President Donald Trump's decision on Tuesday evening to fire FBI Director James Comey—apparently without even seeing fit to tell Comey directly, if media reports are to be believed—is a truly stunning development even by the standards of the Trump administration.
It will take days, perhaps weeks (perhaps longer) to understand all the ramifications of Tuesday's firing of Comey. Much will depend on who Trump appoints to lead the FBI and who, if anyone, he (or Congress) appoints to continue the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.
In the short term, though, this looks very, very bad for Trump.
The three-paragraph letter announcing Comey's firing reads like the world's worst "the dog ate my homework" note and is hard to take seriously. Trump blames Comey's firing on, of all things, Comey's handling of Hilary Clinton's classified emails last summer and makes a lame, backhanded attempt at clearing his own name ("While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation…," Trump wrote). It would be laughable if the matter were not so serious.
At Talking Points Memo, John Marshall writes that "the idea that Trump fired Comey because he was unfair to Hillary Clinton or set aside DOJ guidelines in a way that was damaging to her is clearly not true. Indeed, it is so transparently nonsensical that putting it forward as a rationale suggests a certain presidential indifference to what anyone thinks."
The reaction from thoughtful corners of the political right has been similar. "This just doesn't make any sense," writes Jonah Goldberg at National Review. "Nor does the idea that Donald Trump believes that Comey's actions during the campaign were grounds for this termination."
"I suspect," Goldberg concludes, "Trump wanted to fire Comey and that they scrambled to find a narrative to support it."
But why would Trump want to fire Comey, and why right now? It could possibly have something to do with the grand jury subpoenas issued as part of the aforementioned FBI investigation into the Trump campaign's connections to the Russian government. At least, I'll admit, that's where my mind went when CNN reported the existence of those subpoenas just a few hours after the news of Comey's firing broke.
Here's how Marshall puts it: "There is only one reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the decision to fire Comey: that there is grave wrongdoing at the center of the Russia scandal and that it implicates the President. As I write this, I have a difficult time believing that last sentence myself. But sometimes you have to step back from your assumptions and simply look at what the available evidence is telling you. It's speaking clearly: the only reasonable explanation is that the President has something immense to hide and needs someone in charge of the FBI who he believes is loyal."
I don't know that we can draw that conclusion from the facts as they exist right now, but I think Marshall is right that we should be highly suspicious of that possibility.
We don't know whether Comey's firing is a shrewd political calculation designed to cover-up something Trump doesn't want the world to know—"Nixonian" has been the word of evening on cable news—or whether it was the impulsive decision of a president who appears to lack much concern for the prestige of the office he holds or for the limits of its powers.
On the question of whether Trump broke laws or whether Comey's firing was part of a cover-up, Trump deserves to be treated as innocent until proven guilty. The same principle does not apply to the political ramifications of Tuesday's firing.
Trump should lose any benefit of the doubt that he's been getting from members of Congress and the general public. The onus is on Trump to replace Comey with someone of unassailable character to run the FBI, but I'm not sure we can expect him to do that without being told, in clear terms, that no other outcome is acceptable. That, in turn, means the onus is on Senate Republicans—Democrats are mostly powerless since Trump needs only 51 votes to appoint a new FBI director—to stop Trump from appointing a friend, an ally, a lackey, a hack, or anyone who can even remotely be described as any one of those things. This is about more than stopping Trump from potentially undermining an ongoing federal investigation; it's about the very separation of powers that the American system of government has as its bedrock.
I've spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey's firing. I just can't do it.
— Jeff Flake (@JeffFlake) May 10, 2017
This all looks very, very bad for Trump, but we should wait for the rest of the facts before drawing any conclusions about the motivation for Comey's firing.
It will be very, very bad for the country if Congress does not assert itself in the days to come.