Donald Trump has been in the White House barely four months, but he’s never stopped pushing the boundaries of presidential behavior.
Whether it’s his tweets attacking lawmakers and other public officials, his misstatements and untruths, or his alienation of America’s longstanding allies, he has taken a delight, it seems, is playing the bull in the china shop.
But in wading into a criminal investigation into his own campaign with his firing of FBI Director James Comey Tuesday night, Trump has taken the kind of steps that would be routine for the dictatorial leaders—the Putins, the Dutertes, the Erdogans of the world—whom he appears to admire.
Trump’s decision to sack Comey just 24 hours after his former top national security aide, Michael Flynn—and, by extension, his own diligence concerning Flynn’s behavior—was publicly put through the wringer raises a question: was this political payback.
Trump’s White House knew on Jan. 26 of the Justice Department’s concerns over Flynn’s involvement with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and that he was potentially subject to blackmail by Russia. That’s when former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates sounded the alarm to White House Counsel Donald McGahn, according to her testimony on Capitol Hill this week.
Eighteen days passed before Trump fired Flynn, and then only under pressure because Flynn’s activities had been revealed in the press. Eighteen days in which Flynn continued to have access to the country’s most important secrets. By that time, Trump had already fired Yates, ostensibly because she refused to back his proposed Muslim ban.
Just how far will this president go as investigations into his campaign and its alleged ties to Russia intensify, and perhaps tighten around his inner circle, if not around Trump himself?
Instead of shielding himself from more scrutiny, firing Comey could have the opposite effect: more calls for an independent investigation over which the president will have no control.
"It seemed to me that firing Comey was so obviously not in President Trump's self-interest that he would never do it,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a presidential historian at the University of Mary Washington in Virginia. “And so the decision...is going to create a tidal wave of interest" in the possible Trump connections with Russia.
Trump has never veered from calling the probe into whether his campaign had colluded with Moscow a “hoax.” He appears to revel in picking fights with the “fake news” over coverage of the issue, yet quick to seize the bullhorn offered by “the failing New York Times,” The Washington Post and other media organizations when it served his purpose.
This is a president who has so personalized the presidency. He has retained family members with questionable qualifications as top advisors. He continues to praise his presidential victory. He refers to the armed forces as “my military.”
Since his inauguration, he has skipped around his stated policies and positions like a sparrow alighting from branch to branch. Winning the moment is what matters. Neither ideology nor political passion appears to drive him. Upending the system is all in a day’s work,
“This actually is in keeping his contempt for the rule of law,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said of the Comey firing, “which he demonstrated with two executive orders struck down as unconstitutional, and denouncing the judiciary, including calling one member a ‘so-called judge.’”
Trump said he’d revoke NAFTA, the trade agreement with allies Mexico and Canada. Oh, wait. He won’t. He’ll build a wall on the Mexican border. Well, maybe not yet. He’ll do away with Obamacare for a better health care plan that would cover more Americans and be cheaper. Actually, he supported one that does pretty much the opposite on both counts.
Other changes in his vow to “Make American Great Again” are perhaps more far-reaching, like the unorthodoxy he brings to America’s image across the globe—like subtly indicating support for an extreme right wing nationalist like Marine Le Pen as the leader of France, or having Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announce that longstanding, embedded values of human rights and freedom should not define our mission in the world.
These are radical departures, as was his action Tuesday.
All presidents seek a legacy. Trump’s firing of Comey, whether intended or not, could be his.
Kevin G. Hall contributed to this analysis.