WASHINGTON ― In the hours after he sacked the very man investigating his ties to Russia, sparked a media firestorm, and engendered political blowback fierce enough to imperil his legislative agenda, President Donald Trump spent his time firing off 140-character insults at U.S. senators.
For Trump’s critics, the sequence of events ― from the firing to the tweeting ― was both dizzying and further cause to question the mental state of the man in the Oval Office. The decision to dismiss FBI Director James Comey sparked concerns about the president’s flexing of executive power. The subsequent decision to dub Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer “Cryin’” Chuck and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) a joke who “cried like a baby” after exaggerating his wartime service read like the ravings of a man becoming unhinged.
“None of this is anywhere close to normal,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “The danger is that every day this exhausting dysfunction continues, it feels less exceptional. This country has never been through this and it is getting more bizarre and more troubling every single day. At some point Republicans have to pull the plug and say, ‘Enough is enough, this is a real threat to democratic norms.’”
None of this is anywhere close to normal.Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
Since Trump first announced his run for president, Americans have debated whether his words and actions reflect a man operating on unbridled impulsiveness or someone strategically obfuscating and distracting. The Comey firing has reignited that debate. That it came as Trump was set to meet with Russia’s foreign minister and U.S. ambassador; that Attorney General Jeff Sessions, ostensibly recused from the Russia investigation, signed off on the firing; that Comey wasn’t warned in advance of the announcement, illustrates just how audacious Trump’s approach has been. Whether it was by design is less clear.
“At first glance it looks crazy,” said Laurence Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor and professor of constitutional law at Harvard. What he worries about, he said, is if it’s “crazy like a fox.”
“He is yet again changing the headline from what was disadvantageous for him; namely what a pistol [former AG] Sally Yates was” in testifying about Trump’s former top national security adviser’s ties to Russia, Tribe said. “That was the headline, and suddenly the headline is all about, should we have an independent counsel [to do the Russia investigation] and commission and what kind of counsel. It is a cloud of stuff.”
But beyond the the firing itself, and Trump’s irascible tweeting at his critics, the episode called into question the administration’s basic competence.
When news of Comey’s firing first broke, White House staffers appeared utterly caught off-guard. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer avoided reporters, only agreeing to talk to them outdoors in the dark, with cameras turned off. He referred most questions to the Justice Department, where officials declined to comment on the unfolding fiasco. The White House press office’s messaging strategy on Tuesday night amounted to emailing reporters a list of fournewsstoriesthat were critical of Comey. Three were written before Trump took office. By Wednesday afternoon, reports coming from the administration had the White House paralyzed in “total and complete chaos,” with suggestions that Spicer hurt his standing in the job.
“Don’t underestimate the role incompetence and volatility/instability play in all this,” Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president under George W. Bush and director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, put it in an email to HuffPost.
Trump made no public appearance Tuesday night to explain his decision. Spicer said in a statement that Trump was acting based on the recommendations of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Rosenstein’s three-page letter contained a damning list of Comey’s wrongdoing in relation to the Hillary Clinton investigation, but did not explicitly call for him to be fired. Sessions wrote a shorter letter, recommending a “fresh start” at the FBI, based on reasons laid out by Rosenstein.
The White House press shop struggled to keep straight even the most basic elements of its narrative around Comey’s firing. Spicer told reporters that Trump first learned of DOJ’s concerns about Comey from the Rosenstein letter on Tuesday. Deputy White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump received an “oral recommendation” from a top DOJ official Monday and asked to see it in writing. On Wednesday evening, a White House official clarified that Trump met with Rosenstein and Sessions Monday and discussed reasons why Comey should removed.
But as Trump was berating senators on Twitter, the White House’s explanation was already falling apart.
On Wednesday morning, Kellyanne Conway, a top adviser to Trump, appeared on television, carrying a printout of the three-page letter from Rosenstein criticizing Comey’s handling of the Clinton probe. But soon thereafter she reversed herself: “This has nothing to do with the campaign from six months ago.”
Later in the day, Trump criticized Comey for “not doing a good job” despite having praised him publicly during the later part of the election and early in his administration. By the afternoon, Sanders was putting the onus on DOJ officials, who, she said, had come to the White House with concerns about Comey.
“The rank and file of the FBI had lost confidence in their director,” Sanders said.
For the Laurence Tribes of the world, the lingering concern is that this is madness with a purpose, that Trump and his team may be concocting illogical post-facto rationales for the firing of Comey, but so long as it distracts from or impedes a thorough Russia investigation, they are fine with the outcome.
Others aren’t quite as sure there is a strategy underpinning what Trump is doing. Trump may be trying to avoid that investigation, they reason, but his impulsiveness will catch up with him eventually and spell doom for his administration.
“They are riding a tiger right now,” said Brian Fallon, the Clinton campaign’s press secretary. “James Comey is not going to stay quiet very long. He has not been wronged by Trump. He has been humiliated by Trump. He is going to find a way to embarrass them. ... When the moment is right he will find the opportunity to get his side of the story out there.”
This story has been updated to include comments the White House made Wednesday night.
Want more updates from Sam Stein? Sign up for his newsletter, Spam Stein, here.