It has been more than 36 hours since President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey, and the tick-tock, leaks and diatribes about it have not abated. The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has devoured all of them, and has reached a pretty simple conclusion: Donald Trump does not understand how the federal government works.
Julian Sanchez gets at this point in Just Security:
Much has been made of Trump’s willingness to flout longstanding political norms, but what’s less often observed is that this appears to be as much a function of ignorance as brazenness. That is, it’s not just that he’s decided he can get away with breaking the rules — which thus far he has — but that he routinely seems to do so unwittingly, unaware of what the rules are. Many have expressed incredulity that the White House truly believed it could take this step without provoking a political firestorm; I find it all too plausible. As a result, they’ve been caught unprepared, without any credible story that would give members of his own party cover to defend the move with a straight face.
To be sure, Trump has the constitutional authority to fire Comey. I agree with Reason’s Jacob Sullum that this is not a constitutional crisis. And other smart reporters like Politico’s Jack Shafer or my colleague Dave Weigel do not even think this is a political crisis.
But Spoiler Alerts throws its lot in with colleague Alyssa Rosenberg, who shrewdly observed that, “Trump doesn’t seem to recognize the difference between an ephemeral victory and a substantive one.” Sure, Trump has forced out Comey, and that’s not nothing for him. In the process, however, he has weakened his influence with two competing sources of authority: the Senate and the FBI.
GOP control over the Senate is razor thin, as a vote today made clear:
Something very unusual happened in the U.S. Senate today: a vote scheduled by the majority leader failed. The legislation would have repealed an Obama-era rule designed to prevent methane emissions from leaking out of drilling operations on public lands. Brought up under the Congressional Review Act, the resolution only needed 50 votes to pass the Senate, after already passing the House along party lines. But it failed 49-51 …
In the C-SPAN video of the vote, McCain can be seen in heated discussion with John Cornyn, R-Texas, the number two man in the Senate leadership, along with John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and an unidentified senator with his back to the camera. After yelling at them for close to a minute, McCain goes over to the Senate clerks and gives a thumbs down to record his vote. He then storms out of the chamber, as Cornyn raises his arms in mild protest.
McCain has a reputation for being a little, shall we say, vindictive. It’s not out of the question at all that he would torpedo this vote, regardless of his ideological preferences, because of a fit of pique about the FBI director he admires getting unceremoniously dumped.
Nor is this a case of just one vote, or just one GOP senator. Because the GOP’s margin is so small, it only takes a few recalcitrant GOP senators to gum up the works. And the gumming up has already started:
This is significant: McCain and Sasse have written a letter declaring their opposition to Trump’s USTR nominee Robert Lighthizer.
— Sahil Kapur (@sahilkapur) May 10, 2017
Is it possible that GOP senators will fall back into line? Sure, it’s possible, if Trump was a normal politician. But I find it hard to envision Trump sweet-talking McCain into a more compliant attitude. And this will inevitably affect Trump’s ability to replace Comey with a more pliant FBI director.
As for the FBI, voracious news readers might have noticed a few stories over the past day on how the rank and file are taking the news. The answer appears to be “not well.” Consider this story from The Daily Beast’s Jana Winter and Betsy Woodruff:
“Everyone feels like there has been a death in the family,” said one counterterrorism agent.
“We’re basically sitting shiva,” said another agent, referring to the Jewish mourning period just after a funeral.
At least a dozen agents posted photos on their private Facebook pages of themselves with Comey (or just of Comey). Some made those their temporary profile picture — a gesture agents usually reserve for when a colleague dies in the line of duty.
And then there’s this from the Post’s 30-source Comeypalooza story:
Within the Justice Department and the FBI, the firing of Comey has left raw anger, and some fear, according to multiple officials. Thomas O’Connor, the president of the FBI Agents Association, called Comey’s firing “a gut punch. We didn’t see it coming, and we don’t think Director Comey did anything that would lead to this.’’
Many employees said they were furious about the firing, saying the circumstances of his dismissal did more damage to the FBI’s independence than anything Comey did in his three-plus years in the job.
One intelligence official who works on Russian espionage matters said they were more determined than ever to pursue such cases. Another said Comey’s firing and the subsequent comments from the White House are attacks that won’t soon be forgotten. Trump had “essentially declared war on a lot of people at the FBI,” one official said. “I think there will be a concerted effort to respond over time in kind.”
So Trump has gotten rid of his immediate obstacle — Comey — but has created even more obstacles in the process. I might be a small-town political scientist, but it seems like this is not the best way to achieve political success.
In fairness to Trump, he might be able to weather this latest own-goal. Each leak from the FBI will potentially erode the prestige of that institution. And Republicans really, really want to pass conservative legislation, which they can do now that a Republican is president.
But as Kori Schake so eloquently notes at Foreign Policy, the costs of legislative quiescence to Trump’s more controversial moves might be high.
Republicans in Congress ought perhaps also to wonder whether continued support for the president might ensure this really will be the only time in a generation Americans will entrust Republicans with both the legislature and executive branch. The White House is evidently banking on public indifference.
For any of this to matter after next week, Trump’s unpopularity will have to start infecting the poll numbers of GOP members of Congress. If that happens, however — and it might — then the Trump administration’s latest short-term political move will lead to its long-term political ruination.
Or, to put it more simply: when your most stalwart defender is Sebastian Gorka, you are probably losing the argument.