an active FBI investigation. There also was no investigation into Comey’s alleged mismanagement; reportedly, Trump made up his mind a week ago he wanted Comey gone and enlisted the Justice Department to find a reason to do it.

So, the conservative response to an act that is, again, literally without precedent is to say, “Move along, nothing to see here. Just business as usual.” In fact, this is not business as usual. In the face of Trump, one norm after another has fallen, but the bucket brigade at Fox News and Breitbart asked as though FBI directors are fired every day. They are not—especially not when they’re investigating those in the current president’s orbit for suspicious foreign ties.