James Comey’s firing is a timely reminder that Donald Trump is unpredictable, difficult to read and dismissive of the norms associated with his office.
By dismissing FBI director James Comey, US President Donald Trump has not only underlined the unprecedented unpredictability of his leadership, but has also plunged into deeper crisis the very system of government and party politics of the country. Not only is the president’s justification for firing Comey highly implausible – Trump says Comey erred in his investigations of the Hillary Clinton email saga during the election campaign – but its timing, as the FBI’s probe into the Trump administration/campaign’s connections with Russia gathers momentum, raises suspicions among even loyal congressional Republicans that the president has something to hide.
Comparisons with President Richard Nixon’s sacking of Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox may be premature but have already been made by opposition politicians and historians. Cox was sacked when he subpoenaed White House tapes related to the Watergate burglaries. Whether or not the Trump-Russia ‘affair’ warrants such a comparison remains to be seen – but the optics are deeply suspicious.
More broadly, this crisis comes after a series of others that have seen historically low approval ratings for the Trump presidency – hovering around 40% at a time when newly-elected chief executives normally enjoy a honeymoon period. But so divisive is the president’s style, values, language, policies and approach to leadership that there is almost no middle ground in attitudes to the maverick commander-in-chief.
Republican voters still love him – giving him 96% approval in recent polls – but hardly anyone else does. And Republican donors are reportedly concerned as there are so few ‘wins’ to boast of as even the Obamacare repeal by the House of Representatives has created such a backlash that the Senate – which must also pass the Bill but has a very small GOP majority – has effectively disowned it and is to start again from scratch.
But the severity of the master message of the Trump administration – foreigners not wanted – and increased raids on ‘illegal immigrants’ in the US has seen the number of migrants illegally attempting to cross the Mexican border into the US plummeting to around 11,000 since Trump’s inauguration – a dramatic fall of 70%. This, and the confirmation of the conservative Neill Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, appears to be Trump’s only achievements – much celebrated by his supporters.
Pew polls show that a very small percentage of Americans believe that the US government serves their interests – both before and after Trump’s triumph in November 2016. The legitimacy crisis of the American elite, which Trump promised to reverse, continues as the two parties play politics while the problems of unemployment, low wages, massive income and wealth inequality, indebtedness and economic anxiety go unaddressed.
But firing off 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles, dropping the ‘mother of all bombs’ on Afghanistan, escalating military tensions with China and North Korea, and praising NATO gained Trump accolades from the foreign policy establishment, including its neoconservative stalwarts like Paul Wolfowitz. “Trump just became president,” declared CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
But the establishment still retains a degree of scepticism about Trump’s newly-discovered globalist credentials. The pressure over alleged links with Russia appears designed to maintain leverage on an unpredictable and unreliable leader – up to this point, there is precious little of a democratic principle at stake about this affair, unlike Watergate.
The Comey firing is a timely reminder that this president remains unpredictable, difficult to read and dismissive of the norms associated with his office. Any suggestion that Trump’s presidency has been ‘normalised’ has been torpedoed by his own lack of normality.
The Trump administration’s explanation for firing Comey sounds highly implausible, given that they had a very long time to do something about his handling of the Clinton email investigation and had previously lauded Comey as a principled and independent public servant. That he was addressing FBI employees at the Los Angeles office when he saw live TV reports of his ouster – as opposed to via Twitter – merely underlines the unorthodox style of Trump.
To be sure, Comey’s critical error, of misleading a Senate committee, appears to warrant an official reprimand but is hardly worthy of dismissal. Whatever the intent, the timing of his removal is extremely suspicious, given that the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s links with Russia appears to be gathering some pace. As Republican loyalist Senator Richard Burr, leading the committee investigating Trump-Russia links, said: “I am troubled by the timing and reasoning of Director Comey’s termination. I have found Director Comey to be a public servant of the highest order, and his dismissal further confuses an already difficult investigation by the Committee.”
If we look at previous presidents, Trump’s actions and issues – including firing the FBI director – are like nothing we have seen before.
Nothing in history compares to what we have seen over the past year – from the election campaign itself and Trump’s racially and discriminatory language, open courting of the fascist right, to his sackings in office, ill-thought out tweets, wild accusations, misinformation, mendacity and outright legislative and administrative incompetence. The one comparison that comes to mind is not encouraging for Trump – the sacking of Cox, who was investigating the Watergate scandal that brought Nixon down.
But at a deeper level, the court politics of the Trump regime do signal some (hyper)normality: that under the cover of standing for the people against the establishment, Trump has appointed a cabinet of billionaires, empowered warmongering generals to launch unrestrained military attacks without a care for civilian casualties or international law and freed energy, pharmaceutical and financial corporations from basic regulation to protect workers and consumers. This is the normal business of an American government in the era of ‘small’ government and low taxes for the rich.
This is nothing less than hyper-market-driven power married with unbridled militarism. All the rest is political theatre while the system itself haemorrhages popular legitimacy.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City University of London and a columnist at The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire