Trump conjures up ghost of Nixon

The supposed rationale for firing James Comey is deeply implausible

 

Donald Trump has lost none of his ability to surprise. The constraints of office – what constraints? – mean nothing. Any more than the constitutional niceties of the separation of powers between the executive and the legal system. But the firing of FBI director James Comey, may be, as one US newspaper suggests in its headline, the first act in his impeachment. A straw too far. It’s not just another Trumpism more outrageous than the last, to be shrugged off. In beheading an investigation into his and his campaign’s links with Russia, it is a particularly disgraceful personal abuse of power, in the worst tradition of the monarchic principle that “l’etat c’est moi” – the king, or tsar, can do no wrong.

Trump’s problem is that he is no Vladimir Putin and the US is not Russia. In the US the rule of law does tend to prevail and presidents, no less than Wall Street bankers, are held to account. If slowly, nevertheless surely. And Trump would do well to reflect on the last sacking by a US president of the independent head of an investigation into himself, that of special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, investigating a minor break-in at the Watergate complex. It was undoubtedly a critical point in the eventual but inevitable unravelling of the presidency of Richard Nixon.

The supposed rationale for the Comey firing is deeply implausible. He is accused of mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails when she was secretary of state: both in terms of an early public exoneration of the candidate, and then a public announcement on the eve of the election of the resumption of the investigation that many believe may have tipped it in Trump’s favour. Comey was then and since strongly praised by none other than Trump for that move.

Trump’s real preoccupation without any doubt is the multiple investigations in Congress and by the FBI into election contacts between his support team and the Russians, and the possibility that they knew of Russian attempts to tip the election in his favour by leaking Democratic emails.

But if the firing was an attempt to derail one of those investigations, it appears to have had precisely the opposite effect. Democratic calls for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to conduct the inquiry have become thunderous and almost irresistible. Trump may have bought some time, but even Republican support for him has been largely half-hearted in the shape of complaints that the “Democrats never much liked Comey either, what are they complaining about?”

The most famous lesson of Watergate and the Archibald Cox saga is that the cover-up is always worse than the crime. There is every possibility that the president may find that, in attempting to deflect criticism of what may prove to be trivial contacts with the Russians, he will blunder into committing far greater infractions. But then Trump is no student of history.

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