In the world of political Washington, one of the most foreboding things that can happen to anyone is to have their boss say they’re 100 percent behind them.
Goodbye, FBI Director Comey.
President Donald Trump’s peremptory firing of James Comey is a complete homemade mess enabling a long list of the usual congressional suspects of both parties, who dislike this president anyway, to strut, preen and opine on this week’s hot topic while avoiding normal duties.
It’s a boon too to the obsessive D.C. media. And a potential disaster to a chief executive who once again has made himself the center of a raging and completely unnecessary political tornado, this time over the nation’s preeminent law enforcement agency.
Comey is known as a bureaucratic maverick, a real bulldog when it comes to strongly held opinions. His firing has all the hallmarks of a long-running capital scandal because A) it involves the nation’s highest office, B) it was sudden, unexpected and played dramatically on 24-hour news channels and C) it reeks of political duplicity.
Most importantly, its obvious haste and poor organization create dozens of important unanswered questions that invite continued, often overblown political comment, dangerous speculation and negative media coverage that can create its own damaging momentum.
As Mel Brooks once noted comedically, it’s good to be king. And very rich. And Trump ruled as wealthy king of a very successful global business empire for many years. Off-with-their-head edicts, however, are much more complicated in a democracy with millions of shareholders where high officials are only sometimes held accountable.
This looks like one of those times.
The incident also underscores the desperate need for an influential adult aide by this headstrong president’s side who can say with effect, “No! Let’s think this through.” Forget his silly tweets. Some had hoped family members like son-in-law Jared Kushner or daughter Ivanka might play this role. Or chief of staff Reince Priebus.
That someone could have whispered – or shouted if necessary – “Sir, with all due respect, you can’t fire the man you’ve consistently endorsed on tardy charges of poor job performance right as he seeks more money to investigate your presidential campaign for Russian influence.”
“Very simply,” Trump said tersely Wednesday, “he was not doing a good job.”
So, here come those bothersome follow-up questions: How exactly was Comey performing poorly? If you’re really firing Comey for poor performance on the Clinton email scandal last year, why didn’t you just let him go during the January transition? Perfect time. Everyone expects personnel changes then. No fuss.
Or use Comey’s huge mistake in testimony last week, misleading Congress on the scale of Huma Abedin’s forwarding of national security emails. The Justice Department had to publish a correction.
Take the director aside this week and say, “Thank you for your long service. But look, this is the last straw in my book. You can resign gracefully and we’ll both move on.”
Remember the huge controversy over President Barack Obama firing Kathleen Sebelius for so totally botching the Obamacare rollout and its laughable website? Of course not. Because he let the dust settle, then sent her off with appreciation and gracious, insincere praise.
Instead with Comey, a brand-new deputy attorney general suddenly produces a damning but thinly sourced memo justifying the director’s discharge 10 months after his alleged malfeasance that helped Trump get elected.
Then, the White House announces Comey’s firing so he sees it on TV in Los Angeles while speaking to FBI employees. You realize, Mr. President, this will also thoroughly alienate someone and his colleagues who know an awful lot about you and who are real pros at the Washington game of assassination by leak?
And you do this without a full explanation, without a convincing list of ethical or incompetent acts and without even the slimmest public list of possible successors? At an overheated time on Capitol Hill guaranteeing partisan confirmation hearings on any successor?
Other than all that, the Trump administration handled this bureaucratic execution with skill and great aplomb.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.