President Trump is always transparent in his peculiar way. Even as he lies baldly, he reveals what is on the forefront of his mind. It is in the brutal letter he had a top personal aide hand deliver to the FBI, firing Director James Comey: “While I greatly appreciate you informing me on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the bureau.”
Of course, we do not know whether Trump is or is not under investigation. We certainly cannot take Trump’s word for it. We do know for a fact that the FBI is looking into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible involvement — links, coordination, collusion — by Trump aides and associates. By pushing Comey out the door, and doing so on the preposterous pretext that the FBI director mishandled the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server last July 5, Trump has plunged the country into nothing less than a constitutional crisis. How it is resolved will have profound implications for our future.
An obvious and key question is whether by getting rid of Comey, Trump will succeed in slowing or bringing to a halt the investigative machinery presently in motion. On its face, that seems unlikely. If the workings of the FBI are always a black box, that is especially so for a leaderless bureau, run by a toothless acting director. It is conceivable that Trump’s replacement for Comey, whomever he appoints, will manage to pour sand into the gears. But even if that happens, the bureau is not the only game in town.
The House and Senate investigations have significant limitations. They do not have adequate investigative resources, and they have been periodically hamstrung by partisanship. But if the White House is seen to be engaged, as now appears, in a full-throated coverup, will Republicans let Trump get away with it?
GOP elected officials have been remarkably craven up to this juncture, tolerating behavior in the White House that would have been inconceivable in any previous administration. Will they wake up now, or are they in too deep? Having revealed themselves, with some notable exceptions, to be devoid of principles, the one safe prediction we can make is that they will approach this question not with reference to right and wrong, and not by putting country ahead of party, but by studying the polls.
The larger question raised by the Comey firing is whether the United States is officially turning into a banana republic. As more and more dots are connected, they are forming an ugly picture. The abrupt firing of U.S. attorney Preet Bharara on March 11 is one such dot. Bharara had been told by Trump in November that he could stay in office. But of course his investigative bailiwick in the southern district of New York encompassed a location that, as the months went by and as the Russia investigation proceeded, became increasingly sensitive: Trump Tower. Without explanation, Bharara was sacked.
A second is the bizarre White House interference in the House Intelligence Committee investigation, with Chairman Devin Nunes secretly invited to the White House to receive information that he then briefed to President Trump as if he obtained it from somewhere else. That escapade discredited the committee’s work and set it back for weeks. Then we have the efforts of the White House, over several months, to try to block former acting attorney general Sally Yates from testifying before Congress on the grounds that it would violate “client confidences.”
The stage-managed firing of Comey is the biggest blow of all to the rule of law thus far. Multiple news outlets are reporting that Trump decided to fire Comey sometime last week. He then asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions to come up with a rationale for such a step. Never mind that this entailed putting the cart before the horse. And never mind that Sessions himself had formally recused himself from matters concerning the Russia investigation that Comey was heading up. This is the same Sessions who lied to the Senate about his own meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, and it is the same Sessions who recommended that the Trump campaign bring on board as a foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who is also under FBI investigation for his ties to Russian officials.
No one knows what will come next. But the degree of tumult, dishonesty and corruption is breathtaking. As the Trump administration, in the name of making America great again, drags the country ever deeper into crisis, one can make two safe predictions. First, many more utterly unpredictable things are bound to happen. And second, it will not end well either for Trump or for the country.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter @gabeschoenfeld