With the firing of FBI Director James Comey, politics seems to be following art in one important fashion: your work becomes more popular after you’re dead. Jim Croce was barely known as a singer until his plane crashed and burned. Van Gogh sold only one picture in his lifetime . . . until he shot himself. Comey’s work appears to be on the same track of retrospective popularity. He is now the rage. Democratic Senators and liberal commentators who only recently denounced him as a political hack and manipulator were suddenly speaking of Comey as the second Publicus. More importantly, news outlets like CNN went into a virtual echo chamber with their experts, like Jeff Toobin, declaring that the President was lying and that there was no other explanation for firing Comey other than that fact that the Russian investigation was “getting too close” to Trump. One CNN guest historian, Douglas Brinkley, even declared, from a purely historical perspective of course, that the firing shows that Trump acts like a “tyrant.”
For the record, I like Comey and defended some of his actions during the campaign. I thought that he was in a difficult position in trying to keep the public informed on the status of the Clinton investigation while trying not to be partisan. I also believe that the White House showed incredibly bad form in how they informed Comey, who deserved better than finding out during a speech to agents from television screens in the back of the room. The White House also showed that it is continuing to flounder in terms of crisis management and messaging. Once again, the White House exhibits all of the talent and finesse of someone who fishes with dynamite.
However, the statement by Toobin and others that there is no other possible explanation for the firing beyond protecting the President from the investigation and no other reading of the letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein. The mantra that there “is no other explanation” for the firing ignores the rather obvious explanation in the memorandum. Many former FBI and Justice officials have been denouncing Comey for his violation of core policies and procedures that govern the relationship between the Justice Department and the FBI. Just last week, a high-ranking source on the Hill referred to Comey as about “as popular as Cholera” with members of both parties. More importantly, the FBI Director reports to the Deputy Attorney General. That position has been vacant until recently with the confirmation of Rosenstein. Rosenstein was heralded by Democrats and Republicans alike as a career prosecutor and “straight arrow” who has served both Republican and Democratic presidents. He was confirmed by a vote of 96-4. After soon as he took office, Rosenstein was given the task of reviewing the conduct of Comey. He laid out in his memorandum that the record warranted Comey’s termination.
As I said on the night of the termination, I think the firing was a mistake. It is not about the merits but the timing. With these various investigations in the field and a president who has tweeted angrily about them, this was not the time to dispatch the head of the FBI. There are news reports that Trump has been fuming for weeks about Comey’s failure to support his claims over wiretapping and calls for leakers to be prosecuted. Sources say that Trump wanted to fire Comey. However, the media coverage seemed to substitute volume for substance. Toobin insisted the memorandum “is a lie. It is not possibly true. Rod Rosenstein did not decide to fire Jim Comey on his own.” He added “sometimes the most obvious explanation is the correct one.” Yes, and sometimes it is not. That is the challenge of journalism. Objectivity requires a modicum detachment. It is possible that Rosenstein, a career prosecutor, did reach this decision on the very basis that he stated in the memorandum. It is also possible that he did not and that, despite his stellar reputation, he is lying to give cover to the President. The coverage on the night of the firing never made it beyond the substance of a tweet . . . just longer and louder.
There is another small problem. There is no evidence that the investigation is really “closing around Trump.” Indeed, it is still unclear what the crime is. There has been no evidence of collusion put forward and various statements from past and current officials have downplayed that allegation. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and others may have reporting or disclosure violations to address, but that it not exactly Watergate relived.
None of this means that we should not demand answers about the firing or insist on an independent investigation of the Russian influence allegations (though the scope of that investigation remains a matter of partisan dispute). It means that we need to exercise a degree of objectivity in our coverage.
Ironically, the poor timing and execution of the Comey termination is likely to guarantee that the Russian investigation will not just continue but expand. Indeed, it could revive interest in bringing back the Independent Counsel Act that was allowed to lapse in 1999. Under the current special counsel rules, the decision rests with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – the man that the media is now accusing of being a liar and a shill. If he refuses, the Congress may face demands to bring back independent counsels.
As for Comey, his demise appears to be his salvation. There are no nuances in politics and the deceased must be entirely innocent for the narrative to work. It was explained vividly by Queen Mother, Margaret in Richard III as she taught her daughter-in-law how to hate: “Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were, And he that slew them fouler than he is.”