Former FBI Director James Comey has his share of Republican detractors, but senior GOP officials called his unceremonious firing by President Donald Trump nothing short of an optics disaster with potentially dramatic implications for the 2018 congressional contests.
Comey has been leading the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election and possible ties to Trump’s campaign, and he was abruptly fired on Tuesday. Trump said that it was time for a “new beginning” at the FBI, and certainly, Comey has become a lightning rod on both sides of the aisle.
But political leaders from Trump’s own party say the timing looks “terrible,” and they worry the move will fuel an already-energized progressive movement as 2018 congressional races begin to take shape.
“Regardless of the fact that he has every right to fire the FBI director, and regardless of whatever argument you can make in favor of having to fire Comey, at this time, it doesn’t look good,” said Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who has called for an independent investigation. “When you and your associates are being investigated, the optics of what he did and how he did it are terrible.”
News of the Comey firing broke just as the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting was getting underway at a luxe oceanfront resort here near San Diego. In interviews with current and former top RNC members on Wednesday, veteran Republicans called the timing politically problematic, with some warning of potentially serious consequences for the 2018 midterms.
“It worries me for the midterm elections,” said a Republican national committeewoman who called the optics “bad” and the timing “odd” and “inconsistent.” “It looks like we’re shooting from the hip all the time with no real rhyme or reason. If people can’t figure out the logic about what we’re doing, how can they support it?”
Agreed a former top RNC member: “If he wears the base down where eventually they say, ‘Maybe I can’t defend this so much anymore,’ and all of the enthusiasm is on the Democratic side in 2018—I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it could be a wipeout kind of year for us. I think we need to be more careful about that.”
Of course, it’s far too early to say how Comey’s firing will affect races more than a year away. Trump’s base remains committed to him, and here in San Diego, many RNC attendees--who are generally supportive of the president’s record so far--applauded the decision to fire Comey, timing aside.
“It was inevitable, it was just a matter of when,” said Cindy Costa, the South Carolina Republican national committeewoman who blamed Democrats for, in her view, over-dramatizing the decision. “Anytime you do the right thing, it’s the right thing. You shouldn’t worry about the optics if you’re doing things for the right reasons.”
Trump doesn’t lack for back-up here. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as well as Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law, were both listed as speakers on a copy of the RNC schedule from earlier this month that was reviewed by McClatchy. And at a breakfast for the conservative steering committee Wednesday morning, Judge Jeanine Pirro of Fox News made the case that the FBI was struggling under Comey and needed to go, according to attendees.
“There would never have been a good time,” said Randy Evans, the Republican national committeeman from Georgia who was in the meeting with Pirro. “Had he done it on Day 1, it would have been, ‘you’re killing the investigation before you know the facts.’ There are those who think he should have waited, but law enforcement can’t wait.”
Still, a number of top Republicans--who required anonymity in order to speak freely about sensitive political dynamics--fretted that the optics surrounding the firing of Comey could have a dampening effect on GOP enthusiasm in the midterms, which are often already challenging for the president’s party.
“The Russia story is far from complete. Sensible Republicans recognize there’s a big problem here,” said a GOP state chairman. “Russia looming over the congressional races next year is just a wet blanket. It could suppress Republican turnout and become a huge distraction. It’s already been a huge distraction in the first 100-plus days.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
One Republican strategist working on 2018 races said that while the White House would like the questions about Russia to go away, firing Comey ensures that the issue remains front and center for the GOP. That could have a chilling effect on Republicans considering a run for office next year—and a galvanizing one for Democrats doing the same, the source said.
“You’re giving them more motivation, you’re pouring gas on a fire,” the strategist said of Democrats. “The other question is, how much of an impact is this going to have on candidate recruitment? People you want to run and challenge Democrats, if they have to spend all their time delving into issues like this…you lessen the field.”
This development comes as Republicans continue to search for challengers in what should be marquee 2018 races.
“The optics,” the strategist vented, “are just awful.”