The best is enemy of the good.
The profoundest truths are paradoxical.
Saturday, May 13, 2017
How The United States Looks From Australia, With Particular Reference To The Comey Mess
James Comey, the FBI director dramatically fired and then vilified and threatened by Donald Trump last week, is poised to exact his revenge on the US president by testifying against him publicly before Congress.
Although Comey has declined to appear before the Senate intelligence committee at a closed hearing this Tuesday, he has made clear via friends that he wants to strike back against Trump in an open session that could be one of the most-watched events in US political history. The president said yesterday he hoped to name a successor by the end of this week.
Trump, living in a White House bubble in which few aides are willing to risk his wrath by contradicting him, was apparently surprised by the furore his brutal ejection of Comey triggered.
He blamed his press staff for failing to make a convincing case that Comey had to go and then turned on the former FBI director himself, threatening via Twitter on Friday morning: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Trump’s “tape” comment was a reference to conflicting accounts of what happened at a one-on-one dinner he had with the FBI chief on January 27, a week after the president’s inauguration.
Comey, a Republican who cherishes his image as an independent, measured and lawyerly figure, was nervous about the encounter with the blustering property billionaire. The Trump campaign was the subject of an FBI investigation into whether aides had colluded with Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival for the presidency.
The new commander-in-chief is said to have asked Comey, whose public criticism of Clinton’s use of a secret email server badly damaged her campaign, whether he would pledge his loyalty.
Comey demurred. When Trump made the same request later in the dinner, the FBI director said he could promise to be honest, but Trump could not “rely” on him politically. Would “honest loyalty” be possible, Trump asked. That, Comey said, he could do.
Holed up in his mansion in McLean, Virginia, last week, with photographers camped outside, Comey told friends he believed his fate had been sealed at the dinner, though it was three months later that Trump finally dispensed with him.
According to Trump, Comey’s account of the dinner is fabrication. In fact, the president has claimed, it was Comey who asked for the meeting, and during the meal he begged to be kept in his job, which he began in July 2013 and which traditionally carries a 10-year term. Trump insists that there was no demand for loyalty and that Comey assured him he was not the subject of any FBI inquiry.
In recent weeks Trump had grown furious that Comey had repeatedly declined to state that the FBI was not investigating him, and the president was incensed when the FBI chief told senators he was “mildly nauseous” his Clinton intervention had altered the election outcome.
Rather than accept that the FBI’s actions may have cost Clinton the presidency, Trump fulminated, Comey should have lauded his famous victory.
Justifying his decision to sack Comey, Trump said the 6ft 8in FBI chief was a “showboat” and “a grandstander” who was carrying out a “witch hunt” over “this Russia thing”.
Trump did not mention the affair during a graduation speech at Liberty University devoted to his planned tax and economic reforms, but the fallout from Comey’s sacking looked set to continue after what was one of the most extraordinary weeks of this presidency.
If Trump had wanted to invite comparisons to Richard Nixon and Watergate, he could not have done better than fire the man leading an investigation of his election campaign and reveal the existence of secret White House tapes.
Throw in an Oval Office meeting with Nixon’s consigliere Henry Kissinger and a proposal to cancel press briefings because journalists were irredeemably biased, and a picture of a paranoid president would be complete.
As light relief after the Comey dismissal, a Russian state photographer was somehow allowed into the Oval Office, where he photographed the US president shaking hands with Sergey Kislyak, an ambassador regarded by some in American intelligence as a Moscow spy.
All this and more happened in the Trump White House last week as beleaguered staff were wrong-footed and maligned publicly by their boss and an administration that had seemed to be regaining its footing slid into discord.
While elements of dark comedy abounded, at the heart of the chaos lay a question of utmost seriousness: had Trump tried to hinder those digging into his alleged ties to Russia, an act that would amount to a criminal cover-up?
Whether the president has a subconscious political death wish is something that can be mulled over by psychologists. But there is little doubt the crisis he faces is down to his inability to control his own fingers, mouth and vengefulness.
The cascade of events that has left Trump’s allies dismayed and his enemies sensing that impeachment might not be a flight of fantasy began in Los Angeles on Tuesday, where Comey was talking to FBI agents.
When news of his firing flashed up on television screens, Comey laughed and said he thought it was a prank. Minutes later he was ushered off stage by stunned staff and taken into a side office, where he was told he had indeed been sacked.
Faced with a barrage of questions about Trump’s apparent reference to a secret tape, his hapless spokesman Sean Spicer could only stonewall: “The president has nothing further to add on that.”
Trump is believed to be considering firing Spicer as part of a shake-up that could also bring the demise of Reince Priebus, his chief of staff. Although Trump has praised Spicer’s “ratings”, he is frustrated by the way his press chief is lampooned. Last week Spicer was ridiculed for contacting The Washington Post to demand a correction to a report that he had hidden “in the bushes” to avoid questions. The paper issued a clarification saying he had been “among the bushes”.
In a stunt that could seal Spicer’s fate, the comedian Melissa McCarthy, who has played Spicer to devastating effect on the Saturday Night Live TV show, took to the streets of Manhattan in character, screaming at passers-by as she trundled past on a mock podium. Trump is said to have derided Spicer for being portrayed by a woman.
Republicans, petrified of disaster in next year’s mid-term congressional elections, doubt getting rid of Spicer will make much difference.
CNN claimed that Mike Pence, the vice-president, was “rattled” by last week’s events and that White House morale was at rock bottom. By talking publicly about the dinner, Trump appears to have waived executive privilege, and Comey is said to be “relaxed” about the existence of any tape.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the FBI’s Russia investigation or the various congressional inquiries into related matters, for now it is clear that Trump’s presidency has been consumed by the drama surrounding his impetuous actions.
“Trump is his own worst enemy,” said a veteran Republican on Capitol Hill. “He demands loyalty but trusts no one. He decries ‘fake news’ but shows such a casual disregard for the truth that no one can believe anything that the White House says any more.
“I never thought I’d ever say this because I’ve spent much of my life opposing the Clintons, but I’m beginning to wonder whether it might have been better for all of us if Hillary had won.”