Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Opinion: The more we learn about Comey's firing, the worse it gets


The more we learn, the worse it gets.

We now know, for example, that from Vice President Pence on down, the Trump White House lied to the American people about how, when and why FBI Director James Comey was fired. Pence and others had tried to claim that the impetus for the firing had come independently from the Justice Department and from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and that President Trump merely acquiesced to their recommendations.

Those statements are no longer operational, to dredge up an appropriate phrase. Unable to defend that version of events against a deluge of reporting, the White House last night released a new timeline more closely aligned to reality:

By the White House official account, Trump became angry watching Comey's testimony last week in which he confirmed on ongoing investigation into possible collusion with Russia.  On Monday, Trump demanded that the Justice Department provide him reasons for ousting Comey, which it obediently did. On Tuesday he pulled the trigger.

We also know now that instead of petering out for lack of evidence, the Russia probe has been accelerating in recent weeks.

As the Wall Street Journal reports:

"Mr. Comey started receiving daily instead of weekly updates on the investigation, beginning at least three weeks ago, according to people with knowledge of the matter and the progress of the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe. Mr. Comey was concerned by information showing possible evidence of collusion, according to these people."

We also know, based on numerous leaks to numerous outlets, that the White House claim that the FBI had become demoralized under Comey was false. Whatever his reputation outside the walls of the FBI, Comey was clearly a popular leader within it, and his removal has caused outrage. Agents are now reportedly wondering whether the Russia investigation will be shut down, as Trump clearly desires.

Comey himself remains officially silent, although he has been invited to testify to Congress next week. But Comey associates are leaking reports that the former FBI director had described Trump to them as "crazy" and "outside the realm of normal," adjectives that Trump's Twitter feed would certainly validate.

CNN's Jake Tapper, citing a source close to Comey, reports that Comey believed that he had been fired for two reasons: He would not pledge personal loyalty to Trump; and he would not agree to end the Russia probe.

The New York Times may have given that source a name:

“With a president who seems to prize personal loyalty above all else and a director with absolute commitment to the Constitution and pursuing investigations wherever the evidence led, a collision was bound to happen,” Daniel C. Richman, a close Comey adviser and former federal prosecutor, said on Wednesday.

Looking at the political carnage, it is also now safe to conclude that what Trump believed would be a masterstroke that rid him of a tormentor was instead just another stupid move, terribly handled. It revealed him once again as a childishly impulsive president with no one on his staff capable of insisting that they think it through and at least handle the dirty deed with a veneer of intelligence and professionalism. Every step -- from the cowardly, disrespectful decision to fire Comey via courier to the complete absence of a coordinated public response -- reeks of the antics of an inexperienced, out-of-his-depth small-town mayor trying to seize more power than the system allots him.

Only in this case, the mayor is the president, and the system is the U.S. government.

Finally, and most ominously, we also know now that the promises by Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan and other top Republicans that they would act as a check against Trump's excesses were hollow. If they won't stand up to him now, when will that happen?

Actually, that's an easy question to answer. They will stand up to him when there is no longer any political risk to doing so, and not one day before then. A few brave souls within the Republican Party are saying what needs to be said, but for the most part we get craven silence.

Meanwhile, a new Quinnipiac poll, released this week but taken before Comey's removal, shows a sharp deterioration in Trump's support. His job approval rating has fallen to 36 percent, but the big news is why. As recently as three weeks ago, he still enjoyed strong support among white voters without a college education, with a 57-38 percent approval rating. That has collapsed to 47-46 percent. His standing among white men is also declining rapidly.

And since November, the percentage of voters who believe that Trump cares about average Americans has fallen from 51 percent to 38 percent. Apparently, Trump's decision to hire a Cabinet full of billionaires and Goldman Sachs alumni, and to push an agenda of tax cuts for the rich, deregulating Wall Street and shoving 24 million Americans off their health insurance is being recognized for what it is even by some of his most ardent backers.

Since November, Trump's never-stellar rating for honesty has fallen nine points, from 44 percent to 33 percent. The percentage who would describe their commander in chief as level-headed -- a minimal level of competency to be president, one would think -- had fallen from 38 percent to 29 percent.  In November, 74 percent of Americans at least gave Trump credit for being intelligent. That has now fallen to 56 percent.

And when asked whether they would trust the media or Trump to tell the truth about important events, 31 percent chose Trump; 57 percent chose the media.

We are less than four months into Trump's four-year term. Republicans who believe that they it might get better if they can just nurse him through this current storm are fooling themselves. It isn't going to get any better, because it is hard to imagine a dynamic by which it could.

Trump himself will not change, and he clings to his Twitter feed like a toddler to its blanky. There is no sign that his White House is becoming less paranoid or more competent. He is increasingly unhappy, frustrated and feeling unloved, and when Donald Trump is unhappy, frustrated and unloved, he loses what little discipline he might otherwise possess.

His increasing unpopularity is politically contagious. In the Quinnipiac poll, just 38 percent of registered voters said they want to see Republicans in control of the House after the 2018 election, compared to 54 percent who want Democratic control. That 16-point margin is the highest ever recorded in the poll. The previous highest was five percentage points, in the GOP's favor, in 2013.

It's not 2013.




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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.