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The Bonfire of Donald Trump’s Vanities
With the reckless, fishy sacking of James Comey, President Trump’s domestic behavior has become more than an embarrassment — it’s an international liability.
Let’s start by acknowledging five things about the president firing the director of the FBI:
1. While appointed for a 10-year term in order to diminish political influence over him or her, the FBI director serves at the pleasure of the president. Donald Trump was well within his job authorities to fire James Comey.
2. Firing the director of the FBI with six years of a 10-year term remaining ought to have a very high standard for misconduct or illegal activity — corruption, say, or violating the Constitution. The president’s justification does not provide an explanation that seems to meet that standard.
3. It strains credulity that Trump would fire the director of the FBI for public statements injurious to the electoral prospects of the Democratic candidate for president. Comey twice broke precedent with long-standing FBI practice and made public comments during a campaign about ongoing investigations; during the campaign and after, Trump and now Attorney General Jeff Sessions acclaimed Comey for it, the president literally embracing him.
4. The president’s rationale would be more plausible if his administration — and he, personally — had demonstrated more respect for the institutional and legal restraints he now claims to be upholding. It would also be more plausible if the president and his closest political aides had not already badly tarnished belief in their honesty.
5. It looks incredibly fishy for the attorney general — who had recused himself from the investigation into Russian connections by Trump associates — to fire the director of the FBI in the same week that grand jury subpoenas were issued on the basis of investigation into those Russian connections. It also looks like an attempt to divert attention from the damaging testimony provided earlier this week by former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. Moreover, it’s likelier to sustain attention and to result in an independent investigation, as Peter Feaver has long argued.
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I was among those snotty establishment Republicans that signed the Never Trump letters, and remain serenely unrepentant of those views. I continue to believe the checks and balances of our beautiful republic are sturdy enough to constrain Trump and his political allies. But much will now depend on how Republicans in Congress respond to only the second firing of an FBI director in the nation’s history.
It is a great relief to see the moral consciences of the party, Sens. John McCain and Ben Sasse, express their dismay and demand answers. Whether they stand alone or Republicans crowd around them will determine the future of the Republican Party. If GOP leadership cavils, they could be throwing away a once-in-a-generation chance to pass genuinely conservative legislation. The president’s choice to ignite this firestorm ought to give them pause whether he will actually permit that, or whether what we have seen in these first 100 days will be the norm for the duration of this administration.
Even if careful investigation eventually demonstrates the FBI director was engaged in activity meriting dismissal, Republicans in Congress ought perhaps also to wonder whether continued support for the president might ensure this really will be the only time in a generation Americans will entrust Republicans with both the legislature and executive branch. The White House is evidently banking on public indifference.
The president firing the FBI director is also likely to have negative national security consequences. Two seem most worrisome in the near term.
First, it incurs an opportunity cost of much that might otherwise be accomplished — worthwhile policy initiatives undertaken, explaining decisions about the war in Afghanistan, or building support for the economic analysis undergirding the president’s budget. Our national attention will continue to be consumed by bonfires of the president’s vanity. It’s sucking the air out of so many important issues we should be carefully considering, like how to knit together our North Korea policy with the dovish bent of the newly elected president of South Korea, or whether sending additional forces to Afghanistan are a continuation of existing strategy or harbinger of a new direction in that 16-year war.
This solipsism creates an enormous window of opportunity for America’s adversaries. American public attitudes about international issues, and especially about the use of military force, are highly dependent on the president committing political attention to making the case for his policies. The American public is unusually willing to support an activist and even costly foreign policy when the president has invested significant time and effort to repeatedly making the case that something needs doing, that there is a plan with reasonable prospects for success, and that the costs seem in line with the importance. But Trump has so crowded our public discourse with things like firing the FBI director that sustained conversation about important national security issues is almost impossible to reclaim.
Second, it makes more difficult support from democratic allies for the President’s initiatives. President Trump’s behavior looks more like autocratic Turkey or Russia than it does the Netherlands or Estonia; that drives up the domestic cost to allied governments for agreeing to our requests. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation to former President Barack Obama to speak at the Brandenburg Gate just before the NATO summit (at which Trump will be attending) is a taste of things to come. It will make European and North American leaders, our closest friends and steadiest partners, hesitate to associate themselves with the new president of the United States. Germany’s Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron are already being championed as the new leaders of the free world; our president will need their support more than they will need his.
And here’s just a short list of the things the Trump administration may be asking allies for in the near future:
- additional allied troops for the war in Afghanistan
- continued sanctions on Russia for the invasion of Ukraine
- additional sanctions on Iran for violations on U.N. Security Council restrictions on ballistic missile programs
- ”snapback” sanctions for any violations of the Iran nuclear agreement
- trade deals more advantageous to the United States than NAFTA, TPP, or TTIP
- containing the fall out with Turkey over arming Kurdish forces to fight the Islamic State in Syria
- Asian support for Japan’s expanding military role
- summoning the parties still technically at war with North Korea to support the administration’s stance that ”strategic patience” is over
- confronting China’s island-building in the South China Sea
America’s hegemony is actually a fantastic bargain for the United States — we seldom have to enforce the rules we set because most countries consider them fair and want us to succeed. While allies may do less than we want, they certainly do more for us than other states. That is why we are uniquely able to rally international cooperation. But President Trump’s domestic behavior has become more than an embarrassment, it is an international liability.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration
Correction, May 10, 2017: Emmanuel Macron was recently elected president of France. A previous version of this article misspelled his name.