President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday. The president claims he did so because of how Comey mishandled the probe into Hillary Clinton's emails last fall — which is simply laughable. But Politico's Josh Dawsey already seems to have the real reason from history's leakiest White House: sheer anger.
Trump was reportedly angry at Comey — angry that Comey had the limelight, angry that Comey wouldn't defend him publicly in the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, just angry, period. The firing has all the signs of shooting from the hip: no replacement, no slate of qualified nominees to replace him. Trump had previously said he wouldn't fire Comey. It was just an announcement.
The White House seems to have been surprised at the backlash the firing immediately engendered, which means they have all the political sense of a goldfish. If this was an attempt to frustrate the investigation into the election, it has obviously backfired, since it makes it even more likely that a special prosecutor will be appointed, or an independent commission formed, or that Trump will be forced to appoint someone with unimpeachable credentials for integrity and doggedness to the post.
A Nixonian moment this wasn't.
But this has been a classic Trump moment: impulsive, self-aggrandizing, insecure, passive-aggressive (Trump reportedly didn't even tell Comey face to face but sent an aide to deliver the dismissal letter), shameless, short-sighted. And as a classic Trump moment, it reveals which Trump fears that emerged during the campaign and the transition are more likely and which ones are less likely.
Many people feared, for example, that Trump would govern as a nativist-nationalist ideologue, deporting millions of illegal immigrants, starting trade wars, and using all the levers of the executive branch to roll back civil rights protections, enflaming racial and social conflict. It turns out that Trump himself has no real appetite for that and the smattering of ideologues around him have been outnumbered and outfoxed by establishment Republicans.
More to the point, many feared that Trump, at the helm of an executive branch whose powers are already inflated well beyond anything envisioned by the Constitution and which controls security services and a surveillance apparatus the likes of which the world has never seen, might steer America in the direction of fascism, or at least crypto-fascism.
Political scientists have analyzed the rise around the world of regimes known as "authoritarian democracies." Unlike dictatorships, these regimes still retain much of the trappings of democracy, and their leaders probably could not stay in power long if they were not popular with much of the population. But unlike democracies, these regimes' demagogic leaders have used every means at their disposal to undermine independent checks on their power so as to reach autocratic powers. Think of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In a much-talked-about cover story for The Atlantic, ur-Trump opponent David Frum skillfully described the frighteningly plausible process by which President Trump could manage to subvert American democracy.
Frum's fears were legitimate at the time he wrote them, but I think at this point it's fair to say that we can rest somewhat easy.
For President Trump to pull off such a feat would require strategic thinking, cleverness, single-mindedness, and, frankly, a work ethic — all of which he lacks. The Comey firing, whatever its motives, is politically suicidal and will almost certainly achieve the opposite of its intended outcome. Trump ain't no Frank Underwood. He ain't even no Jim Hacker. He's ... Donald Trump.
We have come to a very strange and bad place where we have to rejoice at the fact that the president of the United States lacks the basic managerial skills to lead any elaborate political plan to completion. But here we are.
This is not anything close to a "defense" of Trump. It is indeed very bad for the United States that the head of its executive branch is a buffoon, but it is still important to be accurate about the ways in which it is bad. Trump has a particular talent of making people turn insane; while Trump has done very bad things, it is also the case that he has probably occasioned more conspiracy theories and a more heightened derangement syndrome than any of his recent predecessors. As CNN's Chris Cillizza has pointed out, urged on by their base, Democrats are often becoming conspiracy theorists when it comes to Trump. Because Trump is a bad person and a bad president, checking him when he tries to do bad things is important — but doing so requires having an accurate understanding of what is going on.
And now we know how the Trump administration will end. Whether or not Trump ends up impeached, we know that it will end not because of an attempted coup d'état, but because of incompetence and an endless series of shootings in the foot. Republicans, especially, should prepare.